As the snow melts (and mud season ensues), we all start thinking about getting back in the saddle. Literally. The thought of warm spring rides ahead is exciting; you didn’t carry frozen water around all winter for nothing.
As we learn more about conditioning and strengthening our own bodies, much can be applied to our equine friends to ensure a safe, successful entry back into more intense physical work in the better weather ahead.
Just like us, diet is step one. To maintain body weight, horses need to eat 1-2 percent of their weight (in pounds) of hay. If the average horse weighs 1,000 lbs, 10-20 lbs. of hay is required. Bear in mind, all horses will vary some depending on age, metabolism and level of work. A simple bathroom scale can help make sure you are feeding correctly. Hay quality also varies tremendously. There are multiple companies that will test your hay via a small sample for a nominal cost (less than $50) to give you a better idea on protein, fiber and sugar content. Grain, while not always necessary, should often be fed by following the manufacturers recommendation on the bag. Be sure to remember that these are guidelines and speaking with a veterinarian will help tailor a diet to fit your horse.
Horses benefit from steady, controlled exercise and strengthening work just like us. Simple exercises such as asking your horse to stretch his nose to his front fetlock five times in a row with a carrot allows them to stretch their neck and use muscles to develop their top line. Scratching under their belly will often elicit a horse to use his back and arch away from your hand. Asking your horse to balance on three legs while holding up a foot for 20 seconds is another way to begin mobilizing your horses core. Starting with these stationary movements lays the groundwork for better fitness.
All horses can perform better when they have mastered a good working walk. Asking your horse to walk with intention, walk over ground poles, walk up and down hills in a controlled manner builds their core strength and strengthens their tendons and ligaments. Frequent, shorter walks and then building in longer walks with trot is recommended. Just like us, the ‘weekend warrior’ often limps in on Monday morning.
The key to success is to start small and consistent. Building back slowly over a month or two will help your horse feel better, perform better and decrease the chance of injury. The last piece of the puzzle is your own fitness. Many of the top riders in the country participate in a variety of athletics outside of riding. Yoga, both for its physical and mental benefits, is often a favorite.
Hope the spring weather comes quickly and allows all of us to shed our mittens and muck boots for bridles and britches.