Sometimes, try as you might, it's nearly impossible to keep your horse on the work schedule you'd like to. You know, when like annoying health ailments (both equine and human), the fact that there really are only 24 hours in a day, and out-of-town commitments result in an unplanned vacation for your trusty steed. And at the end of that vacation, you're faced with the task of bringing said steed back into work, which is its own challenge when you're dealing with an aging horse.

Someone is happy to be back to work!

Photo: Erica Larson

Such was the case for Dorado and me last month. What started as a few days off to let a case of scratches heal without irritation from the sand in the arenas turned into a good three weeks off from work when, not long after the scratches episode, I embarked on a pre-planned out-of-state vacation—a far longer time off than I'd initially planned or Dorado wanted! But, nonetheless and regardless of why, I'm now embarking on a new adventure: brining an energetic 18-year-old Thoroughbred back into work in July for a fall competition season.

The news isn't all bad. Dorado has always gained condition fairly rapidly, but doesn't lose it too quickly. So despite the fact that he had the better part of a month off, he's much fitter than he would be if I was starting from square one. And, the temperatures aren't so high that riding is out of the question; it's certainly a little warmer than I'd like it to be when I'm reconditioning a horse, but not so hot that it will be detrimental to his health.

But on the flip side, Dorado does not appreciate—with one ounce of his being—the slow and quiet work needed to help build his condition back up: "Seriously Mom?" he says in his own special way. "We're trotting by those jumps again without going over them? Not fair!"

I made a mental list of things to keep in mind during the early stages of putting Dorado back to work:

Take it slow. Even if Dorado tries to tell me that he's ready and able to canter around the arena and over jumps for 45 minutes, he's not ready or able without risk to his health. We know that older horses typically require a longer conditioning period than younger horses to reach the same level of fitness, so I can't let my young-at-heart senior's desires to run and play sway my good judgment of taking things slow.

Give plenty of walk breaks. If he had it his way, Dorado would eliminate walking from all equestrian disciplines and activities. Still, it's important that I give him plenty of breaks between doing more strenuous work—regardless of whether he's at peak condition or not, and especially during the warmest parts of the year.

Be cognizant of the ambient temperature, and listen to my horse. Even though Dorado enjoys summer a heck of a lot more than he does winter, the heat can easily sneak up on an older horse. And, since horses' thermoregulation abilities generally diminish as they age, I'm always watching and feeling for any signs that he might be struggling in the heat—especially when he's not fit. If I detect a problem, we call it a day immediately and focus on cooling down.

Dorado loves going for rides in the field, but he'd much rather be running than walking.

Photo: Erica Larson

Change it up. Because we participate in low-level three-day eventing, our workouts are always fairly variable—dressage training one day, jumping the next, some hacks in the fields, and cross-country training. However, Dorado is generally much more interested in slow work when he's looking at something different each day. This comes with its own challenge though. When we change up the setting—especially when he's not been in regular work for several weeks—Dorado is much more likely to find things to spook at when we're out in a field, and that generally turns into him trotting and cantering in place if he's not allowed to trot or canter for real! So I have to choose wisely where we work each day. If he comes out of his stall like a fire-breathing dragon, we'll probably stay in the arena. If he's quieter, we might take a walk out back.

As always, check for bumps, bruises, and sore spots. If you haven't been to the gym in a month and then start attending again, how do you feel after the first few days? Personally, I'm pretty sore! So, as I do whenever I'm at the barn, I check Dorado over carefully for anything that might be bothering him when he's coming back into work, and I treat him accordingly (with advice from my veterinarian if the problem is serious enough).

Challenge his mind and have fun! I'll admit it: I like to run and jump and play as much as Dorado does! So slow work can get boring after a while. But I'm keeping work slow to help Dorado get back into shape, my goal is to challenge his mind with lots of exercises on the flat that don't take as much of a toll on his body and to have fun doing it. So far, I've just been thrilled to be back in the saddle, so fun has definitely not been an issue. And, I'm pretty sure Dorado is having as much fun as I am.

Barring unexpected interruptions (you know, annoying ailments or the fact that there really are only 24 hours in a day…), I'm hoping Dorado will regain his condition and be back to normal in the near future!

When you're bringing a horse back into work, what are the top things you consider?