Bringing My Horse Back Into Work

By Terry Golson

By the time I’m back in the saddle, Tonka will have been sitting idly for 5 ½ weeks. I’ve been looking into the best way to return him to work. How much condition does a horse lose in just over a month of standing around? What’s safe to do and what is a smart progression back to activity?

I did a search of articles online. I was hoping to find a formula, but the answer, of course is it depends. First one has to take into account how healthy the horse was before the letdown. Tonka was fit enough to go 4 miles in the ring in one hour without showing any signs of duress. I pay attention to breathing, sweating and energy level and I’ve never observed him stressed due to exercise. (Some people take respiration and heart rate. We haven’t done anything strenuous enough for me to be motivated to do that. Do any of you monitor vital signs? Tell me about why and how in the comments.)

According to Dr. Hilary Clayton, a month of stall rest has little effect on performance and cardiovascular fitness. After that amount of time off, work can be resumed gradually over a period of days. However, tendons and ligaments lose strength more rapidly than muscles, and those are what one has to be prudent about when resuming work. Since those are Tonka’s weak links, (especially the sacroiliac region and his left hock and fetlock) I’m not going to go right back to my usual schedule of ring riding and a weekly jumping lesson.

The best exercise for a horse coming back into work (or really anytime) is to walk. A brisk walk builds muscles, but it also builds strength in the tendons and ligaments. In another article, Dr. Clayton suggests walking over varied terrain. Perfect! That’s exactly what I had in mind. Here.


This 2-acre field in the front of my house has perfect footing and gentle slopes. It’s a 30-minute trailer ride from Tonka’s barn. If the weather cooperates, (and the black flies don’t make us miserable) I plan on riding Tonka at a brisk walk around and about.

There’s more. We own the woods that goes along the marsh. There was an overgrown track along part of it. I had the time and restlessness while staying-at-home to clear it. By hand with loppers and a string trimmer.

It went from this


To this.

It’s a half-mile loop.

My plan is to start riding again on May 2. I’ll start in the ring. I don’t think that Tonka will be at all fresh, despite the time-off, but it’s best to be cautious. There will be our usual warmup walk to lubricate the joints (read about the importance of that in this blogpost), and then a brisk walk, with changes of tempo and frame, for a half-hour. I might do a 3-minute trot just to shake the cobwebs off. Tonka has been standing around. We’ve had a lot of rain (and some snow). The paddock is muddy. He hasn’t moved much for a month. I’m sure he’d like to have a loosening-up easy trot on a big oval (no corners, no sudden transitions.)


After a couple of days of that, we’ll get out to my field as often as possible for strengthening walks. And also hand-grazes. That will make Tonka look forward to the trailer rides.

After two weeks of walking and a small amount of trot, we’ll be ready to get back to some dressage at the training level. At the end of the month we can get back to poles. Then jumping!

We’ll also be going further afield off my property. I’ve been hiking and exploring the options. Some trails aren’t suitable for horses, but I’ve found a 5.5 mile loop. It has some challenging hills and uneven terrain, but a semi-fit horse should be able to navigate it. (This semi-fit human was able to.)

We’ll get on these trails once Tonka’s musculoskeletal fitness is ready for it. Three weeks? We’ll see.

Have you and your horse had to take a break? Are you coming up with a plan for getting back in the saddle? We’re all eager to resume our horse activities. But let’s keep everyone sound! What’s your plan?

4 thoughts on “Bringing My Horse Back Into Work

  • Jan

    I wonder if you might have to be a bit slower and more cautious before doing some off that, I would hate to see his old problems flare-up. With Humans when you are inactive for 6 weeks it takes that long again to get back fully so that you don’t damage anything. Even just walking will be a joy for both of you. 🙂

  • John Schaller

    The place I ride where the horses have been turned out but not worked will be interesting. A couple horses had minor physical issues where the layoff could have been good for them anyway. Walking and neighborhood hacks after some lunging to get the broncs out, will probably be the plan, for a start. The jumping barn has kept the horses working, so other than getting to know one new horse that I haven’t yet been on, I will probably be at a conditioning, posture and timing deficit but I expect the horses will be much the same, though maybe a little looser and a little lighter in the bridle from a bit less lesson work.

  • Ann Mutschler

    I’m a new reader and I am thoroughly enjoying your blog!!! I apologize if I missed this, but are you planning to have Tonka on your beautiful property? I am a lifelong lover of horses and at 50 years old, finally have my own horse, on our property. 🙂

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