As warmer temperatures allow you to get back to your regular riding routine, keep in mind that your horse is probably a bit out of shape. It will take a few weeks of gradual work to get him fit again. In the meantime, however, you’ll need to be able to distinguish between “unfit” and “unwell” so you don’t overlook physical problems.
An out-of-shape horse will breathe more rapidly after fast work, but he won’t be coughing, sneezing or blowing unusual discharge from his nostrils. He’ll also resume his normal breathing rate within a few minutes of stopping; an unwell horse may have difficulty catching his breath or seem “stressed” well after a ride is over.
A horse who is unfit will still be eager to begin work. He may tire quickly, but he should start out feeling “fresh” and vigorous. If you’re concerned about lethargy, it’s helpful to take your horse’s temperature. Just wait about an hour after a ride to make sure you don’t get a falsely high reading. The normal equine temperature is between 99 and 101 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything higher warrants a call to your veterinarian.
An out-of-shape horse will bounce back from a workout by the next day, with no lingering signs of stiffness or fatigue. He will also get back into condition fairly quickly---much faster than you will. Within just a few rides, you should be able to see an improvement in his overall fitness. An ill horse might take a few days to recover from a workout and may not show improvement in fitness levels, even after many days.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #439.