If your answer is YES!!, then you might as well skip this article. If NO is a possible answer, maybe I can help you sort out how to be 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 problems this season but dont know exactly how to fix them, the first thing to do is make an appointment with your vet, and have him do a soundness evaluation along with your 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. A vet doesn't just deal with emergencies, he is also trained in lameness evaluation. An annual soundness checkup 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 might be. There are many ways to get your horse back to sound and happy:
Hard to hold, a sore back, or running away may be caused by sore hocks and stifles. A treatment of Legend followed by the feed additive Cosequin may alleviate soreness. Sore feet might also be a cause. Rest and shoeing with pads might be all you have to do to help your poor horse. However, he might be showing the signs of early navicular, side, or ring bone. The vet may use hoof testers and nerve blocks to locate the soreness, then x-ray to pinpoint the problem. Again, it is not a hopeless case. Corrective shoeing and medication may help. Finally, a horse deserves a couple of months rest.
Dont forget to have the vet tube-worm and vaccinate your horse. If you have not already done so this Spring, flu, rabies, and tetanus are absolutely needed; and the rest (EE, WE, & VEE, Potomac and Rino) are highly recommended. This is also a good time to get blood drawn for a Coggins Test which is required by Virginia State law and the hunt.
Have your horse's teeth checked annually and floated (filed down) if needed. Sharp teeth can make a horse difficult to ride, and they can 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 your horse is carrying excess parasites -- you might have to worm him more often. Also, try feeding with a high fat content (6-10%) for more calories, but low in protein (10%). By July 1, your horse should be packing the weight on, have a beautiful shiny coat, and look the picture of health. Fat should cover their ribs, but you should still be able to feel them. But... dont overdo it -- too much fat is bad! Like people, horses can't be athletic when they are pudgy, soft blimps. Don't wait until hunting begins to feed them correctly. It is very difficult to have weight gain AND conditioning at the same time. Too much weight will make it almost impossible to get conditioning. Any questions, ask a professional.
A rule of thumb for jumping is that you should be able to canter quietly over a jump at home that is 6" higher than you anticipate jumping out hunting.
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. Most accomplished riders have ridden thousands of hours, often spending 10-20 hours per week in the saddle (not including trail-riding). They school their horses, ride with trainers, and compete. They train all of 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 your enjoyment next hunting season. You dont think you or your horse need it? Read on...
A rule of thumb for jumping is that you should be able to canter quietly over a jump at home that is 6" higher than you anticipate jumping out hunting. Most of our 'coops are 3', a number of them are 3'3" to 3'6", while only a few are 3'9". But they are very, very solid; and they dont fall down if you hit them. You should be able to jump 3'6" to 4'3" at home. Can you do that??? Remember, out hunting you also jump in and out of mud, on uneven or rough footing, and up and down hill. At home the ring is flat and dry, and the jumps fall down when you hit them.
Fitness is another area that seems lacking in a lot of field hunters. We have a barn full of oldsters (over 14) that continue hunting year after year (Donaufee has hunted nine seasons). We are able to keep them going, because we follow a simple plan:
After a couple of months rest, we start them back around July 15. They get shoes all around and start walking out for a few weeks. This is the best way to slowly harden your horse without hurting tendons and muscles. They go out five days a week for 30-40 minutes of energetic walking. We usually ride one and pony another. This way, we get two done for the time of one.
Around August 1, we start trotting cross country with little or no cantering. Cantering is hard on the legs, and we do enough of it during the hunting season. Ten to fifteen minutes warm-up, followed by 20-30 minutes of trotting, then 15 minutes of cooling down is a great workout of horse and RIDER. We try to school once a week over gymnastics to tune up the jumping.
By the beginning of official cubbing (third Saturday of September) Grosvenor likes his horses fairly fit. He wants to be able to go on for several hours and not have a tired horse. The hunters have now had about 9 weeks of steady work. They have gotten their shoes reset every 4-5 weeks and have been wormed every 6 weeks. 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 the staff and some of the 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!!