Down Time For The Sport Horse

Dec 24, 2010 - 4:23 PM
"Most horses can’t emotionally and mentally withstand constant drilling. They need breaks," said Denny Emerson. Photo by Sara Lieser

As some areas of the country endure a frigid cold snap and others get going with a winter show season, it’s a great time to re-visit one of columnist Denny Emerson’s Between Rounds forums for the print Chronicle. This article ran in 2010…

In 1950, when I first became involved with horses on a daily basis at the Stoneleigh Prospect Hill School in Greenfield, Mass., the frequently harsh conditions of the New England winter created automatic downtime for horses.

There were two big differences between then and now with respect to winter riding. There were almost no indoor arenas, and almost no horses were transported south for the winter.

The second World War had just ended. The United States had struggled its way through both the war and the Great Depression, and the economy hadn’t recovered sufficiently for individuals to build such expensive “luxuries” as indoor riding arenas.

It was possible to transport horses south, but not only was the economy depressed, there was virtually no interstate highway system. Most roads were narrow, two-lane affairs, which went through rather than around towns and cities, so travel was slow and arduous.

Another big difference from modern times was the poor quality of the actual trucks used to haul horses. These were big, top-heavy wooden boxes with limited suspension, which rattled and banged their way down the relatively primitive roads of that era.

Basically, the 12-month-a-year show season that we take for granted in 2010 simply didn’t exist 50 or 60 years ago. We rode outdoors in the winter, if we rode at all, and we didn’t haul our horses any more than was absolutely necessary between December and April.

Riding in December, January and February was always cold, frequently icy, and even the die-hard riders might be excused for giving their horses protracted breaks.

A Different World

I don’t remember that these long breaks caused too many problems. True, the horses who were kept in standing stalls (a more common practice when I was young) used to stock up, especially behind. Also, horse blanket quality was terrible compared to now. They were enormously heavy, not very waterproof, and they always fell off, so if there were days of cold, icy rain, horses tended to get stuck indoors. Outdoors they’d get soaked and chilled to the bone. Snow was no problem; cold rain was the villain.

By mid-March in southern New England, we’d have some nice days for getting out on the muddy roads, and usually by the end of April, most horses would be shod, at least partly shed out, and ready to get back to serious work.

It’s a different world today, even in the northern tier of the United States and in Canada. Serious riders either take their horses to farms with indoor arenas for much or all of the winter, or they head south—to the Carolinas, Georgia or Florida on the East Coast, or to Arizona or Southern California on the West Coast.

What these changes mean in practical terms is that the once automatic downtime either must be artificially created, or the horses will work 12 months a year.

There are enormous differences of opinion about what kinds of time off are most beneficial to equine athletes. Some advocate the probably old-fashioned idea of, “let him be a real horse, where he can get muddy and dirty. Pull off his shoes and chuck him out in a pasture with other horses for two or three months.”

It’s important to use caution, though, so that the prolonged turnout doesn’t turn into benign neglect. Those long winter coats can hide rainrot and cuts and sores. Heavy coats can make an increasingly dehydrated or undernourished horse look fat. It’s important to physically run your hands over that horse every day, so that you catch small problems before they become big ones.

Others advocate keeping horses in some form of constant work 12 months a year. One rider whose opinion I asked had an interesting answer: “If you were a human athlete in good shape, would you just go sit in a chair for three months?”

In the southern parts of the United States, June, July and August can be extremely hot and humid, a sort of reverse image of the northerner’s December, January and February in terms of stressful climatic conditions. Consequently, southerners often let their horses down in the summer and pick them up again as the cooler days of early autumn appear.

There are other riders I’ve spoken to who advocate several mini-vacations a year, rather than one more prolonged time off from work. If a horse has been built up to a peak of fitness for some particular event or race or show, these riders suggest that the following week or two should be limited work, or even complete rest, to let the horse recover both physically and mentally, as a way of “recharging his batteries.”

Still another variation on the theme of downtime as opposed to a training regimen is the familiar weight training concept of only working three or four days each week, one day of heavy stress followed by one or two day’s recovery time. This builds in little, tiny “mini vacations,” to let possibly sore muscles repair and to allow depleted energy to replenish.

Individualism Is Key

As I asked a number of riders in different disciplines what their personal theories were, I got all kinds of different answers, to the point that I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules. Over and over, I got this general response, “Well, I suppose mainly it depends upon the individual horse and your individual situation.”

Some horses are obviously subjected to much greater degrees of stress on a daily basis than others. A backyard pleasure horse who gets hacked at a walk and a slow trot three or four times a week for an hour or less doesn’t need a vacation, because its life is already like a vacation.

Show jumpers, dressage horses, eventers, endurance horses, reiners—all the horses in the more potentially arduous competitive disciplines will have schedules which vary enormously, from enervating and exhausting to scarcely more strenuous than the leisurely hacks of the backyard horses.

There’s a world of difference between the beginner novice eventer who may lope around four or five little cross-country courses a season at 300 meters per minute, and the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** star who lives his life in a horse van and an airplane between events where he’s asked to relentlessly gallop over huge obstacles eight to 10 times a year.

The Tevis Cup-level endurance specialist who will rack up over 1,000 miles a year is much more like a horseshoe being hammered on a hard anvil than the trail horse who does a couple of “brown bag, bring your own lunch” 25-mile trail rides a few times a year.

Generally speaking, the harder the horses are used, the more time off they will need, so they don’t become both sore and sour.

It isn’t simply the physical stresses to which we subject our horses that wear them out. Most horses can’t emotionally and mentally withstand constant drilling. They need breaks. Each rider must determine whether these breaks should be actual in-the-field vacations, quiet hacks three or four times a week or something else.

Not every rider has the luxury of a big pasture for turnout, and one hour a day standing in a small paddock and 23 hours a day stuck in a stall is probably worse for a horse than being kept in some form of work.

There’s an old horseman’s saying, “The eye of the owner maketh the horse fat.” I’ve always taken that to mean that a good horseperson looks carefully and constantly at her horse, so as to be able to assess just what that horse needs in terms of feeding. This same careful attention will determine how much downtime, and what kind of downtime, is most beneficial to the individual horse, within the parameters of that horse’s physical living conditions.

Every single rider I asked about downtime agreed about one thing, if one thing only: that the horses come back from their rest breaks brighter, sharper and fresher and ready to go back to work.

Denny Emerson rode on the 1974 World Championship gold-medal eventing team. He served as the U.S. Eventing Association president twice and won the USEA Wofford Cup for his lifetime dedication to eventing. At his Tamarack Hill Farm in South Strafford, Vt., and Southern Pines, N.C., he trains horses and riders and stands stallions. An original Between Rounds contributor, Emerson began writing his column in 1989.


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