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Get ready to ride! How to make sure you and your horse are ready to go
Christine Wilson, Southern States
Although you probably have a year-round maintenance program in place for your horse, it's time to check his condition for the upcoming riding season. Longer days and the end of winter mean increased riding time and frequent hauling for many, whether gearing up for competition or the trail.
Every conditioning program should include proper health care and nutrition, as well as exercise, training and grooming. And, both horses and riders need to be mentally fit, besides physically conditioned, before heading out the gate.
Your horse's health care
Good nutrition is essential for your horse. It does not happen overnight but it can be improved quickly. Take the time to learn about feeds and how they meet your horse's nutritional requirements.
Make sure vaccinations and blood tests are up to date. If your plans include traveling, check the USDA for regional or state recommendations for those areas. Today, the majority of shows, facilities and organized rides require a negative Coggins test and some require a health certificate. Call to find out specific requirements for your event and what you need before crossing state lines.
Carrying a heavy parasite load can significantly affect a horse's health and fitness. Regular deworming is necessary for optimum performance.
Don't forget hoof care. Have your farrier evaluate each horse, whether it is for trimming or shoes. Remember, changes in ground surface affect footing and can impact your horse's way of going.
How do you tell if your horse is out of shape? The easiest way is to look at him. Make it routine to check your horses daily. Use appearance to monitor body mass. Obviously, if he looks like the Pillsbury Dough Boy, there may be a weight issue. Horses carrying extra fat are unable to eliminate heat as efficiently as their trimmer counterparts. But, being underweight can be a problem, too.
If your horse is apparently laboring, sweats profusely, or is easily winded with light work -- and does not have other contributing health issues -- he is probably out of shape and would benefit from a conditioning program.
If you're unsure how to start conditioning your horse with exercise, it is best to start slow. It may take longer, but is a lot safer. Remember to warm up before any serious work, and cool your horse down after riding. It is a good idea to become familiar with your horse's normal temperature and respiration. They are excellent monitors and indicators of fitness and condition.
It is amazing how quickly horses transform sleek hair coats into shaggy, thick ones after the first cold day. But how do you start the process back? Although there are no secrets for a good hair coat, there are a few proven methods to utilize, once the weather has turned warm.
The first thing to remember is there are no shortcuts. Regular grooming is necessary for shiny coats and to remove that long hair. Bathing is not always necessary. It dulls a horse's coat if done excessively. Limit frequent washing to tails and white legs as much as you can. Of course, for some horses, there will be no choice except for a full body wash.
A silicone spray or coat conditioner can be used on matted manes and tails to detangle and reduce hair loss and damage. Be sure to have sunscreen and fly spray handy.
All horses can benefit from simple suppling and balancing exercises, especially after a layoff or a vacation. These could include patterns of work with straight lines, circles, figure eights, serpentines, and lateral movements. The key is performing them correctly.
Most of today's training objectives include the components of collection and head-set. If you have concerns with either, put them aside until you have established a connection between the front and back ends of your horse. Volumes have been written and taught about collection and it is difficult to reduce that theory into one or two sentences. However, a horse has to be able to move forward to lengthen his frame and develop balance and rhythm. And, he has to be able to lengthen his frame and have balance and rhythm before he can shorten it or achieve any degree of collection.
And also ...
Check your tack. Does your tack fit your horse? Does your tack fit you? If you have a question on either, check with a professional for advice.
Keep your equipment simple. Now is a good time to use leather cleaner and conditioner or oil on your saddle, headstall and reins and to make any needed repairs.
Keep your horse fresh. Vary his jobs from time to time. Open and close gates while riding. Follow cows on him. Pony other horses off of him.
Make a schedule. I find it useful for my students to plan out the season and year before it begins. That way we won't have any surprises with scheduling, and know when we need peak performance.
Find professional help if you need it. If you aren't sure how to improve your horse's performance or question your riding skills, find someone to help you. It could save you money and time in the long run.
On the road again
Before heading out "on the road again" with your horses, do a safety check of your truck and trailer. Take care of routine maintenance and make needed repairs.
Whether your destination is the show arena, cattle pen, cross country competition or trail riding, good preparation will go a long way toward a safe, enjoyable and successful riding season.
Christine Wilson is a trainer, instructor, clinician, judge and member of AQHA Professional Horseman's Association. She lives in Summerfield, N.C.