I ride a number of different horses, and none of them belong to me. I think I’m more cautious with them than I was with my own: it’s a lot to trust someone else with your horse. I have a checklist I go over before every ride.
I should point out here that rigid adherence to my checklist is probably due more to geriatric memory loss than superior horsemanship.
I have two guys coming back from different injuries, so I’m trying to stay sharp. My list below…and I’m interested in what you do. I’m hoping you’ll share with us at the end.
If I were a barn manager, I’d probably be taking a photo a month of every horse, and then compare photos from month to month. It’s so easy to lose sight of changes when they are minute from day to day.
Initial attitude: how does my horse feel about coming out?
Walking out visual: after a few strides, I walk backward and do a quick visual check on how the horse walks out.
Walking out audio: facing myself forward, I lead the horse steadily over a length of cement and listen to the stride. Is it even? Is one hoof louder or softer when it hits? Is there any hesitation? Does the lead bob in my hand unevenly? Are any toes scuffing?
Visual once over: Weight? Coat? Eye? Legs? Bumps? Skin?
Hands on once over: Before grooming (if no mud) I run my hands over their whole body to feel for anything out of the ordinary – from tight muscles to warmth to possible pasture bruises from kicks or bites. (I do it before grooming, because I’ve found the process of grooming can loosen tight muscles, which is good, but I’d like to know what is tight beforehand to get a baseline.)
Mental recheck: I think about the horse’s age, condition, known previous injuries, etc. How does this horse usually check out? What was my last ride like? What has his owner told me?
Grooming: complete but doesn’t have to be fussy. For some reason, a lot of people don’t brush legs? I’ve found stuff I’ve missed with my hands after brushing down. Same with faces.
Tacking up: does the horse tack up normally and easily? Is he girthy or does he sigh a lot? Tack still fit right? Once tacked up, another trip down the cement. How does he walk out tacked up? Did it change anything?
Riding: I use a mounting block, even on short horses, to save back strain. Might be dumb, but I figure if someone hauled on me every day getting on, I might get sore or eventually crooked. I know some riders switch sides. I’m not that dexterous!
Once I’m settled, how does my guy feel walking in rhythm and stretch? I try to do this on the buckle, and get the biggest walk they have without pushing it. Are my hips rising and falling evenly? Is his barrel pushing out against my legs evenly as the sides alternate? Are his shoulders reaching forward the same distance? How stiff is his neck when he’s straight? Is he traveling straight easily? Or am I unconsciously straightening him?
I use the walk warm up to ask myself a lot of questions, both about where my horse is, and my seat. Generally, if I’m paying attention, I’ll catch anything that’s off before we hit the trot. It also gives me a sketchy report card on what kind of ride I’m likely to have, and what mood my horse is in.
This sounds like a lot of work, but it’s not. I have to walk the cement barn aisle anyway, so I use it. I have to warm up anyway, so I use that. I want to connect with my horse, so I use my eyes and hands. The majority of this stuff is what most of us already do.
The only extra work (for me) is being wholly present, and paying attention to what is in front of me. I don’t find that as easy. Partly because it requires I come home, get grounded in my own body, and figure out how I feel also.
What do you add? What helps you evaluate your horse’s condition and make decisions on what you’ll be doing once you’re on board?