At this time of year, even in the northernmost climes, green shoots are at last poking through the soil in pastures and robins can be seen flitting down fence lines. But at many barns there’s another sure sign of spring: riders pulling tack out of storage and restocking their grooming kits in eager anticipation of the first big trail ride, show or clinic of the season.
Those debut outings can be a little rough, though. Horses who are otherwise sensible and sedate may jig and bolt. Others lag behind the group, too winded to keep up. One horse may be tender footed and another so rotund after a lazy winter that his saddle no longer fits. And then there are the practicalities to contend with: leaky buckets, flat tires and crucial travel paperwork that somehow got misplaced.
Of course, you’ll be able to muddle through, but wouldn’t it be nice to skip false starts and frustrations as you get ready for peak riding and showing season? There are no guarantees, of course, but with a little planning and preparation, you can keep unpleasant surprises to a minimum as you get your horse ready for your first major event of the year. To help you, here’s a basic pre-season checklist—start with these areas and add your own based on your goals and your horse’s needs.
1. Health status
Any horse about to head back to work after several months of relative ease will benefit from a visit from the veterinarian. Not only will a spring checkup take care of routine health-care issues, but it can uncover developing problems that might worsen later in the season.
You may also want to request a brief lameness exam. A veterinarian may detect mild joint soreness, the slight thickening of a tendon or other subtle signs of trouble that are best addressed early. If anything suspicious appears, ask your veterinarian whether this would also be a good time to take radiographs to look for any changes in chronic orthopedic conditions and to establish a new baseline for comparison in subsequent exams.
This visit is also the time for spring vaccines, giving your horse’s immune system a chance to arm itself before insects are out in full force and your horse begins traveling. Which ones your horse needs depends on his age, your geographic location and your plans for the year. Immunizations against rabies0, tetanus0, West0 Nile virus and eastern and western equine encephalitis—the “core vaccines”—are recommended for all horses, but your veterinarian may suggest additional shots to protect against strangles, influenza or other diseases based on your horse’s particular risk.
If your plans include traveling to shows, clinics or other organized events, you’ll want your veterinarian to pull blood for a Coggins0 test and prepare other necessary health paperwork that such venues generally require. Look into what you’ll need well in advance—some shows and other venues have new requirements that include specific vaccinations. Make multiple copies of these right away. Keep one set in your truck and another in your tack box to increase the odds of being able to find a set when you need them. Keep the originals in the house for safekeeping.
Weight gain and loss can be easy to overlook under winter blankets and heavy hair coats. Weight changes affect everything from saddle fit to systemic health, so you’ll want to get a clear idea of your horse’s status and decide how you’ll manage it well before your first competition, event or major trail outing.
Get a literal “feel” for how much body fat your horse is carrying with a vigorous grooming session using a curry and your hands. Consult a body0 condition score chart if you’re unsure of the meaning of deposits over various anatomical points. A target score for most horses is between 5 and 6.
Also pay attention when you tack up. Weight loss or changes in muscle tone can cause the saddle to bridge across the back or pinch his withers. Even if it fit perfectly fine last fall, assess your horse’s tack as if it were brand new and be prepared to make accommodations until his body condition normalizes: Often, you can “shim” with pockets of padding or use a swayback pad that will raise the saddle up off the back until your horse returns to his usual fitness level. If your horse has gained considerable weight, you may have to temporarily substitute another saddle that has a wider tree.
You may also be tempted to make immediate adjustments to your horse’s diet. But be mindful of how his lifestyle and environment may be changing in the coming months. For instance, pounds may melt away as a horse’s workload increases even if you don’t reduce his grain ration. And a return of spring pastures may help a lean horse fill out in the coming weeks. Talk to your veterinarian before making any nutritional adjustments (that first veterinary check-up is a good time to have the conversation) and then implement any recommended changes slowly.
If your horse has a history or risk of arthritis, look into the benefit of starting a joint supplement while you are considering diet and nutrition. A “loading” dose of a supplement you are currently giving may also be appropriate in the weeks leading up to a return to work, but don’t make any such adjustments without speaking to your veterinarian first.
How much conditioning your horse will need to return to peak form depends on his previous level of fitness, how he spent his downtime and your performance goals for the season. If he has been turned out all winter long in an active herd with space to run he may have retained some of his fitness. You can get back into a regular riding routine with such a horse much more quickly than you can with one who spent most of his winter days confined to a stall. The natural exercise of pasture living, however, won’t prepare a horse for the collection, bending, lateral flexion or mental focus that may be required of him in a discipline-specific event.
No matter your sport or discipline, reconditioning starts with slow work—walking and jogging. On your first ride, limit your time in the saddle to less than an hour at this slow speed. Then, over the course of several weeks, increase the speed or distance of your rides, but never both at the same time. Pay attention to your horse’s level of fatigue. You’ll need to push him a bit to increase his fitness, but be careful to avoid exhausting him. A return to fitness will stall if a horse needs weeks or months off to recover from an injury.
