The season, such as it has been, is drawing to a close and for any horse owner and rider it can be a tricky time to manage. The days are shorter, the weather colder (and often wet!) and with no goals to actively aim for, it is difficult to keep motivation going. With a bit of planning and care, taking into consideration what particular needs you and your horse have, these winter months can help you prepare to come out better and brighter next season, which we all hope will be more settled and sustained than 2020 has been.
Whether you decide to give your horse some proper time off will depend a lot on the resources you have available to you, a little on the discipline you ride, and some on the level you are training and competing at. Eventers are probably the most likely to do this. We’ve come a long way from the days of old when we’d come home from our last event of the season, remove the rugs and shoes, and throw the horses out in the back field until 8 weeks before the first start of the following season, but still many will benefit from a month or two really switching off.
If you do decide to turn them out, it is important that you ease them out of work slowly, spending a couple of weeks light schooling and hacking before you turn them away properly. Horses should be turned out in company if possible, making sure that they have shelter, are appropriately covered for the season, and have access to good forage. Grass simply doesn’t provide the same nutrients in the winter, so don’t be fooled by a green field – they’ll need hay and supplementary feeding, to ensure that they are still getting the nourishment they need.
Most horses will stay in some kind of work. Very few of us have access to good winter turnout fields for a start, but also the winter is a perfect time to work on the skills that need improving. Whether it is an area that wasn’t quite as good as you’d hoped this year, or you are looking to move up a level or grade next season, taking the time out to consolidate can pay huge dividends. Don’t think that you need to be showing every weekend to progress! So often you’ll see the eventers hitting the winter dressage and showjumping shows with a vengeance. Sure, if you need practice jumping full courses or keeping their cool in the white boards, a few quiet days can help, but you’ll be far better off perfecting your serpentines or riding related distances in the arena at home or in training with your coach. Not having shows to go to for a couple of months can be good for the soul, too, as the pressure comes off.
Most dressage horses stay in work for the winter as many riders are concerned about losing condition or muscle development. Rest assured, every top athlete needs rest as much as training. If you can’t turn them away entirely, then at least take a week or two every few months where you don’t school, preferably riding them outside of the arena for a change of scenery. It will do wonders for their brain and their bodies. Likewise with the show jumpers – just because there is a show every week in all the wonderful indoor venues we have access to, doesn’t mean you need to enter. Do some grid work or some conditioning work instead.
While we are on the subject of rest, don’t under estimate how much strain a season of competing will have on your horse physically. It is really important that they have the time to recover physically. Take the time to really work out the kinks – get your favourite body worker in to treat your team, let the farrier make any changes to the balance of the shoes that they need to, schedule any minor procedures that they may need and have your vet come in and do a full MOT with any maintenance treatment that they suggest.
And don’t forget your favourite joint supplement! The downtime is the most critical time for repair, and you really must be providing them with the nutritional support that they need as this happens. The last thing you want to be doing is stressing their systems at this time.
Enjoy the winter, take stock, celebrate overcoming the many challenges of 2020 and start getting ready to make 2021 the best it can be, now.
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