After a particularly long winter that was especially difficult for horseback riders, we are exhilarated to see every one of those spring beacons.
Many riders were grounded this winter by extreme cold and icy footing, so the moderate weather is a delight. However, the horses, having had the winter off, are about as fit for work as the marshmallows you found in the back of the cupboard from last Halloween.
Horses have to be brought back into work slowly to prevent injuries. They might feel like tearing across the hills like wild brumbies in the Snowy River movies, but in reality, they are more capable of meandering like sunburned tourists at Sand Beach.
It takes time to bring a horse back to athletic form; time and a team of people. The rider has to plan conscientious activity that gradually increases in length and intensity to build the horse’s stamina and strength. Otherwise, horses end up sore, tired, disgruntled and possibly injured.
Imagine jumping up off the couch, putting on a backpack with 20 pounds of sand in it and sprinting down the corner and back. Add in some cartwheels and jumping rope. Upon your return, do a dozen push ups. See how you feel in the morning. That’s what it is like for horses ridden with the same level of activity in the spring as was required of them back in the fall.
Not only does spring training for horses have to start slowly, but along the way, other health issues should be considered.
Starting at the ground level, hooves need to be balanced and trimmed properly. Unevenness or poor hoof angle set the horse up for tendon strain, which will end a riding season completely.
Good farriers keep a horse moving steadily. Lack of farrier work can cause damage that can take years to sort out.
Saddle fit should be considered from changes that may have occurred because of weight gain or loss, loss of muscle tone or changes in body shape from age. Same goes for the horse.
Most Mainers have horses vaccinated in the spring. Vaccination schedules vary according to circumstances and personal beliefs. Having a veterinarian do a physical exam at the beginning of the season, whether or not vaccines are given, is important for monitoring the horse’s heart, lungs, eyes and to address any particular concerns that may have arisen over the winter.
Specialists also can be called in. There are dentists, acupuncturists, massage therapists and chiropractors all trained in equine health.
Horses are athletic animals asked to do unnatural things. Whether that unnatural activity is jumping over 5-foot fences when there is clearly plenty of room to go around, or chasing cows for no good reason while carrying 75 pounds of tack and 150 pounds of rider, the horse works for a living. It’s up to us to make sure they are as comfortable as possible doing that job.
If you don’t feel like keeping up with the maintenance of a horse, give it to someone else, pick up your sunscreen and head for the beach. I hear the meandering is excellent this time of year.