In Ontario, stables are once again open, with heightened precautions and restrictions, after the necessary province wide shut down mid-March to contain Covid-19.
Riders are back to doing what we love, wearing homemade masks along with our helmets, carrying small bottles of sanitizer and eagerly catching up with the barn family from a six-foot distance. Instructors are happy to see their students again, practicing their instruction from a safe distance, perhaps in the outdoor sand ring, happy to be back to teaching, the part of the job they love, and happy to be helping their students get back to what they love, despite the shift in protocols. It won’t be easy, and it won’t change for a while. So, we adapt.
After biosecurity measures, a major concern within the community has been fitness. With nine weeks off, how do we work our horses again to prevent injury? How do we recover from the lost fitness? How long until we regain the ground we feel we have lost?
There are detailed accounts and guidelines for how to bring a horse back into work, depending on their age, previous level of fitness, amount of work that is reasonably expected from them, and nutrition. There are countless fitness articles that can guide a rider back into shape.
But while riders are asking questions about physical fitness, instructors are also considering the mental side of the equation. The best advice you can receive doesn’t come from an article, or a video, or something you heard someone else say. While we are all trying to solve the best way to get fit again - the advice you should heed most is: trust your coach.
For the horses, in most cases, they’ve enjoyed their break and will enjoy the slow return to work. The key word here is slow - because rushing into a full-time program with a horse doesn’t only provide the perfect circumstances for injury, but also for a mental ‘snap’. A rushed horse is stressed, doesn’t like their job and equates the work with pain. A horse that is bullied into work will either bully back or shut down. Savvy instructors watch carefully, monitoring the horse’s reactions as well as their muscular development when preparing them to return to work.
Consistency is the other ingredient. Horses thrive off routine, just like humans do. By giving them consistency, we offer safety, a peace of mind, resulting in a positive riding experience. Now is not the time to throw something new at a horse and rider, or to give them a fresh challenge. Instead, instructors will help you to offer the horses a mental “teddy bear” by following routine and giving them achievable goals.
Now, what about the riders? This is where concern is at an all-time high. Riding for most is a therapy, and the world needs therapy right now. The stress of the pandemic; the uncertainty of the future; the collective grief from loss. On top of this, being human, we confront our insecurities and work to achieve our expectations. My riders are coming to me with goals firmly in hand, angry that they have “fallen behind” an invisible schedule.
Of course, a good instructor wants to push their students. But not after a trauma and make no mistake - whatever your circumstances have been, a pandemic is a trauma. It’s our job to offer therapy from the horses without the burden of expectation. There is no horse show or horse-related goal in the world that outweighs your emotional and mental well-being.
Trust us, your trained professionals, when we say it will all come back. We want you to be in the moment every second you are in the saddle, and to put those goals to the back of your mind. Not to be forgotten about, but temporarily on hold while you find your footing. Trust us when we say you will catch up, and it will be like that break never happened.
Expect your first few lessons to be exercises that are familiar, and highly achievable for you and your horse. It will give you both a much needed mental boost.
Expect long warmups and cool downs, easing your muscles back into the saddle and putting your mind to rest. It doesn’t mean you’ve slowed your progression. It means you’re giving the emotional state of your horse and yourself the time it deserves.
Expect it all to come back. The first few rides won’t feel like progress, but that momentum carries and exponentially grows. There will be no stopping you.
Let your instructor pick the pace. Follow it without worry or stress. This is the time to practice gratitude, take a breath, and start the healing process.