by Marilyn Munzert
As the long day in the saddle ticks down to the last few miles, I can’t help but think about all the rewards waiting for me back at my trailer. However, as much as I would like to slide out of the saddle and into a lawn chair, I still have work to do before I can call it a day. While I enjoyed a relaxing ride out on the trail, my horse was working hard. To ensure that he fully recovers from the day’s work, some post-ride TLC is in order.
After a long ride, you can’t just untack, brush off your horse, and give him hay and fresh water and a pat on the neck for a hard day’s work. It isn’t enough. Simply put, the more you can do for your horse after the ride, the better he will recover for the next one.
Post-ride care can be divided into the following categories: cool-down and clean-up; aftercare for physical well-being; and aftercare for metabolic health. The cooling-down process should actually start while you are still out on the trail, before the ride is over. As you cover the last stretch of trail back to your trailer or base camp, slow down the pace for the last 15 to 20 minutes, especially if it’s hot. Your horse can recover even more quickly if you dismount, loosen the girth, and hand-walk him in.
Giving your horse the opportunity to cool down before the end of your ride allows his body to stop generating heat and sweat by the time you remove your saddle.
When you get back to your trailer, offer your horse cool water and let him drink his fill, then immediately remove your tack. Give his face a good rubdown with a towel or medium/stiff brush, concentrating on the areas around his ears, under his jaw and along the sides of his face. This will remove sweat and relieve itching so he doesn’t hurt himself by rubbing his face on your trailer, a water bucket, or wherever you have him tied.
The next task is to thoroughly clean your horse. A clean horse is less likely to rub or develop skin irritations form residual grime.
Before setting out on a long trail ride, have your post-ride accessories organized so you don’t have to ransack your trailer for them, or discover later that you forgot something. This is also a time-saver. You will need two buckets of water (one your horse can drink from and one for sponging), as well as a sponge, a few brushes, a hoof pick and a hand towel. Add an ice chest with ice boots if you have these.
The cleaning method you use after the ride depends on the weather. If it’s hot, thoroughly wash your horse, either by hosing him off or using a sponge. If it is cold or windy, be careful how much water you use to wash him. If it is very cold, don’t use any water. Use a damp towel or sponge to clean around the base of the ears and the girth area. If necessary, put a cooler on your horse afterward.
The next step is to check and clean your horse’s feet, and then thoroughly evaluate his legs. The three things to look for are swelling, increased heat, and pain from palpation. After a ride, a horse’s legs will likely be warm, so look for localized areas of increased heat.
If the horse has had a hard workout and you have a long drive home, ice his legs for 20 to 30 minutes at the trailer before you load up. Lowering the temperature of your horse’s legs will reduce any inflammation and help you to better identify any potential problems.
Applying a cooling agent to the legs and then wrapping them will help to further draw out any heat. Soaking pillow wraps in cold water and then wrapping the legs will last all night to draw out any heat, keep the legs cool, and keep them from stocking up.
Once you get home it is important that your horse be able to move around freely to keep him from getting stiff. Stiffness comes from lactic acid build-up in the muscles and varies from horse to horse. The body absorbs it over time but movement helps carry it out of the muscle tissue.
While you are assessing your horse’s physical well-being, tune in to his metabolic state as well.
If you want to monitor your horse’s fitness level, checking your horse’s pulse and respiration during and after a ride, is a good tool.
If you know what your horse’s resting heart rate is, then you can use it as a simple yet valuable evaluation tool. If you don’t have a stethoscope handy, there are ways to feel your horse’s pulse with your finger. You can feel the pulse on the inside of the front leg, right above the knee, or underneath the jaw.
Your horse’s pulse won’t be at this resting level (35 to 45 beats per minute) right after a ride, but it should be close, and certainly less than 60 beats per minute (bpm). If your horse looks really tired or dehydrated after a ride, taking his pulse is a good indicator of whether he is in pain.
Continue to monitor your horse’s heart rate, especially if he seems stressed after a ride. A high heart rate can also be an indicator that your horse was overworked, that his core temperature is still high, or that he is cold. A fit horse will drop to 60 bpm or less within five minutes. Fitness, heat, and humidity also affect recovery rates.
If your horse isn’t acting right or seems a little colicky, listen to his gut sounds. There are four quadrants to listen to. Where the stifle meets the abdomen, listen up high and down low, to the left and to the right. When you listen, you want to hear a rumble every five to 10 seconds. However if you listen and it sounds like a hurricane inside your horse, this can be a sign of pending diarrhea or gastrointestinal spasm. A gastrointestinal spasm could indicate severe dehydration. If other signs accompany the spasm, such as high heart rate and/or respiration, consult a vet.
If your horse’s gut sounds are quiet after a ride, encourage him to eat. Offer hay, soaked feed, or fresh grass.
With so much to do before, during and after a ride, keep in mind a few of the most important dos and don’ts. Never try anything new the day of the big ride, like new tack or feed. Make sure your horse is loose and limber before hauling out to a trail ride. Don’t just pull him out of his stall and throw him in the trailer. A horse that has had the chance to stretch his legs a little before loading will haul better and be less stressed. If you will be hauling for several hours to get to your riding destination, allow extra time so that once you get there, you can walk your horse to relax him and loosen him up.
All of this work will pay off when you finally get to sit down and put your feet up. More importantly, it will keep your horse happy and healthy for future rides.