Getting back onboard

By Wendy Talbot on 15 June 2020

If you are planning to bring your horse back into work after time off during lockdown it pays to be prepared and to take things slowly, not just for safety’s sake but for your horse’s health and athletic longevity too.

More haste less speed

You will undoubtedly be excited about getting back on board during these long balmy summer days but remember that your horse has been happily chilling in the field with his friends. He may not share your enthusiasm and his grass belly and lack of muscle tone will mean that he’s not in the best shape for instant work either!

Lack of muscle and extra weight mean extra pressure on joints, tendons, ligaments, respiratory and cardiovascular systems, so it’s crucial to take things slowly and build fitness gradually, over six to eight weeks.

New shoes

If you turned your horse away without shoes you will need to check the state of his feet and organise a visit from your farrier. Depending on the quality of your horse’s hooves and the ground on which you are planning to ride you will probably need at least a pair of front shoes. Every horse is different so it’s best to have a chat with your farrier to devise the most suitable plan.

Saddle fit

Struggling to do up that girth? Rather like the waistlines of some of us during lockdown your horse’s middle may have expanded by a centimetre or two! Reduced muscle tone and increased fat may also mean that your saddle doesn’t fit as well as it should. Unfortunately lockdown means you may not be able to organise a visit from a saddler but you can watch a helpful series of short videos from the Society of Master Saddlers here .


If your horse has missed a dental check-up during lockdown it’s a good idea to try and book an appointment with your vet or Equine Dental Technician, as soon as you can. This way you will know that your horse is comfortable in his mouth before you start to ramp up the exercise.

Walking in hand

If your horse is safe and sensible to lead, walking in hand could be a good first step for both of you. Remember to wear a hat and gloves and use a bridle for control. Walking round the arena several times on each rein, or round the field will help to build the first steps of fitness and can be a good way to re-establish your routine and ‘working’ relationship with your horse.

In the saddle

The British Horse Society recommends a six to eight week fittening plan:

  • Week 1 – 20 minutes of walk work, ideally moving in straight lines on a level surface 
  • Week 2 – Increase to 30-40 minutes walking
  • Week 3 – Continue walk work up to 1 hour, including hill work
  • Week 4 – Introduce short bursts of trot work
  • Week 5 – Introduce short schooling sessions. Easier lateral work can be reintroduced, again if appropriate, this will help the suppleness and flexibility of the horse and add some interest into their routine. If appropriate lungeing can be used, but keep the circles big, and lunge for no more than 20 minutes in total.
  • Weeks 6-8 – Extend your schooling sessions and introduce canter work. Maintain the hill work and hacking, start to introduce pole work and small fences.

Minimising risks

Warming up and cooling down

As you intensify your exercise programme remember to allow time for proper warm up and cool down sessions to help reduce the risk of injury. Warming up will help you both prepare mentally for the session ahead, as well as gradually building heart rate and oxygen flow and engage muscles. Cooling down will allow the heart rate to return gradually to normal and reduce the risk of inflammation in the muscles.

Knowing your horse

Being alert to your horse’s usual behaviour will help you to spot any problems as you progress. Resistance, napping, bucking, rearing, favouring one lead over the other or persistently changing leads in canter, unsettled head carriage, tail swishing or clamping are some of the signs that your horse may be struggling or in pain. If you are worried it’s important to speak to your vet to discuss next steps.

The right diet

Overfeeding can result in weight gain and behavioural problems. If your horse needs additional feed beyond grass, hay and a dietary balancer, a low starch high fibre diet will provide slow release energy. Always remember to feed for the actual, rather than the anticipated, workload and don’t over-estimate how much work you are doing. Make any dietary changes gradually and speak to your vet or call a feed company helpline for advice if you are unsure.

Rider fitness

It’s equally important for us, as riders, to be fit, confident and suited to our horse’s size, temperament and ability – this way you will both get the most out of your partnership.

Getting out and about

Be mindful of the fact that your horse may be more exuberant than usual when you get out and about. Factor in extra time at training sessions or unfamiliar hacks away from home to acclimatise him safely!

Fit for purpose

Always make sure your horse is fit enough for your planned activities; you both want to have fun and a tired horse is less likely to enjoy the experience and will be more prone to injury.

Re-building fitness after time off can be immensely satisfying and fun. It gives you a chance to enhance your skills and iron out any problems, ready for when lockdown is lifted and competitions start again.

BHS: Bringing a horse back into work

Accessed 20 May 2020




Wendy graduated from Bristol University in 1999. She then went on to complete a residency at Liverpool University and holds a European Diploma in Equine Internal Medicine. After working in practice for 13 years, she joined Zoetis in 2012 as the National Equine Veterinary Manager.

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