Saddle Up for Spring: Rebuilding Riding Fitness After Winter

Updated August 10, 2023
Horse and rider walking in front of a beautiful barn.

If you happen to live in a colder climate and don’t have access to an indoor arena, you’re probably counting down the days to spring horseback riding weather. Sometimes winter is a great time to take a break and enjoy downtime, but by March, you are probably ready to get back in the saddle and enjoy the warm weather again. 

Cabin fever for a horse lover looks a bit like pacing by the door in your breeches and boots. If you and your horse have taken the winter off from riding and training, you’ll need a game plan to properly rebuild you and your horse’s fitness. While getting back into shape might not be your favorite part of spring horseback riding, we have some tips that will help! 

Set a Spring Start Date

If you have ever heard the saying, “Starting is the hardest part”, that’s where this tip comes in handy. It can be hard to pull the plug to start the barn routine back up again and make time to ride. It’s easy to keep postponing and hard to take that first leap. So, set a firm goal based on daylight and temperatures since footing will factor into the equation too. 

  • Pick a consistent time of day to ride that will always work with your schedule.
  • Set a number of days you will ride each week.
  • Map out your training schedule (mark it on a calendar if needed). 
  • Remember to set time for vet visits and farriers before you start a riding routine. 

Sometimes things don't get done if you just think about the idea. Tasks are much more likely to be accomplished if they are written down. 

Start Off and Build Up Slowly

On that first ride of the spring season, be realistic and brace for the worst. It's unlikely your horse forgot everything, but they might be feeling rusty. Remember to be understanding, don't rush things,  and work through any bumps considerately. You can do this in a few ways depending on your horse and skill level. 

  • Start with short hand walks with just a halter and lead rope.
  • Warm your horse up on the  lunge line in both directions. Lunging for a few days before considering getting in the saddle may be wise depending on your horse. 
  • Once you’re in the saddle, go slowly through your routine and gradually build up your rides’ length and training demands over the course of several weeks. Make sure your horse is feeling relaxed and sound. 

During seasonal changes, it's a smart practice to use a quarter sheet or cooler during warm-up and cool-down. This will be especially appreciated by older horses with arthritis or achy muscles. 

The first week back in the saddle can be spent mostly walking on a loose rein to let them stretch, with a bit of trotting. It’s always a rude awakening when both horse and rider lose their breath easily and feel so out of shape! Try to build up trotting slowly until you can more easily catch your breath and feel more confident. Spend at least 15 minutes warming up and cooling down during this time. As a rider, you can also try to cross-train by walking, hiking, and weight training when possible.

When Ready, Change Up Your Routine

Horse and rider walking in field

Once you are comfortable with at least a half hour to 45 minutes of walking and trotting, slowly start adding short periods of cantering. The first time you canter can be challenging. If this is your horse, start by aiming to go once around in each direction on a looser rein. Sitting nice and deep in the seat and building the cantering time up, adding in lots of transitions. Transitions build muscle and stamina for both of you. 

Once you and your horse feel comfortable and at ease with your everyday routine, you can add different training exercises to your rides, such as: 

Find a Trainer to Challenge Yourself

Once you feel like you are back in shape, consider options to further improve your skills.  This could include taking lessons, cross-country schooling, or going to a horse-friendly nature preserve for trail riding. 

Enlisting the help of a trainer can help push you in ways you didn’t know and teach you new skills you may never have thought you could accomplish.  Find a trainer who listens to your goals, is experienced, and makes you feel comfortable. You want an experienced rider who you admire. Someone who gets you is worth the time and you won't regret it. 

Every year, the summer seems to go by too quickly, but we look forward to our winter downtime to reflect on all the fun we had during the warmer months. To all the seasonal riders out there, have safe and happy adventures this year!

The information provided in the Horsemanship Library is based solely on our SmartPak authors' opinions. SmartPak strongly encourages you to consult your veterinarian or equine professionals regarding specific questions about your horse's health, care, or training. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease or behavior and is purely educational.