This is the time of year that traditionally eventers are turned away and allowed to be horses in their fields. It is the off season.
When I was younger we lived in a very showing based area, where the season kicked off over the Easter Holidays at Hartpury College, and wound up in mid September at Usk County Show. Occasionally the weanlings were taken to the Winter Fayre at Builth Wells but usually by October the trailers were cleaned out and taken over as a rug store/airer.
Now though, there doesn`t seem to be much of an off season. The eventing world is running from earlier in the year until later in the year. In dressage and showjumping the winter series runs into the summer series, and I`ve seen more and more cross country competitions running in November and December. Combined with the fact that we all like to do a bit of everything – when the weather changes and we can no longer compete in one discipline we take up another discipline, such as hunting or team chasing – there is never an off season for our horses.
But then again, does the average hobby rider ever do enough work of a certain intensity that their horses require an extended holiday, and to be turned away? Surely if you dabble in a bit of everything and your horse has a varied exercise regime they won`t become stale or fatigued by work?
From my point of view I tend to drop off Otis`s workload in October as there aren`t any events. I continue to ride four or five times a week, but hacks are steadier and shorter due to ground conditions and light levels, and I don`t tend to go cross country, so his workload is definitely decreased. However, I like to used the poorer weather to focus on our dressage and showjumping so don`t really want to turn him away. I try and go out competing a couple of times a month. I think that over Christmas I will give him a fortnights holiday as it`s looking busy with family and friends, and it`s a good time for us both to have a break. Two weeks is enough for both of us; he won`t lose too much fitness, and neither will I! I believe that he actually enjoys being ridden, so turning him away isn`t necessarily a positive thing for him.
Anyway, I`m not convinced that turning away a horse is necessarily the right things to do. Yes, the top horses can always do with a physical break, but let`s be serious, how many of us are riding around Badminton? Plus, a physical break doesn`t mean to completely cease all activity. Look at yourselves. If you are an active person who enjoys running, then sitting around for an extended period is not enjoyable. The same goes for horses; if a horse is used to being ridden for an hour everyday then instead of turning them away and leaving them standing unhappily at the gate, then it may be better to ride them for half an hour every other day, so they can recuperate physically whilst maintaining a happy frame of mind.
The weather at this time of year helps reduce riding time too. We get colds, and the days get wetter, so like me today we will abandon riding for that day. I`ve got a horrible cold, so whilst I`d fully intended on hacking out, the windy weather and me feeling below par means that I left it for today. For those who work full time, the dark nights mean they cannot hack so they may opt for a shorter session in the school or lunging their horse.
I`m going off subject anyway. I read an article by Lucinda Fredericks who stated that she doesn`t turn her eventers away at the end of the eventing season, but rather reduces their workload and keeps them ticking over until turning them away for six weeks in December. She finds that this means they retain a better baseline of fitness so bringing them back into work in January is far easier, as well as giving her some leeway should the weather be horrendous. This makes a lot of sense, and I can understand that fit athletes can become confused with a sudden, steep drop in workload, so a slow and steady decline can be beneficial. From what I`ve read, Mary King is a traditionalist who turns hers away in herds for a couple of months, before bringing them back into work in the New Year.
Traditionally, youngsters or freshly backed horses are turned away to allow them to put all their energy into growing. This makes sense, but the only reason I can see why you wouldn`t is if a horse took a long time to accept the tack and to being ridden. After all that effort and time, you don`t want to have to begin again in the spring. If this was the case with a horse of mine I think I would tickle them along by riding them two or three times a week for half an hour all winter. There wouldn`t be any pressure of increasing their level of schooling, it would just be to keep reminding them of the tack and the process of being ridden. I think if a youngster is tricky to handle on the ground, or prone to being dominant, than continuing regular handling is beneficial too – even if they are just brought in to be groomed a few times a week and reminded of correct ground manners.