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How to spell and bring the dressage horse back into work

Who better to ask for tips on spelling dressage horses and bringing them back into work than the very knowledgeable Stephanie Spencer.

Stephanie Spencer from the Swan Valley in W.A. is an EA Level I dressage coach and Grand Prix rider. Now 31, she grew up riding all disciplines at Pony Club and hacked at shows on her Welsh pony, later turning to dressage when she trained Tallong Coral, her mother’s Arabian/Warmblood mare, up to Small Tour. After completing a year of Exercise and Health Science at the University of Western Australia, she went to work with Mary Hanna on the east coast. “I was supposed to stay for six months but it turned out to be two and a half years! We ended up selling Coral to a lovely young Malaysian rider who represented her country at the South East Malaysian Games and was part of the bronze medal winning team.”

While in Victoria Stephanie bought Rambo, a KWPN gelding, and competed in CDI-Ws and Under-25 GP classes before returning to the west in 2013 with both Rambo and another horse purchased from the Hannas, Redskin R, a five-year-old gelding by Regardez Moi.

Stephanie and Redskin in winning form (Image courtesy Stephanie Spencer).

In 2016 she decided to see how Redskin would stand up against the top small tour horses in the east. “We left my very understanding clients and first based with my good friend, Shanon McKimmie, and then with Mary Hanna for four months. We competed at Boneo’s Spring CDI, Nationals, the Victorian Dressage Festival, scored a ride in the Carl Hester 2019 Masterclass in Victoria, and did lots of training before returning home.”

Stephanie’s ridden and trained many horses but in recent times her main focus has more recently been on coaching. She teaches a range of riders from all disciplines and enjoys watching them get the best out of their horses as they advance through the grades. She also has her own small team, varying in age and levels, which have been with her since they were broken in.

When we ask this knowledgeable and talented rider for some pointers on spelling a dressage horse and bringing them back into work, Stephanie starts by pointing out that the long-term spelling which eventers and racehorses often follow is less common for dressage horses, who are more likely to have a couple of weeks off here and there throughout the year.

And, she adds, the word ‘spelling’ is open to interpretation. “I automatically picture a horse in a big paddock, with or without other horses, and basically not getting touched for a month or so. There are some fantastic facilities with great set ups for spelling – undulating paddocks with water at the top and feed down the bottom, ideal for young horses, but it depends on whether the horse is happy being sent to another environment and adapting to a new routine, or will they just stress more? Mine don’t cope very well with not much attention. Perhaps that’s just saying they’re too spoilt! So, they stay at our property and their routine is the same, except they don’t get worked. You have to find what’s right for you and your horse.”

Time for some R&R (Image courtesy Stephanie Spencer).

Regarding rugging there’s a lot to think about: what are they used to, their coats, the weather and time of year, if they are in a herd or an individual paddock – all are factors that should be considered. Stephanie also emphasises not immediately spelling them when they’re in full dressage fitness. “Detrain them,” she suggests, “ride on different areas and surfaces, change up their work routine and perhaps even go on trails. And ideally, the condition you want them in during spelling is lighter than heavier particularly if they are young. There’s an old saying that you should be able to just see the ribs, with a nice amount of topline.”

So, with your horse now well rested, how about bringing them back into work? We asked Stephanie for her expert advice:

EH: After a spell do you take into account how the horse was going before?

SS: Absolutely! Were they carrying any niggling injuries, how long have they been out of work, and how fit were they prior to the break are all things that should be considered.

EH: Does the farrier need to be called prior to beginning work?

SS: Again, it depends on the circumstances while they were spelling. Were they spelled without shoes? This can be beneficial if the horse was out of work for a while. Bear in mind the kind of feet they have, the ground where they’ve been, and where you will now be working them. Before going away you could leave just the front shoes on but, if being spelled with others, it is always safest to take all shoes off.

EH: Where and how do you first begin exercising?

SS: With the sensible ones it’s great to do lots of walking under saddle and bring them back in with a very gradual program. With the more excitable or younger horses, the safest option might be lunging/long reining with transitions and different long lines. Also, work on changes of tempo and frame whilst lunging. Where

possible, walking on hard and soft surfaces helps to improve bone density and strengthen soft tissue. Stretches strengthen their backs (see our December 2022 issue for carrot and other stretches) and rein backs can also be done prior to getting back on board or during their holidays. Equicore, a core strengthening and conditioning system, is great for horses moving to the next level. It can be used prior to restarting under saddle and is good for older horses to maintain core condition and optimal posture. You could also talk to a physio/massage therapist about what exercises could be done prior to the horse being ridden again.

NOTE: Stephanie strongly suggests wearing a watch and following a time-based schedule, which should include a program of gradually increased walking, trotting and cantering. Monitor how long you spend on these gaits, and work on both the anaerobic (muscular) and aerobic (cardiovascular) energy systems. With young horses you need to be safe so keep the duration short and, perhaps, exercise in a more controlled environment.

EH: What precautions need to be taken when you first mount the horse?

SS: I’m probably too cautious and like to have everything checked before riding again. Make sure the horse is in good shape, and that their feet, teeth and soundness have all been checked. Before getting on again, ensure that there’s no muscle soreness and your gear fits well and is clean.

EH: When resuming work, should you walk, trot and canter straight away?

SS: Again, it does depend on how long the horse has been out of work. Lots do but I don’t think we should be too greedy. An athlete’s training program does not include doing sprints straight after a break. Think of it as a rehab type situation where you slowly build the intervals and the intensity. It is a great opportunity to go back and work on the basics: transitions, lightness of the aids, adjustability of frame and tempo. Mix up the work and bring in some new exercises to keep you and the horse fresh. Chat to your friends and coaches for any good exercises or pole/cavaletti set ups they might have or use.

NOTE: Stephanie’s a believer in hastening slowly when bringing back your dressage horse. She advises that hill work and water walking is good for the mind and body and a great conditioner after a break. She also strongly advocates cross training, suggesting poles, cavalettis and cantering around paddocks for aerobic fitness, and on different surfaces (within reason) to strengthen the horse. “It’s a great way to encourage longevity,” she says. “We want them to be fit, happy and healthy for a long time as we can’t replace them.”

EH: Is there a specific time frame to adhere to before riding tests?

SS: Again, it really depends on the animal and the time they’ve been away. Generally, my theory is that it takes twice the amount of time that the horse has had off to get them back to where they were. Another important point: be cautious about the weather. You must always take care when working your horse in the heat, especially if they are not very fit.

EH: Do you have any general recommendations regarding diet?

SS: Always feed according to work. Any changes need to be made gradually which applies both to when the horse goes away to spell and then when they return and start coming back into work. If you bring them back in summer, they will very likely require extra electrolytes in their feed.

EH: Are there different spelling rules for different breeds or disciplines?

SS: I can really only speak with experience for dressage, eventers and racehorses. I think, typically, eventers and racehorses have a similar mentality. They definitely do more miles and they tend to be put out for lengthy periods of time because of this. I believe this type of long term spelling is less common for dressage horses.

EH: Is it necessary to spell a horse if they’re mainly used for recreational riding?

SS: I think the reality is that some people ‘spell’ a horse when it suits them more than when it’s required for the horse! They might be going away and therefore it’s an appropriate time for the horse to also have a break, which is fair enough! If the pleasure horse is at a commercial yard it could be a good financial decision for the owners to ‘downgrade’ them into a spelling paddock if that’s on offer, and save some money whilst the horse also gets some R&R.

Interested in some coaching? Contact Spencer Equestrian through their Facebook page or call on 0424 033 689.

Main image: If you’re lucky enough to access one, an equine water treadmill is great for building fitness.