So. I rode Otis today for the first time in a month. It`s the longest he has ever been off work. Well, perhaps with the exception of his winter of being turned away as a three year old. Bringing him back into work then meant scraping the inches of mud from his hairy body and throwing the tack on before mounting on the yard and walking the almost four year old up the lane and back. At the time I was thrilled that he was foot perfect. Now of course, I know I should be more careful and lunge hand or mount in the school. Because I`m older, wiser, and God forbid, married!
Anyway, bright and early this morning, with no one else on the yard I took Otis into the school and mounted (see, I`m learning). It was as if I`d never gone on holiday. Of course, there wasn`t the endless grooming of years gone by because his babysitter has been so well trained that Otis has had a few regular grooms in my absence and doesn`t have the hairy belly he did as a baby. We did a bit of flatwork, and apart from the alien fullness of his belly under my leg, the only difference I could feel was that both of us were out of puff a bit quicker than normal – it was only a couple of weeks, and Otis still got exercise walking (or playing Lose The Shoe) around his field. That will come, and I`m sure we`ll be ready to compete next weekend…
This got me thinking as I drove to my first lesson of the day. Are breaks or holidays good for horses? Many people swear by them. Personally I think it depends entirely on the horse.
The big argument is with youngsters, as to whether they should winter out after being backed or continue their education. Obviously if they are growing rapidly then it makes sense to stop riding so all their energy can go into growing. However, if they were tricky to back, or took a long time to accept the tack and rider I`m all for continuing their education, albeit at a reduced pace. Perhaps only riding them or long reining twice a week for twenty minutes, but I believe that for those sensitive, shy, or just awkward, youngsters they need some continuity. We all hope that our youngsters are like Otis, and can just be tacked up and mounted after five months off; many of us would be glad of two days of lunging or ground work before leaning over and then mounting carefully.
You can also argue about the duration and amount of “turning away”. For some people youngsters are turned away and forgotten about. Which to me seems to be a backwards step. They forget to stand still, or to walk next to you, or to lift a foot. For me, turning away a youngster still means to handle them a couple of times a week so that they don`t become feral.
As to how long they should be turned away, I think it depends on the horse entirely, regardless of age. Winter is the ideal time to turn away with poor weather and dark days, but if spring were to come early that year, there`s no reason why a horse can`t resume their work a bit earlier.
I think a month of being turned away was too much for Otis. He started getting a bit above himself coming in, and almost mowed me down to come in this morning. But then he`s a mature horse, used to frequent work, and whilst I wouldn`t say he`s overworked – he has a good variety and rarely does more than an hour in the arena – he has a pretty good work-life balance (or work-field). Which means that I think he`s like me – a week of complete rest and his body is itching to start working. Just as a holiday for an Olympic athlete isn`t a week of sunbathing, a holiday for a mature horse in full work (or me) consists of gentle, fun exercise.
Going back to giving horses holidays.
I think much of it is personality of the horse – will they enjoy time off? Will they be rideable in a months time? Are they stale in their work?- as well as the level of work they are in. A horse who only works four times a week probably won`t want time off. Likewise, they will probably be quite easy to ride after a few days off. However, a fizzy or difficult horse may need to have their workload changed as opposed to ceased. After all, a change is as good as a rest. So, for your scalding hot dressage horse, a holiday may mean a fortnight of hacking with some jumping thrown in for good measure. They have a lighter workload, a change of scenery, have a chance to unwind their dressage muscles and utilise little known others, and most importantly are still rideable and mannered. A horse turned out with a herd in a large, au natural field with rolling terrain will be happier there than one in a postage stamp, alone. So their turning away environment will also impact how long you intend to turn them away for.
Don`t get me wrong, I`m not telling you not to give your horse a break, or to give them a full summer holiday like the kids get; I`m just saying that horses are individuals and they need breaks of different types and durations to keep them happiest, and it is our duty as owners to work out what makes our horses tick and what holidays or mini-breaks they prefer.