Burning Off the Fresh

If your horse has gone unridden due to a variety of reasons, a thoughtful process can keep everyone safe during his return to work.

Your horse’s work schedule can be disrupted for many reasons. A lameness or health problem can lead to a long hiatus before he’s ready to head back to the arena or hit the trail. Weather can keep you out of the saddle for long periods of time. Your own work and family schedule might prevent you from riding for days in a row.

Whatever the case, when your horse returns to his job, he’ll likely have pent-up energy that might make you uncomfortable—or even fearful. His fresh attitude might worry you that he’ll buck you off, bolt, rear, or do a prancy dance. Your concern is valid, and that’s why you should approach your horse’s return to work with a plan of action. Here, I’ll outline the steps I suggest amateur riders use to get back in the saddle after their horse has been laid off.

Turning your horse out in a smaller enclosure before putting him in a large arena or pasture is a great way to reduce the risk of injury for a horse that has a lot of energy and wants to play hard. Photo by Kirsten Ziegler

Do a Feed Check

While your horse is out of work, consider taking him off the high-energy feed and opt for a simpler diet of more grass hay and less alfalfa. This can help tame his excess energy by not providing the fuel in the first place. Keep in mind that you should never abruptly change a horse’s diet, or he could experience colic. Additionally, if your horse is on hiatus for a health or soundness issue, speak with your veterinarian about advised dietary changes.

Provide Turn-Out Time

If your horse is sound enough for you to consider riding him, he’s definitely sound enough to turn out. Whether the time off is due to a veterinary layoff or your schedule, consider using turnout as a way to let him self-exercise. His ability to run, buck, and play can help burn off some of that extra energy that could get you in trouble under saddle. If he’s overcoming an injury or health concern, be sure to run it by your vet before you turn your horse loose. 

If he’s really raring to go, consider turning out your horse in a round pen or smaller enclosure before letting him loose in a big pasture or large arena. A more confined area can help keep him from being silly enough to injure himself.

Gather Up the Longe Line

With your vet’s permission, let your horse work out some energy on the longe line. I like a longe line because I can pull on it to slow down my horse if he gets too rambunctious or gets too fired up. You can longe in a round pen or in a larger space. Sometimes a big arena is better because your horse can travel on a larger circle. Small circles can create or exacerbate existing lower-leg problems that’ll keep you out of the saddle even longer. If you’ve ground-driven your horse, this can also be a great option with a similar result.

Key tip: When you longe or ground-drive, tack up your horse. Get him reaccustomed to the cinches being against his belly. You don’t want him to break in two when you step on because it’s his first reminder that the back cinch is there.

Be Ready for the Buck

Even with careful preparation and plenty of time to work it out on his own, when you step into the saddle for the first time after a layoff, you should be ready for the chance that he’ll buck or have extra energy. He might not hold his rodeo tryout as soon as you sit in the saddle; he might wait until you’re casually jogging down the pen. 

More than likely, you’ll be able to feel it when your horse is thinking about bucking. Be aware when a hump starts to form in his back, and urge him forward. If a horse is going forward, it removes the opportunity to go up—whether to buck or rear. Forward motion is always better and safer than holding on tight and bracing for the worst. 

Pay attention to your horse’s reactions when you’re in the saddle so you know exactly what he needs and how he’s feeling. Photo by Kirsten Ziegler

Enlist Help

Assistance in burning off energy can come in a couple forms. Both are options if you just don’t feel safe in the saddle.

Ponying your horse—whether while you ride another horse and do the ponying or while someone else does the ponying—can burn off a lot of energy and closely mimics how things will be with you in the saddle. Just as with longeing, saddle your horse to replicate riding as much as possible. Whether it’s you or a friend doing the ponying, be sure the horse and rider in charge know what they’re doing and are experienced with ponying another horse.

You could also try a calming supplement to bring your horse down a notch before his first ride (or even before his first turnout). Speak with your veterinarian about natural options that can take the edge off without making the horse unsafe to ride.

Sometimes you’re just not physically or mentally able to jump on and ride a fresh horse the way he needs. Put your own safety first. If you board your horse, ask a trainer or another experienced rider if you can hire them to put a few wet blankets on your horse before you get on. If you don’t feel comfortable riding, don’t put yourself in jeopardy. It might cost you a few dollars to hire someone, but it could save you a broken leg if you’re not a skilled enough rider to take on this task.

Listen to Your Horse

You should know your horse well enough that you can recognize what he needs, what approach is best, and what will keep you both safe. Notice his demeanor when you’re on the ground with him and in the saddle. Pay attention to his reactions—are they sharp and quick or quiet and slow? And weigh that against what’s normal for him.

As you ease him back to work, follow your vet’s instructions for duration of rides and level of exertion. Even if he’s not coming back from an injury, take your time to return him to fitness to avoid injury.

[Hear more from Al Dunning about problem solving]

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