Be­fore the rid­ing and show­ing sched­ule heats up, use this five-point check­list to make sure you and your horse will be ready to go.

EQUUS - - Front Page - By Dee McVicker and Christine Barakat

At this time of year, even in the north­ern­most climes, green shoots are at last pok­ing through the soil in pas­tures and robins can be seen flit­ting down fence lines. But at many barns there’s an­other sure sign of spring: rid­ers pulling tack out of stor­age and re­stock­ing their groom­ing kits in ea­ger an­tic­i­pa­tion of the first big trail ride, show or clinic of the sea­son.

Those de­but out­ings can be a lit­tle rough, though. Horses who are oth­er­wise sen­si­ble and se­date may jig and bolt. Oth­ers lag be­hind the group, too winded to keep up. One horse may be ten­der footed and an­other so ro­tund af­ter a lazy win­ter that his sad­dle no longer fits. And then there are the prac­ti­cal­i­ties to con­tend with: leaky buck­ets, flat tires and cru­cial travel pa­per­work that some­how got mis­placed.

Of course, you’ll be able to mud­dle through, but wouldn’t it be nice to skip false starts and frus­tra­tions as you get ready for peak rid­ing and show­ing sea­son? There are no guar­an­tees, of course, but with a lit­tle plan­ning and prepa­ra­tion, you can keep un­pleas­ant sur­prises to a min­i­mum as you get your horse ready for your first ma­jor event of the year. To help you, here’s a ba­sic pre­sea­son check­list---start with th­ese ar­eas and add your own based on your goals and your horse’s needs.


Any horse about to head back to work af­ter sev­eral months of rel­a­tive ease will ben­e­fit from a visit from the vet­eri­nar­ian. Not only will a spring checkup take care of rou­tine health-care is­sues, but it can un­cover de­vel­op­ing prob­lems that might worsen later in the sea­son.

You may also want to re­quest a brief lame­ness exam. A vet­eri­nar­ian may de­tect mild joint sore­ness, the slight thick­en­ing of a ten­don or other sub­tle signs of trou­ble that are best ad­dressed early. If any­thing sus­pi­cious ap­pears, ask your vet­eri­nar­ian whether this would also be a good time to take ra­dio­graphs to look for any changes in chronic or­tho­pe­dic con­di­tions and to es­tab­lish a new base­line for com­par­i­son in sub­se­quent ex­ams.

This visit is also the time for spring vac­cines, giv­ing your horse’s im­mune sys­tem a chance to arm it­self be­fore in­sects are out in full force and your horse be­gins trav­el­ing. Which ones your horse needs de­pends on his age, your geo­graphic lo­ca­tion and your plans for the year. Im­mu­niza­tions against ra­bies0, tetanus0, West0 Nile virus and east­ern0 and west­ern0 equine en­cephali­tis---the

“core vac­cines”---are rec­om­mended for all horses, but your vet­eri­nar­ian may sug­gest ad­di­tional shots to pro­tect against stran­gles, in­fluenza or other dis­eases based on your horse’s par­tic­u­lar risk.

If your plans in­clude trav­el­ing to shows, clin­ics or other or­ga­nized events, you’ll want your vet­eri­nar­ian to pull blood for a Cog­gins0 test and pre­pare other nec­es­sary health pa­per­work that such venues gen­er­ally re­quire. Look into what you’ll need well in ad­vance---some shows and other venues have new re­quire­ments that in­clude spe­cific vac­ci­na­tions. Make mul­ti­ple copies of th­ese right away. Keep one set in your truck and an­other in your tack box to in­crease the odds of be­ing able to find a set when you need them. Keep the orig­i­nals in the house for safe­keep­ing.


Weight gain and loss can be easy to over­look un­der win­ter blan­kets and heavy hair coats. Weight changes af­fect ev­ery­thing from sad­dle fit to sys­temic health, so you’ll want to get a clear idea of your horse’s sta­tus and de­cide how you’ll man­age it well be­fore your first com­pe­ti­tion, event or ma­jor trail out­ing.

Get a lit­eral “feel” for how much body fat your horse is car­ry­ing with a vig­or­ous groom­ing ses­sion us­ing a curry and your hands. Con­sult a body0 con­di­tion score chart if you’re un­sure of the mean­ing of de­posits over var­i­ous anatom­i­cal points. A tar­get score for most horses is be­tween 5 and 6.

