Back in the Saddle...
A stable strategy for resuming life with your horse...
Tips for horses and riders from an animal chiropractor
This time of COVID-19 has been challenging for horse owners and riders. You’ve been separated from your beloved animal for up to two months. Your equine has been wandering around paddocks with its friends while you wondered when you could return to the barn. Whether you do dressage, eventing, western, trail riding or general fun, most of us had limited or no access to our equine and an exercise/riding routine.
(For this first post, I will assume you have not seen or ridden your horse in two months)
Ok, let’s start from scratch. Make a plan based on what has – or hasn’t happened over the past two months – and use a notebook for recording progress.
Take note of what has happened in two months.
What level are you? Review and evaluate your and your horse’s training fitness level:
Level 1 - Horse in field with no exercise, owner no exercise.
Level 2 - Owner low fitness, horse not exercised.
Level 3 - Owner low fitness, horse worked out.
Level 4 - Owner works out at home, not full fitness, horse had some basic exercise.
Level 5 - Owner at good fitness level, horse worked out at regular level by a trainer.
Tailor your level of activity based on what level your might be. For example:
Level 1 and 2 - Spend time with your horse and groom, hand walk or walk under saddle.
Level 3 - Spend time as level 1 and 2, but add more walk and trot. Cut the riding time in half to what your usual ride time was for the first few weeks.
Level 4 - As above, ride at 50 per cent of time and exercise intensity.
Level 5 - Can still go slow to re-establish relationship with new rules for riders.
Regardless of your level, return to work can be a graded approach with light exercises. First hand walk, next time lunge, then walk, then walk trot and work up to canter, poles and jumping over the next few weeks.
2. Consider treating your return to the barn like your horse or you had an injury the past eight weeks and you both must come back to work SLOWLY.
3. Savour the moment. There is no rush.
4. Mind, body, soul: Enjoy just being with your horse and slowly increase activities to reach training goals.
This a great time to re-establish a bond with your horse.
I know you are excited to see your horse again! Take a breath and enjoy being at the barn again. Take the opportunity to reassess your short and long-term goals for your relationship with your horse.
Start slow with meet and greet, groom and bond.
New routine: If tacking up outside, remember your horse isn’t used to this. Go slow and be aware of the change of routine for the horse and you.
Pace: Let your horse dictate the pace of start up. Hand walk or lunge first.
Observe: Watch your horse in the field. How does he move? Is there any lameness or stiffness?
Listen: To your horse’s hoof sounds when you bring him in. Is it symmetrical, sounds not balanced?
Watch: How do they move on a lead rope. Any stiffness or lameness or is he ‘off’?
Look: Scan the body for any areas of injury or anything that doesn’t look normal for your horse.
Feel: Give a body scan with your hands over the muscles and body to feel for any swelling, heat etc.
Grooming: Watch for reactions to grooming, any sore spots etc. Check feet for general health when you pick out hooves.
Tack up: Watch for any new reactions to tack such as girthiness or avoidance behaviour.
Lunge: Are they stiff, lame or off? Are they full of beans?
If your horse has had eight weeks off, be aware that depending on your horse’s age, general health and injury history, it might be stiff and sore.
If you ride in the first week of barn’s re-opening, be aware your horse has not had you on its back for a while. It will use different set of muscles to carry you. These need to be reactivated and strengthened again. Go slow and give your horse a few days break between riding sessions.
Stretch and hydrate before equine activities.
Do lots of bending, reaching and twisting. Depending on which level you are you might be sore after just grooming or tacking up. Grooming and tacking up uses very specific muscles different from regular daily activities. Raising your arms above your head to groom or bending over to pick our hooves is like a new activity again. If you are taking tack out of our car to tack up and then returning your tack to your car, it can be hard on your back, especially those heavier western saddles.
Even if you have been able to maintain a relatively high level of fitness, you have not ridden in a while. You will probably be sore or stiff after the first ride. Riding uses a unique set of muscles. Balance and strength could be affected. These muscle patterns have been sleeping for a few weeks! They will need time to reactivate and strengthen.
Be kind to yourself. Go slow and steady. There is no race. Both you and your horse will come back into shape over time. Take the time to reset your relationship with your horse.
Thanks to Tracy Hanes for picture of her riding Jazz.
Dr. Fenella Ely is an animal and people Chiropractor in Whitby, Ontario. She has been riding for most of her life. She has a diverse practice of two and four legged patients. She is available for barn talks and writes informational articles for barns or clubs.