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Return to Work

Posted 16th April 2021

After what feels like a really long year many of us are returning to work. The same can also be said for many of our horses. Although our horses weren’t exactly on furlough, many of them have had a good period of time off due to the cancellation of shows across Dorset and the New Forest. Now there is a glimmer of hope at the end of this dark tunnel, it’s time to start thinking about bringing your horses back into work. We have put together some tips and suggestions to help you and your horse avoid injury.

It is important to remember that any time off for a horse means a loss of fitness. The combination of Lockdown and Winter means that your horse may have had substantial time off. Many of you may remember Emily and William, who, in January, were returning to work after an 8-month break. It’s fair to say that Emily was far keener than William was. William had happily committed to his idea of a Dorset retirement. However, Emily rang one of the vets and put together a plan to bring him back into work.

It can be really tempting to just tack up and go out for one of the lovely hacks you were doing the Spring before; however, we must remember that the loss of fitness means a loss of stamina and strength. Doing too much early on is a recipe for injury, for both horse and rider.

An injury for rider or horse right at the beginning of a training regime, can set you back even further and result in even more time off. Planning and preparation are key to making sure both Horse and Rider return to fitness comfortably with as little risk to injury as possible.

If you are worried about the amount of time your horse has had off, or if you are unsure where to begin please give us a ring to discuss your horse’s needs.

In general, the first step is making an inventory of where you are now. Ask yourself some questions. How much condition has my horse lost? Has my horse gained any weight? Have I had any concerns about lameness etc prior to or during the time they have been out of work? Do I have any concerns now? If you have any concerns or your horse has gained a significant amount of weight,  we would encourage you to contact us before reintroducing work.

Weight gain is especially important, as this will increase strain on the body as a whole. Joints, tendons, muscles and the cardiovascular system will all be under additional pressure.

The second step is to make a plan. It can take anywhere between 6-8 weeks for your horse to regain fitness, sometimes longer. When creating a plan, you need to consider your horse’ age, weight, type and any health issues they may have. When creating an exercise plan it is important also to consider other parts of healthcare including worming, feeding, farriery etc.

If we return to Emily and William: after 8 months off, William had gained a significant amount of weight, and Emily had lost a considerable amount of fitness. The first step was to help William lose some of his Lockdown weight. Emily was lucky that she made this commitment in January whilst the weather was still on her side. William was clipped, and only rugged if it was raining (due to a preference for wallowing). His forage was weighed every day, and Emily changed from a complete feed to a balancer to make sure he was getting the minerals and nutrients he needed but nothing extra. All Polos were banned from the yard.

Emily knew that exercise was going to be key, however 8 months turned away is a long time for a horse to go without significant exercise. After a saddle check, they began gradually introducing exercise. Being an older horse at the age of 21, exercise needed to be introduced slowly and Emily needed to consider things such as the condition of the ground and including extra warm up and cool down time.

The first step in their 8 week plan was two weeks of walking exercise. Emily discussed her concerns with the vets as William had injuries from his previous career that she was worried about, so we decided to start slowly and build his workload up gently. It is not uncommon for a horse to lose suppleness following time off, so Emily and William focused on hacking out in the beginning. January was spent walking up gentle hills, this allowed both of them to get back into the swing of things, and they gradually increased their walks to 30 minutes.

At the beginning of week three Emily introduced a little bit of trotting, she started on flat, soft ground and built this up over another two week period until William was happily trotting up hill. Emily’s long term goal is to sit her first dressage test, we think this is perfectly achievable but we didn’t want her to rush into intensive lessons. Once William was fitter, she started some low level schooling, nothing serious, just some big circles, and some light pole work. We weren’t looking to push William too hard at this point, Emily was varying his exercise nicely so he was getting plenty of mental stimulation as well as physical exercise. It is always important to be guided by the horse, William hadn’t done any schooling for a really long time, so we didn’t want to rush into anything difficult.

Although Emily was still working on light schooling only, we felt William would benefit from being pushed a little harder. Emily made contact with a local instructor who was able to come to her yard and help her build up William’s stamina and strength. By Week five they were introducing some slow canter work. This did test William, Emily noticed that he was considerably more out of breath than ever before. She made sure to slow him down gradually to allow him to catch his breath instead of suddenly stopping. A decent cool down is just as important that a good warm up.

If you are returning to work following an injury, we may suggest you start with ground work. In hand work, lunging or longlining are all great ways to build strength and muscle before putting weight on your horses back. A lot of the time, when a horse loses condition, the first thing to go is the topline. These are the muscles that support your horse’s spine when the weight of the rider and saddle is added. There are a number of conditions that can cause a lack of topline in horses, if you feel the loss of these muscles is unexplained then please phone us to discuss. Working on diet and exercise will help improve your horse’ strength, it is important to work with the horse you have; not the horse you want. Don’t be tempted to skip the groundwork if it’s necessary!

If you made the decision to remove your horse’ shoes whilst they were off, give your farrier a ring to see if he feels they need to go back on before commencing an increase in workload. A quick check will help make sure you are entering your work regime with healthy, balanced feet.

As vets we often discuss diets. You may recall our recent blog about helping your horse lose weight heading into the spring. It is unlikely, at this stage, that you will need to increase his feed. However a balancer should be properly utilized to make sure your horse is getting the nutrients he needs to maintain his workload. Remember to regularly assess your horses Body Condition Score, and adjust his feed intake as required. Emily saw a relatively quick change in William’s energy levels; within about a month of consistent work he had lost 20kgs and was feeling better for it. Having previously swapped his complete feed for a balancer she felt happy that his needs were being met. Quite often with an overweight horse you will get more oomph from losing the problem weight than from increasing feed.

Once you are back to ridden work, remember you are the one in charge of the workload. It is important not to mistake excitement for fitness. The adrenaline in your horse’s body will push them to work hard, however they may not have the stamina to back it up. Focus on respiratory rate, and look out for excessive sweating. Monitoring your horse’s heart rate will also help you track their recovery rate. A reduction in that recovery time indicates your horse’s increased fitness.

Make sure you are monitoring for injury, horses are very good at hiding their pain. Behavioural changes can indicate that they are not coping with their new regime. These changes will be particularly apparent during their ridden work; simple things such as resisting the bit, bucking or even rearing can all suggest there is pain. As soon as you notice any of these changes it is important to contact your vet to discuss whether there is something causing pain.

William has now lost 70kgs since January, Emily has done a fantastic job of getting his weight off and we look forward to following her progress throughout the spring and summer. I’m sure she’ll think of some entertaining ways to keep his weight off!

We have put together the resources Emily has used to bring William back to work this year, they can be downloaded from the list below:

Recovery Check List

Return to Work Check List