It may still be winter, but spring – and the eventing season – is just round the corner, which means only one thing for our blogger Hazel Towers… Time to get fit!
“Getting horses fit for spring events when everywhere is knee deep in sloppy mud, or frozen solid with ice, is one of the least fun parts of eventing.
I am currently having a dilemma as to HOW I shall get my two mares ready for Advanced/3* by March/April… Everyone has different ways and means, but fundamentally facilities and time play a big factor in the methods we choose to use.
For me fittening work begins on the first of December. I usually let them down in October (as I don’t like to just drop fit horses, they need to wind down mentally and physically before a holiday), then November is chill time. If the weather is good and the ground is still dry enough, as it was this year, they go out together for as long as possible every day.
Then the tough work begins, luckily for me only giving them a few weeks’ holiday doesn’t mean they lose all fitness and makes bringing them back in slightly less tiresome.
I start with a couple of weeks of hacking to harden them back up and wake up the muscles again without overdoing it. This is usually for 20/30 minutes a time, slowly introducing the trot and building up from there. This is usually the least safe time with mine as its often cold, windy and wet by now, they are back inside and they are all a bit bonkers as they want to go competing again!
Then it’s on with the schooling work and introducing jumps up to about week 4-6. At week six, fast work needs to begin – which is where it gets a little more tricky.
The lovely grass gallops I was kindly lent last year by a friend in return for wine – (a blooming great deal) have been dug up for local housing – which I feel is very selfish of North Yorkshire County Council! So now I face the difficult decision of where to go/what to do.
There are several ways to help with getting horses fit in the middle of winter:
Treadmills – Fantastic, but very expensive. If money was no object I would install a water treadmill in the barn and use it daily for all the horses as part of their program, problem solved.
Horse walkers: Really good for hardening the legs, warming up/cooling down. I don’t think (on a large enough walker) they can do too much of this work. I have had my reservations in the past – I still think that deep surfaces and too much with youngsters can be detrimental – but you never see a horse napping going to the walker, they seem to enjoy going around and around in circles, looking at the same things, sniffing the one in front’s bum! This is also mimicking in a lot of ways what nature intended for horses, which was that they are always on the move! I am currently working on my dad and hopefully with a bit more nagging we should be able to justify getting a horse walker – but for next winter, which doesn’t help with this season’s dilemma!
The beach – A fantastic way of hardening legs, getting their stamina up, giving them a pipe opener and letting them have some fun! I adore cantering along (only ever on the harder sand) just on the water’s edge, as long as there isn’t too much splash back. Also you can’t beat salt water on lower limbs for healing properties. I usually try go to Redcar at least once in the spring, the horses love it, but it is a good 2hr drive to get there and so it takes up a whole day once you’ve galloped/cooled off/washed off and of course cleaned tack afterwards!
Swimming: Again a fabulous way of improving cardiovascular and muscular development, but doesn’t help with hardening the legs so it’s important not to relay on this solely. I have used swimming quite a lot with one of my mares, who needed to maintain work last season without hammering her legs, she loves it and I have noticed for her it works. My other horse went in a pool once and is certain she won’t do anything so stupid ever again, it wasn’t for her and so I am not going to make her do something she doesn’t feel comfortable doing, it’s not really natural and it’s not worth frightening her. However unhelpful this may be!
Gallops – Every event rider’s dream is surely to have a mile or so loop (with a slight hill) covered in a beautiful rubber surface, which doesn’t get deep or frozen. You can go round and round to you and your ponies’ heart’s content! In reality they are all miles away (90min minimum from me) and are not cheap when you add up how much for 3 horses once or twice a week for 6 weeks. The money I can about justify, but taking a full day to do it is neither practical or realistic when you work full time. So again – unless there is a lottery win involved this option is also flawed.
I use a combination of the above, I try hack two times a week minimum, school twice a week, jump once and do some fast work once/twice a week, and they all have one day a week off, the younger horses have 2 or 3 depending on what suits them best. Some days, if I can, I will mix it up, school and then go for a hack, or jump then do some fast work (depending where I am) to keep the work varied and interesting. I try get them out at least once a week and when our arena is unusable (which is a lot in winter with it freezing so easily) I have to travel to borrow an indoor school just so they get worked.
But right now I am trying to work my diary out so that I can find the time to drive to use some decent gallops (during daylight hours as I don’t fancy it in a head torch) whilst praying for a lottery win or some lovely person to buy me a water treadmill or rubber gallops at least!
It’s never going to be easy getting horses fit for early season runs, but everyone is in the same boat (literally – our fields are like a lake). It’s part of the game and it’s what I call character building!”