Also pay at­ten­tion when you tack up. Weight loss or changes in mus­cle tone can cause the sad­dle to bridge across the back or pinch his withers. Even if it fit per­fectly fine last fall, as­sess your horse’s tack as if it were brand new and be pre­pared to make ac­com­mo­da­tions un­til his body con­di­tion nor­mal­izes: Of­ten, you can “shim” with pock­ets of pad­ding or use a sway­back pad that will raise the sad­dle up off the back un­til your horse re­turns to his usual fit­ness level. If your horse has gained con­sid­er­able weight, you may have to tem­po­rar­ily sub­sti­tute an­other sad­dle that has a wider tree.

You may also be tempted to make im­me­di­ate ad­just­ments to your horse’s diet. But be mind­ful of how his life­style and en­vi­ron­ment may be chang­ing in the com­ing months. For in­stance, pounds may melt away as a horse’s work­load in­creases even if you don’t re­duce his grain ra­tion. And a re­turn of spring pas­tures may help a lean horse fill out in the com­ing weeks. Talk to your vet­eri­nar­ian be­fore mak­ing any nu­tri­tional ad­just­ments (that first ve­teri­nary checkup is a good time to have the con­ver­sa­tion) and then im­ple­ment any rec­om­mended changes slowly.

If your horse has a his­tory or risk of arthri­tis, look into the ben­e­fit of start­ing a joint sup­ple­ment while you are con­sid­er­ing diet and nu­tri­tion. A “load­ing” dose of a sup­ple­ment you are cur­rently giv­ing may also be ap­pro­pri­ate in the weeks lead­ing up to a re­turn to work, but don’t make any such ad­just­ments with­out speak­ing to your vet­eri­nar­ian first.

If you plan to travel to shows, clin­ics or other or­ga­nized events, you’ll want your vet­eri­nar­ian to pull blood for a Cog­gins test and pre­pare other nec­es­sary health pa­per­work that such venues gen­er­ally re­quire. A tar­get body con­di­tion score for most horses is be­tween 5 and 6, but keep in mind this isn’t a mea­sure of fit­ness but sim­ply body fat.


How much con­di­tion­ing your horse will need to re­turn to peak form de­pends on his pre­vi­ous level of fit­ness, how he spent his down­time and your per­for­mance goals for the sea­son. If he has been turned out all win­ter long in an ac­tive herd with space to run he may have re­tained some of his fit­ness. You can get back into a regular rid­ing rou­tine with such a horse much more quickly than you can with one who spent most of his win­ter days con­fined to a stall. The nat­u­ral ex­er­cise of pas­ture living, how­ever, won’t pre­pare a horse for the col­lec­tion, bend­ing, lat­eral flex­ion or men­tal fo­cus that may be re­quired of him in a dis­ci­pline-spe­cific event.

No mat­ter your sport or dis­ci­pline, re­con­di­tion­ing starts with slow work---walk­ing and jog­ging. On your first ride, limit your time in the sad­dle to less than an hour at this slow speed. Then, over the course of sev­eral weeks, in­crease the speed or dis­tance of your rides, but never both at the same time. Pay at­ten­tion to your horse’s level of fa­tigue. You’ll need to push him a bit to in­crease his fit­ness, but be care­ful to avoid ex­haust­ing him. A re­turn to fit­ness will stall if a horse needs weeks or months off to re­cover from an in­jury.

A heart rate mon­i­tor can help you keep track of your horse’s in­creas­ing fit­ness: A well-con­di­tioned horse’s heart rate will usu­ally re­turn to be­low 60 beats per minute within 10 or 15 min­utes of stop­ping ex­er­cise. But re­mem­ber that it’s not just car­dio­vas­cu­lar fit­ness that mat­ters. Your horse’s ten­dons, bones and lig­a­ments need time to adapt to the de­mands of work as well.

Be sure to add in re­cov­ery days to your fit­ness reg­i­men. A horse’s body will rebuild stressed struc­tures dur­ing down­time, which leads to the in­creased strength you’re aim­ing for. You’ll need to work a horse at least four times a week to im­prove his fit­ness, but at least two very easy rides or com­pletely off days in the pas­ture are equally im­por­tant.

Af­ter a few weeks of foun­da­tion work, you can add in dis­ci­pline-spe­cific skill work, such as jump­ing, spins or stops. Avoid repet­i­tive drills. Not only do they stress a horse phys­i­cally, but they can cause him to burn out men­tally be­fore you even hit the show cir­cuit. Chang­ing up your daily rou­tine not only keeps a horse emo­tion­ally “fresh” but chal­lenges var­i­ous part of his body phys­i­cally.


Whether your first big event of spring is a clinic, show or or­ga­nized trail ride, chances are you’ll need to trailer to the lo­ca­tion. Don’t wait un­til the day be­fore to give your rig a once-over, though. An un­safe or un­us­able trailer will make all your horse-spe­cific prepa­ra­tions for naught.

