The best way to say thank you to your horse, and to help make sure he’s ready to go the next time you want to ride, is to develop a post-ride ritual that you follow faithfully. Follow these 11 steps, whether your ride is long or short.
Step 1. Walk your horse. Step one actually begins before you get back to the barn. Always walk for at least the last 10 minutes of your ride. Let your horse relax and begin to cool down during this period.
Use the time to pay close attention to how your horse is walking. Are you swaying rhythmically in the saddle, or can you feel some unevenness or jerking?
Listen to the sound of your horse’s hooves hitting the ground. There should be an even footfall pattern, and no difference in the sound each hoof makes.
If you can feel or hear any unevenness, your horse is likely sore somewhere. If he doesn’t relax and lower his neck, that can be another clue to soreness, either in the back or the front legs.
If you notice any of these things, or if your horse is breathing and/or sweating very heavily, dismount, and walk your horse back to the barn.
Step 2. Loosen the cinch. Back at the barn, dismount, and loosen the cinch or girth right away, so your horse can breathe more easily.
Step 3. Remove the tack. Remove the saddle and bridle, and check for any rubs or sores.
Step 4. Observe your horse. Observe your horse’s general attitude. Is he alert and interested, or does he look dull and depressed? Is his breathing almost back to normal, or is he still blowing?
If your horse doesn’t seem to be recovering quickly, you may’ve overdone it, or he may be hurting somewhere. Is he standing square on all four legs, or is he preferentially resting a hind leg or keeping a front leg further out in front or behind than normal? Make a mental note of which leg if you notice this.
Step 5. Offer water. Apply a cooler if the weather is cold or cool and breezy, and offer your horse water lukewarm water. Studies have found that horses drink more when offered water that is close to body temperature. It’s a myth that allowing a horse to drink all he wants after working will cause colic or founder. But rapid drinking of large amounts can make the horse feel uncomfortable for a few minutes until the stomach empties.
If you feel uneasy about letting your horse drink down large amounts at one time, just ask him to raise his head for a minute or two. That will allow the water to pass on into the intestines. Then let him take his fill.
Step 6. Hose him down. If it’s hot, hose your horse down. Hosing down feet and legs not only feels good, it’s therapeutic. Weather permitting, a bath to remove dirt and sweat will make your horse more comfortable before you turn him out.
Step 7. Feel his legs. Run your hands down all four legs, feeling for any obvious cuts, swellings or areas of increased heat. Compare the temperature of all your horse’s hooves to see if there are any obvious differences.
Step 8. Pick out his hooves. Pick out your horse’s feet to check for trapped stones, or damage to the frog or sole. If he has shoes, make sure they are still on securely.
Step 9. Observe the walk. Now that your horse has been standing still for a while, walk him off, and again pay close attention to how he is walking and carrying his head and neck. A horse that has pulled or strained himself somewhere will often stiffen up enough in those few minutes of standing that it’s easier to see that there’s a problem.
If your horse is still breathing more rapidly than normal, walk him slowly until this normalizes. Walking helps the muscles clear accumulated by-products of exercise so that they can circulate to the other tissues for processing.
Step 10. Put him up. When your horse’s breathing has normalized and his temperature feels normal to your touch, you can put him up. It’s fine to let him eat hay or grass at this point, but make sure you’re at least 45 to 60 minutes from the end of exercise before you feed grain.
After a hard workout, you might be tempted to put your horse in a deeply bedded stall for a nice rest. But turnout is actually better, weather permitting, because he’ll be free to move around and less likely to show any “day-after” stiffness.
Step 11. Pay attention. Finally, if you’ve had a long or hard ride, pay close attention to your horse for the next two to three days. Muscle, tendon, or ligament sprains and strains often take that long to become really obvious. Take a few minutes for those first few days after a ride to watch how he’s moving, and run your hands down all four legs and over the feet.
Special Leg Care
A little prevention can go a long way. If your horse has a leg with prior injuries or joint trouble, tends to get sore feet, or you know you will be working the horse fairly hard on a certain day, one of the best investments you can make is ice boots.
Routine icing of the front legs after hard workouts can squelch minor inflammatory problems, including flare ups of problem areas, before they have a chance to get out of hand.
Ice boots applied to the lower legs also cool the feet, since the arteries in the lower leg are very close to the surface. You can even get special ice boots designed for use on the knees or hocks if you need them.
Apply the boots as soon as you can after working your horse, and leave them in place for 30 to 60 minutes. When you take off the ice boots, check his legs carefully for signs of elevated temperature. It’ll be easy to feel if an area is carrying more heat when the ice comes off.
Routine bandaging of legs, even after a hard workout, really isn’t necessary, and it has some drawbacks. The pressure from a leg bandage can prevent edema from forming in problem areas, which means the leg may look fine but really isn’t.
An exception can be old tendon/ligament injuries that you know from past experience may act up a bit after a certain level of work.
In that case, if you’re basically assuming there’s probably been some strain and are planning to give your horse a few days of rest to recuperate, a brisk five-minute massage with a good liniment (make sure it’s okay to use under wraps), followed by bandaging, can help prevent excessive stiffness.
Even without bandaging, a good, brisk liniment rub after work will also benefit horses with known knee, hock, or stifle problems.
Eleanor M. Kellon, VMD (www.drkellon.com), is a Staff Veterinarian for Uckele Health and Nutrition, Inc., and is the owner of Equine Nutritional Solutions, a nutritional consulting firm. An Honors Graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School, Dr. Kellon completed her internship and residency in Large Animal Medicine and Surgery at the renowned University of Pennsylvania New Bolton Center. Her book, Horse Journal Guide to Equine Supplements and Nutraceuticals, is available on HorseBooksEtc.com.