Saddle Up with Beth Eva: Tune-up vs. Legged-up

Photo contributed by Beth Eva

By Beth Eva | Owner/Trainer
Heartland Ranch Horse Training and Lessons

Hello again everyone! Beth Eva of Heartland Ranch Horse Training and Lessons here today with a very common spring-time question: does my horse need a tune-up? Or just need to be legged up? And what’s the difference between the two? As the weather has suddenly shifted to clear and warm, many horse owners who’ve had a long winter break from their horses are starting to pull their steeds out and put them back to work. And as they do, they find that they are out of condition and might not be responding the same way they did when ridden last fall. Let’s look at some common problems and find out how to tell what your horse needs after their long time off.

There are two very common issues seen in spring when the horses are asked to work after a winter lay-off: the first is physical condition and the second is mental state. It’s not unusual to find that your horse is overweight and badly out of shape. Even if they haven’t packed on weight, they will need to be gradually reintroduced to work so they can get in shape and avoid injury before being asked to perform any strenuous tasks. You wouldn’t be expected to run a marathon after a couple months sitting on your couch, so don’t expect your horse to be able to work at his best unless you’ve conditioned him beforehand. This physical conditioning is what we call “legging up” your horse. All horses that have had an extended period of rest will need some level of legging up before getting back in peak condition and performing at their best, but not all horses will need a tune up. That’s where the mental state comes into play. Some horses will be lazy and a little grumpy about being asked to work. Another frequent issue is a horse that is extremely “fresh” from sitting, and is bursting with energy and maybe a little difficult to get to focus. Both of these problems are mental as well as physical, and may not clear up with simple exercise. That’s where the “tune-up” comes into play.

A simple test is to pull your horse out and get in the saddle (if you have problems catching, leading, tying, grooming, saddling or bridling him, you’re off to a bad start and might need to take some time going back to Fundamentals Training before riding him). Once on your horse, see if you can control the five parts of the horse: head, neck, shoulders, ribs and hindquarters. Can you pick up both reins and have the horse softly drop his nose, one rein and have the horse respond by bending his neck and giving you his face lightly? Can you pick up both reins and add leg and have him back up quietly and willingly? Can you apply leg at the cinch and have him move his shoulder off the pressure? Leg just behind the cinch and have him give his ribs and move his body squarely off that pressure? Leg back by the rear cinch and have him lightly move his hindquarters? Walk, trot and lope with control of speed and direction, with easy transitions between all gaits? If your horse responds well to this simple test, then he doesn’t need a tune-up.  If, however, your horse is over-reactive or lazy and belligerent, too forward or balky, or is either unresponsive or responding incorrectly to your cues, then he’s a great candidate for a tune-up.

I hope by this point that the difference between a tune-up and legging up your horse has been made obvious. Legging up your horse is just getting him in shape physically to do the work you’ll require of him, whereas a tune-up is both mentally and physically taking him back to school to either improve his performance or reintroduce and reiterate his previous training. One of the most important factors in both of these choices is the use of the horse. A horse used extensively for high-level competitive events will need much more physical conditioning and responsiveness to rider cues than a horse used at home by the grandkids for a couple hours on weekend outings. If your horse is fit enough and controllable enough to be safely and easily ridden by you in the environment you’ll be subjecting him to, then he’s as legged up and tuned-up as you need him to be. And, let me add, you’ll be one of the few lucky enough to find that ideal horse! Most horses lose conditioning quickly with lack of use, and lose skills if unused or used by a less skilled rider. It’s often a “use it or lose it” situation, and a refresher course is helpful in regaining diminishing skills in a more educated horse, while a tune-up on a younger or “greener” horse often includes building those skills in the first place and can advance a horse from the “green-broke” phase to a more finished level.

If you start to use your horse this spring and find that he has developed problems or lost some skills and responsiveness, or if you wish to advance his training to the next level, then I suggest you contact a professional such as myself for help and possibly get him “tuned-up” so that you can accomplish your riding goals this year. Once again I thank you for reading and wish you a Blessed day!

Beth Eva, Owner/Trainer

Heartland Ranch Horse Training and Lessons


Please submit your horse related questions to me by email and they may be chosen to be answered here in my column.

CR Staff :