thought it was a good time of the year to discuss conditioning
your horse and what that means. A horse is in proper condition
when he is fit and sound to do the job he is asked to do. There
are many levels of conditioning a horse can maintain and be perfectly
suited to his work and it will be helpful if you learn the physical,
emotional and mental aspects of your horse's character year in
and year out to help him stay sound and enjoy his work for many
First of all your horse has to be healthy and comfortable before
he can perform any job with a rider on his back. His teeth, jaw
and mouth must be professionally floated at least once per year
to insure proper mastication of food and comfort with a properly
fitted bit. His mouth health will include a level biting and chewing
surface, no lessions or abcesses causing pain and inflamation,
no sharp hooks or edges, no chipped or broken teeth, no dead teeth
which need removing. Horses with mouth problems will experience
constant headaches, TMJ pain, neck pain, become head shy and even
become dangerous out of pain. The horse's breath should smell
grassy and organic with no sign of a septic smell.
His body should be in alignment so that health and circulation
can pass successfully from head to tail, foot to heart and throughout
the spinal system. A veterinary chiropractor should check your
horse thoroughly at least a couple of times per year to insure
a healthy skeletal system. Horse's ribs do move and they can easily
dislodge a rib which causes discomfort and severe pain especially
under the saddle. They can easily dislocate a rib or a vertebrae
just by playing or rolling out in the field or being cast in their
stall, especially during mud season.
His feet should be trimmed or shod every 6 weeks if you plan to
ride him. Make sure you have a reputable farrier that is professionally
trained and knows how to balance a horse's foot properly and not
follow trends. In moist climates take care of the foot by watching
for and treating thrush. In dry climates keep the foot well oiled
and moisturized to prevent cracking and shrinkage.
Your horse should be getting plenty of good quality grass hay
and a proper amount of low protein grain depending on his weight,
his metabolism and how hard he is working. He should always have
access to fresh water and mineral salt block. Supplements are
up to individual owners. I enjoy giving soy or rice bran oil as
a lubricant for a healthy coat. Otherwise I am very much a hay,
grain and water caregiver. Unless you know of a particular mineral
deficiency in your area keep feeding your horse simply. Older
horses and lactacting mares have special needs you should discuss
with your veterinarian.
Make sure you are always feeding your horses low and in a grazing
position. I have created a new indoor/outdoor hay feeder which
will be out on the market soon to encourage low, clean, aerated,
well drained feeding. Until this feeder comes out do not use hay
racks or hay feeders which are placed above the horse's shoulders.
He will get debris and dust in his sinuses, ears and eyes and
he will not be grabbing and chewing his food properly. Horses
were designed to always be eating from the ground, so take this
You should also be de-worming your horses every 8 weeks interchanging
a Strongid paste and an ivermectin product every few months.
Once you have these basics well in hand you can start focusing
on bringing your horse into work. Many people don't ride in the
winter and may be starting from several months of lay off, others
ride lightly through the winter and are looking to bump up their
program into the Spring.
Start by working with your horse in a round pen or enclosed area
situation where you can work on your communication skills with
your horse once again. He should be able to walk, trot and canter
quietly and safely around you equally in each direction. If he
wants to play a bit that is fine too, allow him to have fun and
express himself. Notice if he looks comfortable in movement and
if his whole body and muscles are moving in unison as he goes
around you. If you notice he is having difficulty stretching his
head down or if he is cocking his head to one side or the other
and doesn't want to stretch out and down straight ahead he may
have some pain or tightness issues going on in his muscles or
soft tissue. You will need to examine this yourself or have a
professional massage therapist or rolfer come in and give him
a therapeutic session. If he is having difficulty with soundness
or tightness in free work he certainly will be uncomfortable with
you and a saddle on him.
