Above is a photo of one of our Grand Prix horses here at Willowview Hill Farm, Tiberio Lafite aka Tigger, taken in Spring a few years back. Whenever I am in the winter doldrums I post this as my desktop picture, and am immediately cheered up. Spring is a time of renewal for everything in nature, so naturally, I am no exception.
I urge my students to review their dreams, review their short and long term goals and to address critical issues in their own and their horses health. Start work now, and reap the benefits in the forthcoming show season. Where to begin?
Think Spring. Then think Spring Cleaning, Then think Spring Training. Not just for your horse, but also for yourself.
A thorough grooming is a great way to check out your horse for bumps, bruises, new lumps, evaluate soreness, foot health and more. If you train through winter, then you are yards ahead here. If you clipped your horse, you are probably seeing a few hairs of the new coat coming through. For so many riders in the North East U.S.A however, winter work options are often irregular at best. If you clip your horse now, in a hurry to get back to work, be forewarned that it will affect his summer coat. My advice, don't. It'll shed out with the work and look better come show time.
Here's a few tips from our yard to yours for Spring Cleaning of your horse with some advice on some innovative new products to help you along the way:-
For the dressage horse bang his tail 4 inches below the hock. Hold your arm under the tail to duplicate his normal tail carriage and then measure the four inch distance. We trim the underside and side hairs at the top of the tail with clippers or if the horse is tetchy with those, with scissors. This gives a clean appearance of the tail from the rump and adds an elegant appeal. If you have the time and motivation you can pull the hairs the traditional way too. Do not brush the dirt out of the tail. Take a bucket of warm water first, shampoo, clean it, hose it, condition it with your preferred product and then spritz it with a detangler or sheen product. Then let it dry before you very gently brush or comb it and begin work. A good tail takes a long time to grow and you don't want to pull hairs out by their roots.
We cheat with the manes. We used to pull them the traditional way. I save time with thinning shears and an artistic eye. If you want to improve the look of the neck and topline then finish off with topping the mane with thinning shears holding it upright. Working up and down lightly will cut a few hairs lower in the mane and make it stand up most of the time adding the illusion of a more muscled topline, until you have a chance to develop it through the season. Again, clean the mane as much as possible. If it's too cold to be practical to bath the horse first then just spritz with a detangler/dry shampoo and brush out gently. I find that a good quality rubber toothed hairbrush can be useful both here and for the tail.
Investing in good brushes and replacing tired and worn ones will save you time and energy and produce better results. So if you take a look at your grooming kit and everything is looking poor, then it is well worth investing in the following types of brushes and use them in this order for best results.
For removing mud try a Palmyra brush or tough union fiber brush, then move on to work with a union/tampico mix dandy brush, before going to a pure tampico brush. We use all natural brushes for regular grooming, because they enhance the skin at ground level with their soft action. This promotes skin health. The skin is a huge indicator of health of your horse, but that is a topic for another day.
By now our horse should be looking decently clean and you can move on to body brushes and flick brushes to remove the scurf. Here I love my tampico/horsehair body brushes, then all horsehair brush. The softest brush for use on the head is the horsehair blends or pure horsehair. The very best finale which every horse loves is the goat hair model. So many choices. I always take time to massage the horse at around his ears and neck muscles while I work.
Above is a photo of another of our Grand Prix horses,Charrington, one of our blue eyed boys. Like most horses he appreciates fine grooming of his head and muzzle with a very soft brush.
Using the right brush for the right job and in the right order promotes healthy skin as well as produces a better final result. Make sure the brush fits your size hand too. Brushes come in different sizes and you don't need to be hanging on to an eight inch brush if you wear a seven inch glove. That just makes no sense.
Feet and lower legs need special care. We use Clean Wash Silver Ag from Equifit for washing horses legs. The white legs remain clear of fungus, scratches or other lurking nasties. It is also a great product for use as a body shampoo if you find any issues such a rain rot. I wish it were cheaper, but it is well worth the price for benefits it produces. Dry the back of the fetlocks well with an old towel. Treat any wounds or scratches you find with Clean Balm, another Silver Ag product from Equifit. One of those little jars lives in my jacket pocket year around. It's always handy for treating a nick or scratch and wounds heal fast.
