If you’re like me, and I hope you’re not, then you struggle to keep your horse in shape while also dealing with real life. Thanks to this my mare seems to sit for a couple of months and then I have to bring her back into work and get her fit again. My situation is, perhaps, a bit easier than others though thanks to my mare herself. Bella manages to stay in pretty decent shape even while out of work. She’s turned out 24/7 in a large pasture, gentle slopes, and two buddies. I’ve been told a couple of times that she’s known to gallop around (leading the boys) and really just seems to enjoy stretching her legs (not hard to believe since she throws a show every five-ish weeks). What’s also awesome about Bella is that she has always packed on muscle quickly and stepped right into a solid amount of endurance under saddle. I’m not sure why, the Quarter Horse? The Paint? The Thoroughbred? She’s magical? Whatever, I’m done asking questions.
Every time that I have to get her back into shape I follow the same general plan, depending on how long it’s been.
1/2 months out of work: I usually just climb back on and start with trot sets. Particularly since I’m known for riding her lightly once a week or every two weeks during these times. Once we’re solid at the trot sets I add back in light canter work aiming for her to be relaxed and stretching down before we step into anything harder.
2/3 months out of work: I’ll usually lunge 2/3 times (with tack, not looking for too much out of her on the line) and start with hacking her on trails, light trot work, and slowly bringing her into steady trot-sets. Always looking for her to start holding her frame consistently before we move into a canter.
3/4 months out of work: Lunge work without tack, adding in tack and looking for her to offer to stretch down and/or frame up for me. If she’s really struggling then we’ll lunge with some sort of system to help her frame up before I do to much with her. While we’re doing that I might climb on a time or two just to walk her around but it’s usually bareback in a halter (I’m a lucky gal to have her be so trustworthy, I know). Once she’s consistent on the line I actually get back on.
I mentioned it a couple of times in each step but in case you missed it, there are certain things I look for before jumping into something more. I need her to look, and act, like she’s ready for something more. My goal is to have her last as long as possible. This is a horse I want to be able to hack lightly into her mid-twenties. Avoiding injuries and not wearing her out are definitely a primary focus for me. So here’s the breakdown:
- Back to Lunging: I want her stretching down, moving through the transitions easily and maintaining control over her own body (no slipping, no dramatic speed changes on slight slopes, maintaining head carriage and/or dropping her head since she’s got a higher head set). Bella has always been much easier to speed up than slow down (some horses actually do prefer not to gallop around right?) and because of that, I really look for her to respond to what I want not just what she thinks will get her out of work soon enough. If that means she runs herself silly on the line for a day or two until she remembers how to be polite, so be it.
- Back to walking u/s: Here, again, some leeway to her on headset and even on her attitude. She’s typically full of energy which means that I’m looking for her to simply behave. Not for her to be framed up, completely focused, or anything like that. My first few rides are typically bareback in a halter (because I’m
braveinsane) so I look for her to simply be moving forward and usually take that opportunity to play around with getting her to move off my leg to redirect her focus when she’s a little too batty.
- Back to trotting: Bella’s a rockstar. You go to trot and she’s going to start trying to frame up a few times during the ride. This however doesn’t qualify her at all to start cantering. I look for her to be able to maintain her trot work, maintain her frame, and maintain it all without me holding her up (I’ve got a bad shoulder, I can’t afford to hold her up 24/7, also no one ever should hold their horse up 24/7). Once she’s able to maintain her trot on her own, listen to me, and pay attention to simple leg cues without losing her mind because “omg leg pressure means go” then we start looking at canter.
- Back to cantering: Here’s the nightmare for me. This horse loves to go and while she’s capable of maintaining a slow canter it takes a lot of time and effort to get her back there. No matter how I ask (soft, firm, verbally, whatever) she’s all go. This means that my poor shoulder takes a beating and she’s usually worn out after a couple of laps fighting me and then we have to both work harder on the second direction to keep her held together. This is where we are right now (we went from lunging to trotting to cantering all in a week, because she came back really quickly this time – go mare, go). Our very first canter went really well, perhaps because I lunged her at the walk/trot first? Second time cantering we got stuck when we went to change directions, she threw a bit of a tantrum (oh Bella) and when she did canter she was actually nice, just bracing against my hands (totally expected, totally whatever).
Because my goal is to get her back jumping this year, now that we have jumps at the farm again, I’m also having to add in additional items to my already extensive list. It’s been nearly two years since we jumped consistently. I popped her over a few low fences early spring to feel her out, and she was all about it but not exactly safe about it. So we’re starting over. Back to ground poles, back to low cross-rails, and back to me (re-)installing half-halts on my very forward mare. The first day we cantered was actually the first day I reintroduced jumps (at the trot) and she did fairly well. We went over the ground pole every time we came around to it at both the trot and the canter and then trotted (or tried to) a very low cross-rail. It took her about three tries in each direction before she would trot in and trot out.
We’ll be “jumping” once a week. Hopefully doing pole exercises an additional day a week. The rest of our rides will be focused on Dressage or conditioning.
Coming back into working her this year I have several goals for us.
For me I would like to,
- Open my hip angle.
- Strengthen my core.
- Get my old balance & confidence bareback back.
For Bella I would like to,
- Get her back into shape.
- Fix her issues rushing fences and rushing away from them.
- Get her back to being respectful of her d-ring so we don’t have to use the elevator anymore.
For the both of us,
- Get back in shape.
- Get back to jumping 3ft.
I think it’s doable. She’s a smart girl and we’re both determined. Just takes time and patience, and I’m definitely not going to rush her. If we don’t check of all my goals that’s perfectly fine. We’ve got years.
If you’d like to follow Bella back into shape (although don’t expect too many riding pictures) you can follow her (and I) on Instagram at hellsbells180.