The Riding Blog

A.K.A. "Michael's Meanderings"

News, education, fun snippets, tips, tricks, and so much more! Subscribe to the newsletter to make sure you don't miss out!

Winter Breaks

mental health tips Jan 01, 2024
snow covered horse pasture

Growing up learning to ride in the hunter/jumper part of the horse world, I don't remember horses really getting breaks. Sure, they may have had 2-3 days off, or maybe a week off, around Christmas. But otherwise they were ridden 5-6 days a week, all year round. Now, granted, my days here weren't involved in any sort of high caliber A-rated circuit. My hunter/jumper days were filled with learning the basics of how to ride and jump, going to local schooling shows, and competing on an IEA team (Interscholastic Equestrian Association - for kids in middle and high school). 

But after switching into eventing, not only did I start to appreciate how physically and mentally demanding the sport is on the horses (and ourselves), but I also started "knowing better to do better". Once I started becoming more aware of the demands, more aware of horsemanship, more aware of empathy, I started incorporating breaks into my horses' schedules. 

Leaving post-competition mid-year breaks out of this, and just specifically talking about post-season breaks, I typically give my horses 3 weeks off after the last competition of the season (which is usually somewhere around the end of October or beginning of November). This takes them to usually the end of November. Aside from vet check-ups throughout the year, I also get one at the end of the season. And this year, for example, we did some joint maintenance that prolonged that break to mid December. 

Some people like to pull shoes and give their horses 2 months or more off. I don't tend to go that long, unless medically necessary, just because I think it's actually harder on the horses to get back into work after that much time off, both mentally and physically. My 3-week timeframe actually started because I noticed that Cay started having a twinkle in his eye and started actually demanding that I take him out at the 3 week mark. I think for many horses, having some sort of job is good for them, and they actually enjoy it. 3 weeks seems to be a sweet spot for giving everyone a mental and physical break, but also not letting everything go and making it harder by having to rebuild fitness and spend weeks/months just trying to get back to where you left off.

 

The benefits of a break

The benefits of a post-season break are plentiful. I've already mentioned the physical aspect of it, it's important to let their bodies have a break. But I think it's understated and unappreciated how much it also influences mental health as well. This goes especially for a tightly regimented workload during the season. Being at the upper levels, I can't afford to give myself or my horses too many unscheduled days off during the season. We both need to be extremely fit and finely tuned to safely compete at that level. By the end of the season though, while I love competing and riding, I'll be brutally honest, I am 100% ready for a break from that strict schedule, and I'm sure they are too.

There's been a lot of talk in recent years about people having job burnout and trying to prioritize work/life balance. The same considerations need to be made for hobby/sport burnout, both for ourselves and for our horses. I couldn't imagine being someone who competes all year-round. I wouldn't enjoy it anymore, and I don't think my horses would either.

I also like the 3-week timeframe because while it gives them and us time to mentally and physically heal, it isn't long enough to cause more issues from a complete lack of work for months on end. If you are doing your homework correctly during the year to get the horse to biomechanically use themselves well, they may fall out of that and into a danger zone that causes them to favor one side or the other, or go a certain way that is going to start atrophying muscles and building incorrect/asymmetrical muscling.

 

Starting back into work

Once I start back up with them, I am NOT back into full-swing with their workload. I typically use the rest of the year to just stretch their muscles, get them moving, have light rides, and also just hit the "reset button". Once I know they aren't fresh, my rides sometimes consist of hopping on bareback just to walk around or maybe trot/canter for a total of a couple minutes. 

I use this time to remind myself of the joy of riding and to truly enjoy the horses without having some ulterior motive or external goal/deadline I need to aim towards. It's just me and my horse, playing around. They get extra days off when I'm just not feeling like riding, which is something I can't do very much of during the season since they (and I) need to be finely tuned and fit to be able to compete at the upper levels. They typically don't even jump until at least the beginning of January, and even then it's starting slowly and low heights. I usually aim for back into "full work" by the beginning of February. That gives me a month or so of full work before I typically head to Aiken to get an early start on the season.

It's important not to just jump straight back into full work. Even after just 3 weeks off, they will potentially lose a tiny bit of muscle and finesse in their abilities. It's important not to try to push them to immediately do everything you were doing before the break. View this time as a time to enjoy riding again, and to just keep their new baseline from eroding further. Short of being a full-time professional rider, my calendar competition year is probably the longest that any non-pro is going to have. Usually in Aiken in March and then competing through end of October/very beginning of November. So if you are starting back into light work in December, don't be in a rush. You have all of January and February to build up, and even into March/April if you don't start your season until later.

 

So make sure to give your horse some time off. Both you and they will be appreciative of it and you'll both come out better on the other side. You don't need to be going year-round to make progress. Sometimes you make forward progress by taking a step back.

Enjoy what you've read? Why not sign up for the full Equine Academy Membership! Get exclusive access to dozens of hours of premium educational videos to supercharge your riding education!

Sign Up Today!
THE RIDER'S NEWSLETTER

Want Helpful Riding Tips?

Subscribe to the newsletter for tips, tricks, opinions, theories, and so much more! Get notified whenever there is new content so that you don't miss out!

You're safe with me. I'll never spam you or sell your contact info.