The New Year symbolizes a fresh start; the turning of a leaf in all areas of our lives. Getting into better physical shape after the holidays is probably the most common resolution out there, with many gyms getting stormed with new members in January. The same is true for equestrians; while we may be storming the gym, we also may be ‘storming’ the barn by wanting to metaphorically whip our horses back into the summer shape where we left off.
While we are acutely aware of how our bodies handle new and different physical stressors, I notice that there can be a gap in understanding the physical demands of horses being put back to work after seasonal time off. You wouldn’t head into the gym and start lifting the heaviest weights or running long distances, or trying to do more advanced yoga moves right off the bat. You know that you’d be risking personal injury by attempting to achieve your end fitness goals right away. The same is true for our animals. Denny Emerson, a top eventing trainer at Tamarack Hill Farms states, “Many horses, though, are not particularly fit. It is easy to assume that a big, strong, fast animal like a horse just sort of automatically “comes” fit, because even at their least well conditioned, horses are still so much stronger and faster than humans. This leads humans to just climb aboard and go trot, canter, gallop, jump, have a “joy ride” that is far from joyous for the panting, struggling unfit horse.”
As an animal chiropractor, I’m interested in injury prevention, and proper form and functionality. Without consistent work, muscles weaken and lose their tone rapidly, and it takes time to re-build muscle patterns again. Believe it or not, the best way to get your horses back into shape is to walk. Yep, you read that right, walking. It’s low impact, which is great for getting muscles and joints back into work slowly and without undue strain. Emerson states, “So, to safely build up a horse’s various systems, respiratory, cardio-vascular, muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, hooves, the safest way is the slower way. Walk your horse into some base level of fitness first. This probably doesn’t mean “strolling.” It means getting the horse to stride along in a “get home in time for supper” active walk. An hour walk like that is a good, solid workout.”
Walking is also a four-beat gait, just like a canter or lope, which means that your horse is driving off each hind leg individually which is good for developing muscles evenly. No matter your riding discipline, taking extra time to walk, even if it’s a longer warm up and cool down while bringing your horse back into shape will go a long way. As one of my mentors says, “you’ve got to go slow before you go fast.”
Taking the time to slowly and consistently get your horse back into shape after time off is essential for injury prevention and preparation for your desired equine fitness program. A final quote from Emerson assures, “There is an old trail riding maxim—“It is hard to hurt a horse at the walk.” Yes, a horse can get a saddle sore or girth rub or stone bruise at the walk, but those more serious soundness issues, tears, sprains, impact injuries, are more likely related to speeds faster than a walking pace.”
When you’re ready to get back to work, chiropractic care is also a great way to set you and your horse up for success while getting back into a riding program.
Here’s to lots of riding, and healthy, happy, fit horses!