Let’s face it. Many of us just don’t have the luxury (or the desire) to ride our horses year round, due to winter weather or sheer lack of time. Sometimes it’s necessary – and even beneficial – to give our horses a few months off each year. It is of the utmost importance, however, that when we do bring them back into work, we do so slowly and carefully. Follow this plan for preparing your horse for the show season without risk of stress or injury.
Legging up, or bringing your horse back from “vacation” to being ready for regular schooling sessions, lessons and hacking, takes a minimum of six weeks. This may seem like a long time, but there are few things more frustrating than putting in hours of work in the ring only to end up with a stress injury that can take months to heal.
Before you start your horse’s fitness program, he needs a bit of a “spring tune-up”. Ask your vet to administer spring vaccines and check to see if the teeth need floating. Have your farrier visit to ensure that your horse’s feet are in top-notch shape. Clean your tack thoroughly, checking for worn stitching or cracked leather, and have any damages repaired. Trim your horse’s legs and bridle path, and neatly pull his mane and tail; remember, impeccable turnout shows a sense of respect for your horse, your sport and yourself.
Weeks One and Two – Walking
Start out with fifteen to twenty minutes of walking. This can be more fun done out in the open to guard against boredom, but there’s no shame in staying within the confines of your ring if your horse is prone to being rambunctious in the spring! Build up to thirty or so minutes of steady walking. Hint – if you want to increase your own fitness, you can do some of this work in hand.
Don’t forget to give your horse a rest day or two each week, and to begin to slowly increase his grain ration as you bring him back into regular work.
Week Three – Adding Trot Work
In week three, keep to the same duration (about thirty minutes), but add some trot work to your daily rides. Keep the trotting to short intervals of a minute or two at a time to help safely build cardiovascular fitness.
Week Four – Adding Hills and Ring Work
Walking and trotting up hills (do not trot down hills) a couple of times a week adds muscle and builds stamina. One or two training days can also be spent in the ring at walk and trot, doing easy transitions and nice big school figures. As with all aspects of this program, be careful not to ask for too much too soon. At this point your rides should be about thirty to forty-five minutes long.
Week Five – Adding the Canter
By week five, one or two of your rides should still be out in the countryside (you don’t want boredom to set in, for you or for your horse). In your ring work, you can start to add short canters to continue building muscle and lung capacity. Your rides should now have a duration of about an hour.
Continue to gauge your horse’s weight and general condition to ensure that he’s not lacking in concentrates.
Week Six – Adding Work over Fences
By week six in your program, your rides should be lasting an hour or a little more, and you should have a nice mixture of schooling and hacking, with a day off each week. Once or twice through the week, add an easy jump school. A simple gymnastic is a good place to start. Don’t over-do it; you don’t want to risk an injury. By the end of week six, your horse should be ready to begin specialized training for his discipline.
Remember that every horse is different, and some need more time than others for the legging up phase. Make a plan (and follow it), but be flexible enough to recognize when your horse may need a break. Pay careful attention to changes in body weight and attitude, make small adjustments as required, and your horse should be ready to face the rigours of show season stress- and injury-free.