We all know that time of year…
Temperatures are getting warmer, the snow is finally disappearing, mud is caking to the horses, and every attempt at grooming brings on a miniature horse you didn’t even know you owned. You start to feel that stir inside, that restlessness, and the horses are feeling it, too – spring is finally here!
But wait! What else comes with shedding and mud and warmer temperatures?
That’s right, my friends – spring tune up, aka boot camp!
Now, if you’re anything like me, your horse has probably sat most of the winter, collecting hair and a hay belly. Other than the occasional few laps around the arena, I tend to not ride much in the winter time; I am a pansy when it comes to the cold! However, once the temperature starts to rise, boot camp commences.
Many clients and horse friends approach me with the question of how to get their horse legged up for spring. There are a few factors to take into consideration when you saddle up for the first time after a long, cold winter. If you have had the opportunity to ride in a heated arena most of the winter, your approach will obviously be a little different – this post is more directed towards those that give their horse the winter off or simply do not have access to ride consistently in the winter time.
Regardless of how your winter turned out, now is a good time to have the vet out for Coggins and vaccinations, as well as a general wellness check for any subtle lameness issues that might arise. I’ve already had one training client contact me with news of a strained shoulder muscle on her 3 year old stud colt; this set his training back about 4 weeks, depending on how rest and massage therapy goes. This is also an excellent time to have your horse’s teeth checked and floated.
Touch base with your farrier on your goals for this spring. If you pulled shoes for the winter, consult with your farrier as to when they would like to see shoes put back on, if needed or desired. Keep in mind, this is the time of year that the grass starts to sprout, bringing on the potential for laminitis and founder, especially in ponies. To take preventative action, try to rotate your horse from pasture to dry lot for turn out, limit excessive access to spring grass, or use a grazing muzzle to limit the intake. Spring grass can have an especially high sugar content, and it is this factor that puts your horse at potential risk for laminitis and founder.
With spring weather comes spring friskiness, but just because your horse is running laps with his pasture mates doesn’t mean he is primed and ready for you to saddle him up and go straight to roll backs or 3 foot high fences. Proper warm ups and cool downs are essential to tuning up your horse and getting him ready for the riding season. I always try to remember to plan for ten to fifteen minutes of warm up and cool down time when I first saddle up.
Have your warm ups consist of walking and flexing. Let him stretch out as you walk around, allowing him to relax into the warm up. Go into some small circles, asking your horse to gently arc through his barrel and give to the bit. Circle three or four times, and then walk off. Repeat this process on both sides.
Once you and your horse are warmed up, you can move onto the workout. Lay down some ground poles to remind him to pick up his feet, circle around a barrel to work on suppleness, or focus on keeping your circles well rounded as you walk. Work on your own posture in the saddle and proper horsemanship. I always tell my clients to focus on keeping their hands low, shoulders back, and heels down. Oh, and don’t forget to breathe!
After you have accomplished a successful first workout, let your horse cool off by simply walking around. Once again, let him stretch out and relax. If your horse still has a fluffy winter coat, remove the tack from his back and walk him around in hand in case he managed to get a little too warm. This is a good time to work on your halter and showmanship skills!
Always End on A Positive Note!
Remember, this is not the time to nitpick your horse – the purpose of boot camp is to slowly introduce work back into you and your horse’s vocabulary without putting strain on the mind or body. Spring tune up is about starting slow and building up that muscle memory and physical ability after time off.
Once you have a few successful and positive rides during boot camp, begin to focus on the things that you need to work on for a better show season. Don’t overdo it the first few weeks – you run the risk of setting yourself back even further by charging into boot camp with guns a-blazing.
Never skimp on the warm up and cool down before and after you ride – these exercises are essential in properly tuning up the muscles, and then preventing potential strains stiffness associated with getting back into the swing of things.
Keep your horse properly hydrated throughout this spring tune up phase. The last thing you want is a dehydrated horse! If your horse is breaking a sweat during his tune up, he will dehydrate easily due to losing that water.
Give your horse a nice rub down or a massage when you are finished working. This gives him something to look forward to at the end of every ride, and is a relaxing for the both of you. My gelding always appreciates his post-ride massages!
Monitor your horse as you progress into boot camp. The more aware you are of how he is coming along, the better your end result will be. Time and patience are of the utmost importance here. No one wants a pre-season injury to put them on the sidelines at the first few shows!