Shake Off the Winter Doldrums and Get Back in the Saddle

Horses should start off spring with a gradual conditioning program, especially if they were stalled for much of the winter and worked lightly or not at all.

Photo: iStock

Is your horse ready for spring riding?

Mother nature is packing away her winter coat and preparing for spring, and it’s time for horse owners to do the same. Shaking off the winter doldrums and transitioning your horse’s routine takes time and effort—it be a rushed process. To help you get a head start, Scott Hancock, DVM, equine professional services veterinarian at Boehringer Ingelheim, shares some tips on readying horses for the warmer season.

Conditioning Your Horse

Horses aren’t very different from us. After a long winter without training, you wouldn’t want to run a marathon with no preparation. The same can be said for horses. They need to start off spring with a gradual conditioning program after a long winter, especially if they were stalled for much of the winter and worked lightly or not at all.

“You wouldn't want to bring a horse out of winter rest and then take him on a 20-mile trail ride,” says Hancock. “Horse owners may be anxious to start riding as soon as possible, but it’s best to begin with light exercise. Horse owners should develop a healthy spring conditioning schedule best suited for the horse’s needs.”

Supplemental Feed

Horse owners might be tempted to feed extra concentrates, grain, or supplements before riding again in the spring. But such decisions should made based on the horse’s current diet. “Sometimes excessive intake of one mineral or vitamin may actually negatively affect the absorption of another,” says Hancock.

If possible, have your horse’s hay analyzed, which can help determine which nutrients the horse is taking in. Then, an equine nutritionist can point out what, if any, dietary deficiencies are present and determine the best way to remedy them. “Including supplements in a horse’s diet is case dependent on the dietary intake, use and condition of the horse,” says Dr. Hancock.

Spring Shoeing

Some horse owners opt to pull shoes in the winter and simply keep hooves trimmed. But, oftentimes, along with spring comes more frequent riding and training. Depending on the type of work, and the terrain, landscape, use, and length of average ride, many horse owners will put shoes back on their horse for protection.

“A shoeing decision depends on the particular horse, the condition of the foot, and the specific use of the horse,” Hancock says.

General Health Checkup

As a rule of thumb, spring is a timely opportunity for a thorough physical exam. It gives horse owners the chance to discuss health issues that commonly arise in the spring.

“As far as dental health, I was always an advocate in my practice to check teeth twice a year,” Hancock says. “We made it a habit to do a thorough oral exam, looking into a horse’s mouth and seeing how they've done in the past six months. If you don't look, you don't find. So there's always value in having a look.”

Additionally, many veterinarians will opt for a fecal exam in the spring to help identify the parasite loads and determine if there is need for intervention.

Hancock also emphasizes vaccinating early with updated, comprehensive vaccines. “I also stress early vaccinating, as mosquito season is right around the corner and horses are exposed to more environmental factors,” he says.

Horse owners should also keep an eye out for delayed coat shedding. “What we tell horse owners to especially look for in the spring is a horse that's slow to shed compared to its peers,” says Hancock. “A veterinarian may suggest certain laboratory testing at this time to rule out issues like pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID).”

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