If your answer is, “YES! My horse will be ready to hunt!”, then you might as well skip reading this article….
If NO is a possible answer, perhaps I can help you sort out how to have your horse ready for hunting when you receive your fixture card this fall. Preparing your field hunter for the coming season begins NOW! If you wait until the leaves drop, it will be too late for “repairs”.
Ask yourself, “Did I have any trouble with my horse this past season?”
Problems might include: running away, not stopping, refusing to jump, fighting the bit, shaking the head, bucking, rough gaits and falling down.
If you feel you may have had some difficulties with your horse this past season but don’t know where to start or how to fix them, the first thing to do is make an appointment with your VETERINARIAN. Have your vet perform a soundness evaluation along with your horse’s annual checkup. Often, a horse’s attitude problems are really a result of pain. If your horse is sound and happy, he should perform well for you. Vets don’t just deal with emergencies. They are also trained in lameness evaluation. An annual soundness exam may give you insights into why your horse behaves as he does.
The vet will probably ask you to lunge your horse in both directions at a trot. He may flex various joints and ask you to jog away from him. At this point he can usually figure out if your horse is sound or not and where the problem if the is one might be. There are many ways to get your horse back to sound and happy.
A sore back or running away might be caused by sore hocks and stifles. Products such as Adequan and Legend are available through your veterinarian to help your horse feel better. There are also a plethora of easy to feed joint supplements from which to choose. Stifles can be blistered followed by a regime of several weeks of trotting. Rest and shoeing with pads might be all you need to do to help your poor horse. However, he might be showing signs of navicular disease, side or ring bone. The vet may use hoof testers and nerve blocks to locate the soreness, followed by x-rays to pinpoint the problem. Again, it is not a hopeless case! Corrective shoeing and medication may help. We also have regular checkups done by our chiropractor/acupuncturist who is also a veterinarian. He adjusts, then recommends daily stretches and exercises that can assist the horse in staying sound. Getting your saddle fitted correctly to your horse is another very good idea. Most saddles these days are not built to be sat in for 2 to 4 hours at a time. A very small deviation in your tack can cause a huge problem when it is in contact with your horse under your butt for hours at a time.
Don’t forget to have the vet recommend a worming schedule and vaccinate your horse. At minimum you should have tetanus and rabies given to your horse. This is also a good time to get blood drawn for a Coggins test which is required for traveling and by your hunt.
Have your horse’s teeth checked annually and floated (filed down) if needed. Sharp teeth can make a horse difficult to ride, and make chewing food tough – no reason to waste horse feed at today’s prices! If your horse is difficult to get weight onto, then a fecal exam is in order to determine if you horse is carrying excess parasites. Ulcers are also a common problem for horses. We have discovered that aloe juice (found inexpensively at the health food store in gallon jugs) aids digestion. Feeding a high quality grain with a 6 – 10 % fat content and a low (10% ) protein content improves the condition of the horse while not making it hot. Some of our show horses are fed the beet pulp based feed which is highly palatable while being low in carbohydrates. We also add a cup of flax meal to each feeding. This should really put the bloom on your horse.
By August 1 your horse should be packing the weight on, have a beautiful shiny coat, and look the picture of health. Fat should cover the ribs, but don’t overdo it – too much fat is bad! Like people, horses cant’ be athletic when they’re pudgy, soft blimps. Don’t wait until hunting begins to feed your horse correctly. It is very difficult to have weight gain AND get your horse fit at the same time.
Your sound, happy horse should be performing well for you at this point. If not, then perhaps more schooling or training is needed for the two of you. The most accomplished riders have ridden thousands of hours, often spending 10 – 20 hours per week in the saddle. They school their horses and ride with trainers. They train all the time, riding regularly under some sort of supervision. A watchful eye is wonderful for both horse and rider. So, as a beginner or intermediate, you should consider as much as a couple of lessons per week during the off season. Additionally, perhaps your horse should go for a month or two of training. It will all help with your enjoyment next hunting season. You don’t think you or horse needs this, then read on…..
A rule of thumb for jumping is that you should be able to canter quietly over a course of jumps at home that are 6” higher than what you will meet in the hunt field. Most coops are 3’ to 3’3”, but there are some that are 3’6” and higher. But remember, they are very, very solid and don’t fall down when you hit them. You should be able to jump 3’ 6” to at least 4’ at home. This is the reality of it. Can you do that?! Remember, out hunting you are jumping in and out of mud, on uneven and rough footing, up and down hills and sometimes pavement is an added problem. At home the ring is flat and smooth and the jumps fall down when you hit them.
Crossing ditches seem to be another area where riders are completely unprepared. Practice riding over small gaps in the ground. Letting your horse step in the bottom of a break in the ground is a bad idea. Sit back, grab the front of the saddle or a neck strap and kick! Let your horse drop its head to look. By practicing the small stuff, you can eventually work on ditches and ravines up to six to eight feet wide. Let your horse do all the looking. Keep your eyes on the opposite bank.
Fitness seems to be another area that is lacking in many field hunters. We keep ours sound and fit because we follow a simple plan. We begin by trotting cross country with little or no cantering. Cantering is hard on the legs, and we do enough of it during the hunt season. Ten to fifteen minutes of walking warm up, followed by 20 to 30 minutes of continuous trotting, then 15 minutes of cooling down is great workout of horse and RIDER. We try to school once a week over gymnastics to tune up the jumping. Don’t overdo it. By fitting up your horse slowly, it should put on muscle and stay sound as well.
By the beginning of official cubbing in September, I like my horses fairly fit. I want to be able to go on for several hours and not have a tired horse. The hunters have now had about seven weeks of steady work. They have gotten their shoes reset every five weeks with either borium welded to the bottom of their shoes or hole drilled and tapped in the heels for the placement of studs for traction. Their manes are pulled and tails banged. They are muscled up, fit and their appearance and attitude reflect the work that has gone into their conditioning.
By doing this, you have a pretty good chance of keeping your horse sound and uninjured for the entire season and many seasons to come. This fall, when you start hunting and wonder how it is that the staff and more experienced horsemen in the field can keep rolling on and jumping, maybe you should consider how much preparation went into the care, conditioning, and schooling of their horses. It is no accident!
If you have a new or young horse, you should consider walking hounds at the kennels to acclimate it to new sights and sounds. Waiting until the hunt season is usually a date with disaster and very dangerous for you and your fellow hunters. Your huntsman is always looking for help with the hounds. Give him a call.
I’m sure you have many professionals associated with your club. All you have to do is ask for their help and they will gladly advise you. You may consider sending your horse off to a pro to get it fit and jumping well if you have neither the space nor time to get your horse ready to hunt.
Fitness in both horse and rider is the formula for staying safe and having fun in the hunt field all season. Most of injuries occur with fatigue and unpreparedness. Living in hope is only a formula for disaster!
Rosemarie Merle-Smith is Joint Master of Foxhounds at Tennessee Valley Hunt.