A heart rate monitor can help you keep track of your horse’s increasing fitness: A well-conditioned horse’s heart rate will usually return to below 60 beats per minute within 10 or 15 minutes of stopping exercise. But remember that it’s not just cardiovascular fitness that matters. Your horse’s tendons, bones and ligaments need time to adapt to the demands of work as well.
Be sure to add in recovery days to your fitness regimen. A horse’s body will rebuild stressed structures during downtime, which leads to the increased strength you’re aiming for. You’ll need to work a horse at least four times a week to improve his fitness, but at least two very easy rides or completely off days in the pasture are equally important.
After a few weeks of foundation work, you can add in discipline-specific skill work, such as jumping, spins or stops. Avoid repetitive drills. Not only do they stress a horse physically, but they can cause him to burn out mentally before you even hit the show circuit. Changing up your daily routine not only keeps a horse emotionally “fresh” but challenges various part of his body physically.
Whether your first big event of spring is a clinic, show or organized trail ride, chances are you’ll need to trailer to the location. Don’t wait until the day before to give your rig a once-over, though. An unsafe or unusable trailer will make all your horse-specific preparations for naught.
If you’re not mechanically savvy, you may want a mechanic to take a look at your trailer if it has been parked all winter. If you’re comfortable doing the inspection yourself, however, you can work through the vehicle on your own, looking for trouble spots.
Start by ensuring the hitch is still easy to operate and that the welds that attach it to the trailer look solid. Any cracks are a serious concern and need to be addressed before you do any transport. Next, walk around the trailer to check the tires. Dry rot may have set in over the winter. You’ll recognize it by tiny cracks in the rubber. Tires with dry rot need to be replaced, as do any with treads worn down to less than a quarter-inch deep. If the tires appear to be in good shape, make sure they are inflated to the correct PSI, which should be listed on the sidewall.
Inspect the ramp, making sure it’s easy to raise and lower and is extremely steady underfoot. Look for corrosion in the springs and hinges. Similarly, swing all doors and windows to see whether they move easily.
Make sure the floors are solid. Manure and urine left over winter can cause wood floors to rot and metal to rust. Use a screwdriver to check the integrity of both types of floor; if the tip goes into the material, it needs to be replaced. With a friend’s help, test the brake lights and turn signals. Then check that your trailer breakaway line is secure and works so that should your trailer separate from your truck while on the road, your trailer will safely come to a stop.
Finally, make sure your horse still loads willingly. If he was a hesitant loader before his winter break, he may have fallen into bad habits. But even a seasoned traveler could do well with a reminder session before you’re running late on the morning of an event.
If you trailer long distances or frequently, ask your veterinarian about your horse’s risk of gastric ulcers and whether he may need medication on trailering days.
Spend an afternoon going through and inspecting your gear, from tack to buckets to sheets to grooming tools. Even if you think it was in good shape when you stowed it last fall, you may not have noticed early signs of failure, or its condition may have deteriorated over the past few months.
Lay out your horse’s summer wardrobe over a fence line. This airs the items out while giving you a chance to notice any signs of rodents who overwintered in their depths. Check sheets, saddle pads, traveling boots and other such garments. Wash any that seem less than clean and make arrangements to repair and replace items as necessary.
Do the same with your grooming tools. Lay them out, clean them up and repack your box with the coming activities in mind. Now’s also a good time to order fly spray so you’re not caught without it on the first buggy day of the year. Then check season-specific equipment that may have gone unused over the winter. The water containers you keep in the trailer, for instance, may have cracked in the cold. You’ll want to know that now, not when you’re loading up to hit the road.
It’s especially important to scrutinize tack closely. A failure of a stirrup or girth can be dangerous. Check every spot where leather meets metal; tack often fails at these stress points. Any cracking or tearing is cause for replacement. Tug, wiggle and pull all hardware, looking for signs of insecurity or weakness. Also inspect stitching and lacing, which is typically an easy-enough repair, assuming the leather itself is still in good condition.
The adage, “If you fail to plan you plan to fail,” might seem a little overwrought when talking about a return to riding this spring, but there’s certainly some truth to the admonition. An easy transition from idle to active with your horse involves many steps, variables and opportunities for things to go amiss, so the sooner you can start, the more time you’ll have to reach your goal. Then, when you enter the ring or head down the trails, those weeks for preparation will pay off.
EQUUS thanks Ann Swinker, PhD, extension horse specialist at Pennsylvania State University, and Diana and Lindsay Peaton of Desert Skies Performance Horses in Gilbert, Arizona, for their assistance in the preparation of this article.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #450, March 2015.