Bringing a horse back into work is not as simple as just popping a saddle and bridle on and cantering along a forest track. If a horse has been out of work for a while, or is in very inconsistent work, it can be dangerous to assume they are fitter than they are. If a horse is pushed before they are ready, this opens up the possibility of lameness and injury- which would mean the horse would need to be out of work for even longer and potentially risks your own safety.
When bringing a horse back into work, it is important to have a plan and prepare for this part of the journey. Below I have listed some key considerations when bringing the horse back into work and then a plan to get you started!
Ensure the horse is ready to work
Make sure your horse is up to date with the farrier and with the dentist. It is also a good idea to have your saddle checked if it has been a while as an ill fitting saddle is never a good thing. Additionally, it may be helpful to involve an equine physiotherapist to ensure the horse is completely comfortable and ready to work.
It is recommended that horses come back into work slowly and steadily so as to allow the horse to adjust and get back into the swing while minimising the risk of injury. You are looking at around 4-6 weeks of walk. Of course, this is very dependant on what your horse is coming back from. If it is merely a break then it may progress a little faster than if your horse was off work due to injury. Care should always be taken when coming back from injury and I would frequently discuss progress with your vet.
So, even if your horse seems to think they can definitely manage a canter across a field- say no! It will not do him any favours.
Rides should be short to begin with and they should gradually increase to allow your horse to build up their fitness level. Start with easy, flat hacking where possible and slowly introduce hills and extended road work.
Once you have done this, then you can start to introduce schooling again. Personally, I don’t like to use the school too often when working on fitness with a horse; hacking is much easier as it involves just walking generally in a straight line (you would hope!) rather than inevitably including tighter turns.
I like to use a field also when bringing in elements of schooling. You can do big, wide curves and large circles to encourage a bit of bend, even just in walk to begin with.
I am currently riding a thoroughbred X welsh section D horse called Harry. Now Harry is very fat and has been in inconsistent work for a long time. I anticipate it will take at least 8 weeks to get him to the point where he is schooling with ease. The plan I am currently using comes from the BHS which gives the 3 steps for a basic fitness plan:
Step 1 – SLOW & STEADY: Slow work to prepare muscles, tendons and ligaments
Step 2 – STRENGTH & STAMINA: Improve basic fitness and strength
Step 3 – SCHOOLING & SPEED: Faster work, interval training, jump training, schooling sessions
Again, this plan will be suitable for some, not all. Every horse is different and so you need to be sensible in deciding how fast or far to push your horse.
Something this plan does not include is how often to work the horse. I think this is very much due to personal preference and circumstance. For me, I plan to work Harry every second day. This is partially due to my being a school teacher and working a couple of late nights, but I also feel this offers time for growth and repair of muscles.
When I was bringing up Bo’s fitness throughout lockdown, I knew that he already had a relatively good base and I knew it wouldn’t take too long. So, with him I decided to work him two days then give him a day off. This worked well to get us to where we are.
Be sure to check out the BHS page if you would like.
Remember, this is largely opinion and experience based for me and you should always consult with your vet when bringing a horse back into work.