How should you bring a horse back into work after time off?

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I recently saw a post on Facebook ranting about how quickly some professionals were bringing their horses back into work and what they were expecting from their first session. The post didn’t share many details on how long the horse had been out of work, just that their first session was jumping or flying changes. Needless to say, lots of people jumped on this post saying how awful this was and how they take a long time bringing their horses back into work. This got me thinking, how should you bring a horse back into work? And does it change depending on how much time they have had off and what they did before? 

How quickly do horses lose fitness? 

There are lots of different factors when considering a horse’s fitness. This is because when you are training a horse, you are training lots of different areas of their body. But typically when we talk about fitness we talk about cardiovascular fitness.  

Depending on how much work a horse was in before having a break, there will be a very small drop in cardiovascular fitness after a month off. They could, in theory carry on with the same level of work without a problem. However, as they have more time off the more fitness they will lose. 

If a horse has more than a month off, they also start to lose some of the muscle and skeleton “training” or conditioning, which takes longer to build up again than cardiovascular fitness. 

Holiday vs Injury 

It is also important to consider the fact that a horse having a holiday from work is very different to being off with an injury. A horse coming back from a holiday will likely be able to progress quicker returning to work than a horse that has been off with an injury. 

Professional Yard Routine 

The post I saw was calling out professional riders in particular for bringing horses back into work too soon after having time off. But one thing they are probably are overlooking is how rest for horses on these yards is very different to the rest of a typical riding horse.  On many top yards they go on the horse walker every day or will have a few sessions on the horse walker before coming back into ridden work.  

How should you introduce a horse back into work? 

How you bring a horse back into work largely depends: 

  • Why were they off work? 
  • How long the horse has been off work? 
  • What level of work they were in before time off? 

Why were they off work? 

As previous mentioned, if the horse was off with an injury, you will probably get rehab advice from your vet. But if they have just had a holiday, then answering the next questions will help you decide how best to bring your horse back into work. 

How long have they been off work? 

If they have only had a short amount of time off, 1-2 weeks, you can probably get back on and carry on as usual without having to worry too much. The longer they have off, the longer you should take it easy on them for. If a horse has been off for 6 months or longer, you will want to do a lot of walking and focus on the basics before asking more of them. 

What level of work were they in before?  

Another consideration is what level of work they were in before they had time off and if this is similar to what they will be doing now. For example, a racehorse in racing condition will still be fairly fit after a month off. But if they have retired from racing and will be coming back into work as a dressage horse, they will need more time to slowly build the correct muscle. Whereas a horse what is in light work, maybe schooling twice and week and a hack once a week, can probably return to the same level of work quite quickly after a month off. 

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