The feet are picked and examined closely for bruises and pressure tested as a precaution. We love the new illuminated hoofpick for this. Thanks to MJ Equine tools for their innovative new product. Our barn lights are bright, but the horse is always standing in the way of the best light and it saves a lot of time repositioning the horse or missing something. Notice if he resents you holding a particular leg and note it for future. He may be sore or may just be naughty. Any sign of tension is always a heads up if it differs from their normal reaction. We keep all our horses, including our Grand Prix horses barefoot and use natural hoof trimming techniques. Our horses are regularly trimmed all year around. But if you work your horse on gravel surfaces or prefer to have your horse shod, don't forget to schedule your farrier for shoeing. Be careful working horses with barium on the shoes on road surfaces or without bell boots and leg protection.
Trim the fetlocks with some shears and trim the underside of his chin and throat hair whiskers and clip the nose whiskers and ear whiskers if you want. We leave eye whiskers for safety and some nose whiskers too. In parts of Europe like Sweden, it is actually illegal to clip nose and eye whiskers on horses as they are considered such an important part of the sensory apparatus of a horse. I too believe many eye injuries could be avoided if folks left eye whiskers at a decent length.
Your horse is looking so much better already. Sit down and have a well deserved cup of tea or glass of wine around now, while your horse takes a break. Especially if he has been standing on cross ties. We actually never use cross ties on our horses. I have seen so many injuries over the years, to both horse and human. While all our horses are trained to tie, and we do have velcro pull aparts on our aisle way ties, we almost never use them.
Then bring him out and run down his spine with your fingers pressed firmly on either side. Check for fidgets or soreness, lumps or bumps. Then pull his front legs up and forward to stretch those shoulder muscles. This is also a technique we employ before every ride to ensure comfort under the girth. Pay attention to any tightness or muscle spasms in the large muscles and massage them out. If you find a shoulder spasm, check his front feet and legs carefully for any soreness. Soreness in the back behind the saddle may indicate soreness in the stifle or hock. There are lots of great books and DVDs on this to help you. If your horse has been off work then this is a great base line for you to know.
As you bring him back to peak performance repeat these checks every week at a minimum. Some slight soreness is normal when returning to full schedule, but if it persists or worsens then you will know it right away and can take remedial action by calling your vet in, working on the horse differently in the saddle, stepping down the pace, checking saddle fit etc.
Finally walk and trot him up and down on a hard surface, flat and then uphill and downhill. Is he looking sound? Hopefully the answer is yes and you are nearing the Spring Training time.
Start by checking both saddle and bridle fit. If your horse has a thick winter coat the bridle might need adjusting. If your horse has been out of work he might need an extra saddle pad for support to start out or he might be a little round and you might want some non slip saddle pad support. Success Saddle Pads are a good product we love. A non slip pad will save you having to over-tighten the girth and may well keep you safer. Add a half pad over the full pad for great results while rebuilding the topline, then remove the half pad as the horse comes back to fitness.
Depending on your horse and his demeanor and training you might want to free longe or longe him before you ride him for a few times. You know best. Remember you are in no hurry. Make sure he is up on his Vitamin E and Selenium so he is not tying up fresh out the stable with excitement. Don't up his grain before you start riding, do it after a few weeks. Gives you a chance to stay on top, pun intended.
Start work slowly, walking and trotting, with long warm ups and long cool downs. Lots of transitions will build the topline, given they are done properly. They will also help keep him on his hind end, as will circles. Then move on to canter work.
By the way, if your horse tends to stock up when stabled try the Equifit silver ag standing wraps. They work marvels. Also don't forget to braid his tail up so it's not hanging down in the mud if he is heading back out in the field later.
At the end of your first Spring makeover session you've probably already realized you are a bit out of shape. By the end of your first Spring Training ride you'll know you are a lot out of shape. Even if you work out, you use a lot of different muscles when riding your horse. More on some great equestrian work out titles and how to develop your all important core in my next blog as well as advice on how to overcome nervousness.
Now you've done all this hard work I'll bet you feel better don't you? I'm certain your horse does. And you'll have a heads start on others this season. Remember for each week a horse is out of work, he needs a weeks work to bring him back to that condition. So if your horse has been turned away this winter for seven weeks, allow seven weeks of consistent, good work to get back to the point you left him.
If you would like the 'industrial version' of how to groom your horse in the most professional way possible, then I highly recommend this British book, The Essential Guide to Professional Horse Care.
Now is also a good time to book your equine dentist and vet for dental work and Spring shots. They'll appreciate you not waiting until the last minute as their busiest time of year is around the corner.