You have survived the winter snow and ice and are looking forward to the spring blossoms and the green grass. The spring cleaning and planning for the upcoming lesson season are underway. There are many things to consider as you prepare for opening day of lessons—the horses, the tack and equipment, scheduling of riders, and seasonal management of the facilities.
Let’s start with the horses because without them, you do not have a riding program to offer the community. As you transition to spring, you need to consider your program’s health care protocol. For a lot of farms, this will include vaccines, Coggins tests, and maybe getting teeth floated. I always find it helpful to have the veterinarian look at the horses and make any recommendations that they have for nutritional needs and soundness. I have a close relationship with our facility's vet, and we talk about workload and what we need to do to help our lesson horses handle what is asked of them.
Horses also need to have their hoof care checked in the spring. Some programs might pull shoes while the horses are in the "off" season, so we need to schedule the farrier to come and trim or put shoes on the horses as they get ready to go back to work.
And of course, don't forget that shedding season will be here soon. Horse hair will be on everything, and you need to make sure you brush the horses regularly to help remove their shedding hair. Grooming is an excellent time to check your horse for any physical changes that happened over winter. Horses might not have worked as hard, and you will most likely notice a decrease in muscle tone. Or maybe you had a hard winter and with the winter hair coming off, it is more noticeable that a change needs to be made in some horses' diets.
Horses will need to return to work so that they are ready for their upcoming lesson schedule or summer horse camps. Remember to start off slowly if the horses have been off for the winter. I always compare starting horses back under saddle to us training for a race—you would never go straight to a sprint or a 5K run. You would pace yourself to build up your endurance and stamina, just like we should for our horses. As the horses return to work, they might require a cooler after the workout to help get them dry because of their winter hair.
Before the riding season starts is a great time to do a thorough check of your tack and equipment. If you have a cold and rainy day, you can sit in the tack room and take the tack apart and clean and condition it as you put it back together.
You could consider having a tack cleaning party and invite others from the barn to come and join you. This will give you an opportunity to check the stitches, the leather, and all of the parts to make sure everything is in good working order and safe for your riders while also being comfortable for the horses.
If you supply helmets, be sure to check that they are still in good working condition. This would also include straightening out straps and checking liners in the helmets. You might want to wash removable liners before the start of lesson season.
I always think this is a great time to check the equipment that you use in your lessons. Do your cones need cleaning? Do ground poles or standards need painting or repair? If you have bridges that you use, don’t forget to check the structure of the materials for wear or rot. While checking your equipment for the arena, also look at your storage areas. Does they need any repairs?
Another spring task is a facility walk-through. An alternative idea that we do at our facility is to schedule a "maintenance check" monthly. We have a form that we use to make notes of needed repairs and concerns. This allows you to concentrate on the grounds and buildings as you walk around your property.
You might notice some wind or winter weather damage as you make your way around the farm. It is important to make repairs to keep you, your clients, and your horses safe.
Walk around the pastures and check your fence for wear or possible downed trees. In the buildings, look for wear-and-tear that might be okay, but make a note for future repairs. Budget time and resources to get things on the list fixed.
During the walk-through, you might want to do an inventory of supplies that you will need in the upcoming months. Look at your fly sprays and hair detanglers, shampoos and conditioners, leather cleaning supplies, and any other stable supply that you typically use.
You will also want to check halters, leads, fly mask, brushes, etc., and ensure that you have a few extras in case something goes missing or breaks.
As you transition from winter to spring, another task to consider is putting away your winter supplies. Depending on your location, you might have heated buckets, trough heaters and blankets that will no longer need to be out. At this time on our farm, we also identify items that will need to be replaced for the year. Getting a storage container for all of the heaters and repair supplies is an easy way to keep them all together.
At our program, we also blanket our horses through the winter because of our school schedule. We find the blankets help to keep the horses cleaner, which helps the students get more saddle time than grooming time in their classes. But at the end of the season, we wash all of the blankets and sheets before putting them into storage. We also get a pile ready for repairs, which we like to do this time of year so that we are ready for next winter.
One other thing that you need to work out s your upcoming lesson schedule. Our program is unique in that we have our college program running September through June and our therapeutic and community lesson program from February or March through November.
Many of our horses cross into at least two areas, which helps with exercise and keeping variety in their workload, but it can make scheduling a little more difficult.
Scheduling is something that will be determined by each individual program, but for all, it is important to think through as you prepare for the upcoming season. You will have to consider arena space, lighting until the days get longer and workloads for the horses. Advertising should be under way to help fill any lesson vacancies as well as sending out rider applications and waivers to be updated from returning riders.
Preparing your facility before the opening of the season shows that you are dedicated to keeping those involved safe and have an awareness of the standards for a quality equine program. While it is true that many of the things mentioned should be done throughout the operating year, giving these items a little more attention before your busy season shows the pride that you have in taking care of your property and horses. This should be a trait that will pass to your workers, volunteers and clients.
This article was written by Bradie Chapman, who is a CHA Master Instructor and Clinic Staff, and a faculty lecturer for the Ohio University Southern Equine Studies Program. Ohio University Southern’s equine facility is an approved CHA college program that hosts instructor certifications yearly for students. The program has also started offering equine facility management certification at the facility.