Make the Most of Time Off

Once the sprint of the fall and winter show season is done, both you and your horse could use some time off. Here’s how to get the most out of your temporary hiatus.

By Tom McCutcheon, With Jennifer Paulson

When you’re ready to take some time off, you might be tempted to go straight to resting your horse. NRHA Professional Tom McCutcheon’s advice might change your thinking.

Whether it’s after the fall and winter show season comes to a close or any time of year, everyone needs a little rest and relaxation once in a while—including your horses.

We caught up with NRHA Professional and Million Dollar Rider Tom McCutcheon to see what his winter R&R program looks like and the benefits he expects for his horses. Here are his answers to six questions about giving your horse a mental and physical break.

Q: When you get home from Oklahoma City in December, what do you do with your 3-year-olds coming off a long, taxing event?

A: We like to slowly wean them off the work they’ve become accustomed to by keeping them active for at least another week following the show. Then we lope them, turn them out, and get them on the Aquatred to keep them moving in low-impact work. I think it helps keep them sound. When you come off that level of work, the layoff can be tough. The horses are in a  high-intensity state, both physically and mentally, so it’s better to back them off slowly so they don’t go from 100% to 0%.

When we get back, we like to have the vet go over each horse to identify any potential problems. If everything looks and feels good, we don’t worry. But if anything is off—even just a little—that’s the time to address it. Problems can be more easily noticed, diagnosed, and treated when they’re handled immediately after a stressful event. As a bonus, the horse already has some resting time built into his schedule, so it’s not a big hit to his training to let him heal properly.

Q: What about your older reining horses—maybe the ones who are showing at world shows or at the Adequan® NAAC show?

A: We have a similar philosophy for our older horses. They might not show again until February or March, but we want to ease those horses off that workload and continue to lope them a couple times a week. 

Overall, I’m not a fan of complete rest and relaxation for any horse. We want to get on, go lope quietly, and just go around—no picking! We just keep them moving. Some kind of consistent exercise is best for both younger and older horses in the long term. The worst thing is to leave a horse standing in his stall 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

You can see what a complete layoff does in a horse that’s retired for a year or two and then returns to competition. Soundness can be a real issue, and it’s harder to bring him back. Constant motion is best, and you can do that without getting into the horse’s mind so he has a nice mental break.

Turnout time is key for a mental break. If your horse is lazy in the pasture, you’ll need to get in more riding time to keep him physically fit during his layoff.

Q: What’s your outlook on turnout during time off for your high-performance horses?

A: I love turnout. But you have to understand that some horses use it more than others. We have some that just stand around and eat when we turn them out. That’s great for them mentally, but physically it’s not what we want to accomplish. We have some that run and kick and play when they’re turned out. We don’t ride those horses as often during that down time.

Q: How do you feel about taking a horse to compete in a venue outside reining during their down time? For example, maybe going to show in the ranch riding for a mental distraction?

A: If a horse is on down time, he needs to be off. If you’re showing in another event, you’re still putting pressure on that horse. From the NRHA Futurity until the first aged events of the following year in March and April, there’s a certain amount of down time needed. If you’re going to go compete, you’ll still need to school and train, even if it’s not for a reining class. These layoffs are 90% mental, and your horse needs the break. 

Q: How does your feeding program change during the months your horses are off?

A: I feed oats and alfalfa. I back off a little on the feed because the horses are burning fewer calories. I’ll hang a hay bag with grass in it to keep a horse occupied in his stall—it helps keep him happier, which is good for his mental state.

Exercise on a machine like an Aquatread provides a low-impact way to keep your horse moving during his layoff without over-taxing his body or his mind.

Q: What about your non pros? What do you encourage them to do during their horses’ time off?

A: I tell my non pros to go on vacation and enjoy Christmas! But this is a good time to think about goals and discuss them. At the end of each year, we sit down with each client and assess what they did in the previous year and what they want to accomplish in the next show season. We get a loose idea of what shows they want to go to. We don’t get too specific, but we get an idea of the client’s direction and their goals going into the new year. Being on the same page makes for a smooth transition into the next show season.

I personally have a lot of contact with my clients, so most of these discussions are spontaneous. But for customers I don’t see as often, I do schedule a time to touch base. As long as we talk about what we want to happen ahead of time, it makes the whole process easier.


Tom McCutcheon, Tioga, Texas, is an NRHA Million Dollar Rider and has finished at the head of the pack in numerous major events, including winning individual and team gold at the 2010 FEI World Equestrian Games and being named the 2010 USEF Equestrian of the Year. He’s served on many NRHA committees and as a Director-At-Large on the NRHA Executive Committee. Learn more at