When a horse is in top condition they will be able to move quietly,
softly, forward with the ability to stretch their head and neck
out and down toward the ground in all gaits. They will appear
loose and free in all of their joints with all of their muscle
groups well toned and supple. His focus should be on his work
and on you and not constantly appearing as though he wants to
escape the environment. This is usually a sign of emotional trouble.
Emotional issues are another layer of understanding with horses.
When all else is good but you still are not getting a horse that
is happy and focused in his work, I look to his emotions and his
nervous system. At this point I will assess what I think the basis
of the problem is. Is it insecurity? pain? bad memories? Fears?
Misbehavior? Nervousness and tension? What is the missing piece?
I will then go to my Bach Flowers book and look up the symptoms
of what is going on with this particular horse and if need be,
discuss his past with his owner. Is there something going on in
his herd that I should know about? Maybe he is being intimidated
and beaten up by another horse and it is really affecting his
ego. I will also consult my essential oils charts and look for
help there too.
Once I have decided what the emotional issues may be, I concoct
a potion or simply go to my health food store and buy a potion
which is pre-made. If I decide to go with Bach Flower Essence
I will put a couple of drops under the horse's tongue before I
work him. If it's an oil I will put a tiny drop in each nostril.
I can also add some of the potion to his water daily. I will do
this treatment for 2 weeks consistently. And make note of the
differences I experience. After the two weeks I will take him
off of the potion and see what I've got. I have been pleasantly
amazed to see the differences the potions make. They are all natural
products, these are not drugs or doping in any way. They simply
provide the emotional balance needed. I will be making my own
oils and selling them through my website for both horse and rider
in a couple of months so stay tuned!
If your horse is blowing with extended nostrils after your initial
workouts you will know he needs some aerobic work in addition
to his ground work. If you have a swimming pool for horses nearby
this is an excellent way to give their lungs a good workout. Otherwise
start by taking long walks together either in hand or mounted.
After a week or so start adding in 5 minute trot sets and doing
20 minutes worth of mounted arena work. After a couple of weeks
add in trotting poles in your arena work and start asking him
to really lift his joints with you on his back. This will enocurage
him to stretch out and round his back with your weight added.
If you start all of this work now you will be into April with
a generally fit horse. If you plan to use your horse for trail
riding and pleasure a few times per week you can continue on this
program and he will stay in good shape. Perhaps adding in some
hills at least once per week will help him sustain good pelvic
and stifle health as well.
If you plan to compete your horse this is the time to bump everything
up a notch and commit to working your horse at least 4 days per
week. You will start adding in 45 minute arena workouts with trotting
poles and canter figure eights varrying the workout allowing your
horse to carry you in a stretched frame and in a slightly collected
frame off and on. He should be able to do all of this within a
45 minute time period without getting winded.
Once you have this established you can begin adding in your discipline
work such as jumping or lateral work or reining patterns or roping
or whatever job you will be asking of your horse. You will be
into the month of May by this time if all has gone as planned.
Your horse should be showing abdominal muscle tone and development
as well as muscle definition in his haunches and neck. The wither
area should be full and well muscled with the spine showing above
the muscles in the back.
Your horse's forearms and gaskins should be showing some muscle
development as well. The horse's coat should be fully shed out
if you have been grooming with a shedding blade, curry and a full
set of hard and soft brushes. His skin should be soft and bounce
back when you pinch it if he is properly hydrated.
If your horse is going on to higher level competition or racing
you will be working your horse at least 5 days per week and adding
in electroytes to his water and or feed. Make sure you are protecting
his tendons properly and giving him plenty of healthy riding support.
Remember the well conditioned horse always appears free, loose,
well toned and focused. Tightness, tension, heavy sweating, popping
veins and heavy breathing does not indicate a top conditioned
horse. Horses that are at the top of their game mentally, physically
and emotionally are able to settle into comfort even when they
are stressed to do a big job at high speed or with high difficulty.
This is where we have to be a good partner to ensure he achieves
at his work but with a good sense of well being to carry us for
many, many years.