6 ways to gear up for spring

6 ways to gear up for spring

Event trainer Caroline Moore shares her steps to a happy, healthy and injury-free season.

Longer, lighter days are here at last. But spring not only means warmer weather, it also signals a more active riding schedule, often with tougher schooling sessions and longer hacks. According to a study at Utrecht University in The Netherlands, upping a horse’s fitness levels steadily during this time could be more important than some riders think. The researchers examined factors that could affect how likely a horse was to get injured during riding, and concluded that horses who were used only for recreational riding in the preceding three months, and then took on more strenuous activity, were more likely to get injured.

So, before you add mileage or intensity to your horse’s routine, Caroline (a Fellow of the British Horse Society) recommends carrying out a quick equine MOT. ‘Check the basics, such as your horse’s teeth, tack and worming programme, and make sure that he’s kept well-shod to maintain good foot balance,’ she says. ‘If you then strengthen his heart, legs and lungs in a safe and steady way, he’ll be ready to ride further and faster with less risk of injury in the early stages.’ Here are more of her tips for enjoyable and safe riding throughout spring:

1. Keep a record

Before deciding what you want to achieve this season, take a look at your horse’s current exercise levels. You can then plan his progress in sensible stages, whether you’re aiming to take part in longer hacks or to progress through the levels in an affiliated competition.

‘A training journal is an ideal way to keep tabs on what you do every day,’ says Caroline, who advises investing in a simple stopwatch and writing down the type and duration of work you’re doing. ‘It’s important to be aware of how much your horse is exerting himself. You might be surprised: in an hour’s schooling in an arena, for example, he could cover six miles. By writing down every session, you’ll be able to introduce some structure to his programme, and record the progress he is making.’

2. Go slow and steady

Warm-ups and cool-downs are always important, but they’re especially vital when you’re gearing up for a more active time of the year. In fact, fitness experts often compare an effective warm-up to a bridge that leads to the workout, and the cool-down to the safe route back.

‘Whether you’re doing dressage, showjumping or eventing, your horse should know his warm-up routine and move into a relaxed frame of mind as he prepares for work,’ Caroline says. ‘Then a good final cool-down will not only ensure that his heart and respiration rates are back to normal, and rid his muscles of lactic acid, but will also calm him mentally.’

3. Start with the basics

Are you ready to start stepping up your horse’s fitness, but unsure about where to begin? ‘If ground conditions allow, try to get out into a field for trot and slow canter work,’ Caroline advises. ‘Up the intensity every four to five days, keeping the same duration, but adding in short speed elements, such as a faster canter for three to four minutes. If you can’t find good ground, use a large arena and increase the length of time you’re out of the saddle in medium canter.’

Caroline also suggests a simple exercise for increasing stamina: ‘When you jump a course of, say, 10 fences, stay in canter for a couple of circuits at the end instead of coming back to walk,’ she explains. ‘Working for an extra spell like this will help to build your horse’s staying power.’

4. Mix it up

Caroline recommends working on a variety of surfaces and gradients: ‘Different conditions will build muscle memory, so your horse knows how to cope when the going changes underfoot,’ she says. ‘Just be careful not to go straight from the beautiful waxed surface you’ve used all winter to wet, heavy ground. Working hard or fast on really firm surfaces, such as roads, can also pose a risk, as impact can jar a horse’s legs and damage muscles and connecting tissues. Event horses will run on fairly firm ground in the summer, so it’s good to get them accustomed to it, as this microscopic ‘damage’ is what prompts the body to adapt and strengthen. But too much of a hammering, without sufficient recovery time, can lead to lameness issues. So keep work varied and fun for all-round fitness, riding over mixed terrain and incorporating hillwork where you can.’

5. Check your progress

Working hard is obviously the only way to get fitter after a long winter, but how do you know if you’re overdoing things? ‘An obvious sign is if your horse is blowing hard and not recovering quickly,’ says Caroline. ‘Also examine his legs daily for heat or swelling, and keep a close eye on his general condition. Any changes in body shape should be gradual. Some horses naturally become run-up with extra work, but watch for sudden weight loss and adjust his forage or hard feed to make sure he’s coping.’

Fatigue can show up in many ways, from clumsiness and lack of enthusiasm to heat stress or even colic in more severe cases. Signs may be subtle, so keep a close eye on your horse’s demeanour as training increases. ‘Look out for your horse’s expression,’ Caroline says, ‘that way you’ll have a better understanding of what he is going through.’

6. Rest and recover

An increase in exercise will trigger the responses that build muscle fibre and strengthen your horse’s joints, tendons and ligaments. But Caroline explains that his body will take time to adjust to these new training stresses.

‘He will need days to recover,’ she says. ‘His muscles will ache after a harder session, so build in regular rest days so that he doesn’t get sour. A gentler hack or some time spent grazing in the field is just as important for overall fitness as clocking up the miles.’