Preparing You And Your Horse For Spring
Spring Is Coming.
For many horse people, winter is a time when they don't ride much, or at all. Not everyone has access to an indoor arena and in northern climates it can be impossible to safely ride for several months of the year.
Then spring comes and the temptation is great to throw on a saddle and head right out onto the trails. This is a temptation that needs to be resisted. Injuries for both horse and rider can result from going straight from inactivity to riding regularly.
Here are some tips to enjoy spring without saddle soreness or worse.
Keep Yourself Active
Just because you can't ride, doesn't mean you should let yourself turn into a couch potato. Looking after your horse will help, but exercising regularly will keep you in good shape.
Light cardio combined with core exercises such as crunches, reverse crunches and back strengthening work such as the 'superman' (lie flat on your stomach, arms in front of you, and then slightly lift your legs and arms) will help keep the muscles you only use for riding in trim and reduce the aches and pains when you come back.
Schedule Your Horse's 'Physical'
It's a good idea to schedule your horse's annual vaccinations for the spring. The optimum time for many vaccinations is one month before mosquitos become active.
While the vet is there, have him give your horse a quick once over to check for anything you might not have noticed while not working the animal regularly. This will help its overall health and make sure that you know about anything that might need extra attention.
This is also a good time to do your horse's annual Coggins test.
Take Things Steady
If you haven't been to the gym for a while, you know how it feels - and you don't want your horse to feel that way. Generally, a horse that has been laid off for more than three weeks needs to be re-conditioned and may need some re-training to remind him of things he forgot.
Start by walking, then reintroduce trot. Generally, it takes a month for a horse to be fit enough to canter and jump again, but you need to pay attention to your horse. If he starts puffing, stop. If he starts acting up he may be telling you he's tired, and consider backing off. If his canter is unbalanced and 'rough', he may not be ready to canter yet. Speed work such as barrels or cross country should come in at six to eight weeks.
Check their legs after every ride for the first few weeks.
Bringing a horse back into work too quickly can cause muscle and back soreness and even tendon injuries (which can put your horse out of action for the entire summer). Taking a bit of time is more than worthwhile.
Watch Out For 'Freshness'
Some horses, when they have been off, get rather, shall we say, enthusiastic when they come back into work. You may know your horse well enough to know if they are likely to, say, buck you off the first time you get back on.
If this is the first winter layoff - assume your horse is likely to do something stupid. Lunge or ground drive them first so they can get the silly out before you get back on them. Keep the circles big, though...tight circles are hard on any horse, let alone an unfit one. You could also chase the horse around a round pen or small paddock.
Change Feed Slowly
Spring inevitably means a change in the food your horse is eating. Your horse may have been eating hay in a dry lot or sacrifice area all winter. If it was on grass, then the grass was not particularly good.
Founder is most common in spring, when the grass reaches its highest nutritional value. Horses that were on pasture all winter generally do pretty well, but if you had your horse in the lot or if the ground was completely covered by snow, then introduce grass slowly. This is particularly important if you have a pony or draft horse/draft cross - the kind that get fat at the drop of a hat.
If you are adding performance feed or grain, that too should be added slowly. All feed changes should be made gradually.
Check Your Tack
If your saddle and bridle have been sitting all winter, then they will need a full inspection before being returned to service. Do this a week or so before you plan on resuming riding so that if you do need to replace anything you have time to do so.
Give your tack a thorough cleaning and oiling (it helps, if you have time, to oil it regularly through the winter so it does not dry out). Replace any straps that are broken or look as if they might break. Thoroughly wash saddle blankets and make sure they are not worn...a hole in a saddle blanket can result in a saddle sore as the tack rubs through it.
Also, make sure your fly masks and fly sheets are clean and ready well before the insects start to show up.
Inspect Your Trailer
If you haul at all, now is the time to check and inspect your trailer. You can do this yourself or have a specialist shop check it.
First, check the trailer floor is in good condition. Remove all of the mats. A wood floor can be tested by sticking a pocket knife firmly in and twisting slightly, from both above and below. If the wood crumbles, then the floor may need to be able to replaced. Aluminum floors need to be inspected for corrosion, pitting and fractures along welds. Take the opportunity to clean floors and mats thoroughly.
Inspect the underside of the trailer and get any rust or corrosion repaired by an expert. Aluminum welds should, again, be inspected for cracks. Look at the suspension system.
Inspect the hitch and safety chains. Make sure the coupler has not worn so that it is loose on the ball.
Hitch up the trailer and check all of the lights.
Finally, a trailer that has been stored for a while may develop dry rot in the tires, so inspect the tires carefully. Check the pressure.
Finally, wheel bearings and brakes should be inspected annually, and brakes should be serviced and cleaned once a year. This is the time to do it.
Now is a good time to inspect and clean your barn, stalls and, if you have one, arena. Before turning your horse out, thoroughly inspect the pasture or paddock for hazards and check the fencing. This includes testing electric fencing properly.
Check all gates (I recommend keeping pasture gates padlocked on both the opening and hinge end to prevent both theft and gates being left open by strangers). Make sure they swing easily.
Thoroughly clean all water troughs and any fixed waterers. Clean the barn thoroughly. Test fire extinguishers and sprinkler systems.
Check your feed room for moldy and expired food, expired meds and supplements and anything else that is best thrown away. You probably also have bad bales of hay that need to be removed. If you have marginal hay, offer it to a neighbor who has cattle or goats - they will cheerfully chow down on stuff horses will refuse. Sweep out your hay storage area as best you can.
Clean and disinfect grooming equipment. Clean rugs thoroughly and once done with them for the season place them in sealed plastic bags or proper rug storage bags or bins.
Your horse will also appreciate a spring cleaning too - don't forget to get out the shedder and tackle that winter coat. Be sure to stand upwind so you don't end up more fuzzy than they are.
Consider inspecting the roof of your barn too, and this is definitely a good time to clear leaves and debris out of your gutters.
Check your first aid kit, both human and equine, and replenish any supplies that have gotten low. Replace expired medicines.