If you’re not me­chan­i­cally savvy, you may want a me­chanic to take a look at your trailer if it has been parked all win­ter. If you’re com­fort­able do­ing the in­spec­tion your­self, how­ever, you can work through the ve­hi­cle

The nat­u­ral ex­er­cise of pas­ture living won’t pre­pare a horse for the col­lec­tion, bend­ing, lat­eral flex­ion or men­tal fo­cus that may be re­quired of him in a dis­ci­pline­spe­cific event.

on your own, look­ing for trou­ble spots.

Start by en­sur­ing the hitch is still easy to op­er­ate and that the welds that at­tach it to the trailer look solid. Any cracks are a se­ri­ous con­cern and need to be ad­dressed be­fore you do any trans­port. Next, walk around the trailer to check the tires. Dry rot may have set in over the win­ter. You’ll rec­og­nize it by tiny cracks in the rub­ber. Tires with dry rot need to be re­placed, as do any with treads worn down to less than a quar­ter-inch deep. If the tires ap­pear to be in good shape, make sure they are in­flated to the cor­rect PSI, which should be listed on the side­wall.

In­spect the ramp, mak­ing sure it’s easy to raise and lower and is ex­tremely steady un­der­foot. Look for cor­ro­sion in the springs and hinges. Sim­i­larly, swing all doors and win­dows to see whether they move eas­ily.

Make sure the floors are solid. Ma­nure and urine left over win­ter can cause wood floors to rot and metal to rust. Use a screw­driver to check the in­tegrity of both types of floor; if the tip goes into the ma­te­rial, it needs to be re­placed. With a friend’s help, test the brake lights and turn sig­nals. Then check that your trailer break­away line is se­cure and works so that should your trailer sep­a­rate from your truck while on the road, your trailer will safely come to a stop.

Fi­nally, make sure your horse still loads will­ingly. If he was a hes­i­tant loader be­fore his win­ter break, he may have fallen into bad habits. But even a sea­soned trav­eler could do well with a re­minder ses­sion be­fore you’re run­ning late on the morn­ing of an event.

If you trailer long dis­tances or fre­quently, ask your vet­eri­nar­ian about your horse’s risk of gas­tric ul­cers and whether he may need med­i­ca­tion on trai­ler­ing days.


Spend an af­ter­noon go­ing through and in­spect­ing your gear, from tack to buck­ets to sheets to groom­ing tools. Even if you think it was in good shape when you stowed it last fall, you may not have no­ticed early signs of fail­ure, or its

con­di­tion may have de­te­ri­o­rated over the past few months.

Lay out your horse’s sum­mer wardrobe over a fence line. This airs the items out while giv­ing you a chance to no­tice any signs of ro­dents who over­win­tered in their depths. Check sheets, sad­dle pads, trav­el­ing boots and other such gar­ments. Wash any that seem less than clean and make ar­range­ments to re­pair and re­place items as nec­es­sary.

Do the same with your groom­ing tools. Lay them out, clean them up and repack your box with the com­ing ac­tiv­i­ties in mind. Now’s also a good time to or­der fly spray so you’re not caught with­out it on the first buggy day of the year. Then check sea­son-spe­cific equip­ment that may have gone un­used over the win­ter. The wa­ter con­tain­ers you keep in the trailer, for in­stance, may

If the tires ap­pear to be in good shape, make sure they are in­flated to the cor­rect PSI, which should be listed on

the side­wall.

It’s es­pe­cially im­por­tant to scru­ti­nize tack closely. A fail­ure of a stir­rup or girth can be danger­ous.

have cracked in the cold. You’ll want to know that now, not when you’re load­ing up to hit the road.

It’s es­pe­cially im­por­tant to scru­ti­nize tack closely. A fail­ure of a stir­rup or girth can be danger­ous. Check ev­ery spot where leather meets metal; tack of­ten fails at th­ese stress points. Any crack­ing or tear­ing is cause for re­place­ment. Tug, wig­gle and pull all hard­ware, look­ing for signs of in­se­cu­rity or weak­ness. Also in­spect stitch­ing and lac­ing, which is typ­i­cally an easy-enough re­pair, as­sum­ing the leather it­self is still in good con­di­tion.

The adage, “If you fail to plan you plan to fail,” might seem a lit­tle over­wrought when talk­ing about a re­turn to rid­ing this spring, but there’s cer­tainly some truth to the ad­mo­ni­tion. An easy tran­si­tion from idle to ac­tive with your horse in­volves many steps, vari­ables and op­por­tu­ni­ties for things to go amiss, so the sooner you can start, the more time you’ll have to reach your goal. Then, when you en­ter the ring or head down the trails, those weeks for prepa­ra­tion will pay off.

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