After a long, cold winter, March is the time of year that we all get keen to do fun things with our horses. Here in Alberta, we have a ton of snow, but it’s been warm and sunny for a change, so I see lots of people out with sleds and sleighs, enjoying the sunshine with their driving horses. Other parts of the world, it’s already spring, and I see postings on Facebook of people getting back at it, reporting on long outings with their favourite driving horses.
In the excitement of getting back to the things we love, it’s easy to overdo it. We have to remember that our horses are out of shape, and we are risking injury by asking them to do too much too soon.
Miniature Horses are generally super willing and keen to work, which means they are not likely to tell us when it’s “too much” for them, so we need to be cautious, and build up their level of activity gradually.
Snow, especially, is going to be a bigger challenge, with more resistance and strain on muscles and ligaments. Even a fit horse, presented with a new challenge, needs to be worked carefully to prevent injury, and in the winter time it’s pretty common for our driving horses to have been off work for a long period of time. I’m certainly not saying you shouldn’t get out there and play with your horse when the perfect winter day presents itself, just do so mindfully. Be aware of how hard they’re working, and don’t ask for too much, even if it means cutting the fun shorter than you’d like.
First, walk. Walking is the best way to warm up your horse, and is a great way to build muscle and fitness safely. A walk uses more muscles and builds more strength than any other gait. It’s easier to work on things like rhythm, bend and balance at a walk, and a good walk will build fitness very effectively.
Interval training is a tool used extensively by human athletes to build fitness without becoming exhausted or straining muscles or tendons. We can do the same with our horses, interspersing our walk work with short bursts of trot or canter, gradually increasing frequency and duration as the weeks pass and they become more and more fit.
Downtime is important too. It’s easy to get back into the swing of things and just want to work your horse every day, but if you don’t give their muscles time to heal after work, you’re going to break them down instead of build them up.
So how should you return your horse to work?
- Do mostly walking until you see signs they are stronger and recover more quickly.
- Build duration slowly – even 20 minutes of work is lots for a horse who has been standing around.
- Use interval training to introduce faster work – begin with 2 minutes of trot, just a few times, interspersed with lots of forward walking.
- Allow recovery time, both during exercise with walking and breaks, and between work days to allow muscles and ligaments to heal and rest.
- Monitor both cardiovascular fitness and soundness very carefully.
The good news is that Miniature Horses generally gain fitness very quickly, so with a little care and attention, they’ll soon be back to peak performance! Take a little extra time to get there, and you’ll be doing all you can to prevent injuries or sore muscles, keeping your driving work a positive experience for you and your Miniature Horse!