Although they are athletic creatures by nature, horses are not all that different from us when it comes to getting out of shape after months of inactivity.
Whether coming back from injury or seasonal break, it’s a good idea to have your horse looked over by his regular vet. Normally the spring is when he’ll be getting vaccinated and have his yearly dental exam and float done, making this a good time for your vet to keep an eye out for anything that might be amiss. Always discuss your plans for the horse with your vet so you can get the all-clear to start work.
From Zero to Hero
If your horse is 100 percent recovered after an injury layup or is deemed healthy after his winter break, you are ready to begin. If he has certain restrictions due to age-related arthritis or a previous injury, follow your vet’s advice on adjusting his exercise program.
The length of time it takes to get a horse in shape depends on his age, previous fitness level, and the nature of his time off. A younger horse turned out on a large pasture will be much more fit than a senior horse that was on total stall rest.
A recent study at Virginia Intermont College (published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science) found that horses kept in a 100-acre pasture without any forced exercise had a similar level of fitness to stall-kept horses that were exercised five days a week for at least one hour at the walk, trot and canter. Additionally, the pastured horses had higher bone density than stalled, exercised horses.
This doesn’t mean that all is lost if your horse has been on stall rest, but you’ll have to be particularly mindful that he needs a little extra time.
Start Off Slow
The horse’s cardiovascular system is the fastest thing to get into shape, but the tendons and ligaments are the slowest, taking months or even years to reach maximal iron-like toughness. This means that you will need patience; the worst thing you can do is hop on an out-of-shape horse and gallop down the trail or jump a course with no fitness base. If you are tempted to do so, just think of how you’d feel if your horse bowed a tendon and suddenly needed six to 12 months of stall rest!
Any conditioning program requires you to ride your horse at least three days a week to see results, but more is better, up to six days a week . (At least one day off a week is recommended by most experts.) Workouts can be done in an arena or a field/trail with safe, level footing.
Although nobody really wants to hear it, walking is the foundation of fitness. For at least the first two weeks of your program, focus on the walk. This is not an aimless, loose-reined crawl. Think of the human “power walk”: you are propelling yourself forward with much more muscle force than you would while window shopping or browsing a museum. Most horses have no interest in this type of purposeful walk, at least at first, so you’ll need to train your horse to march. Carry a crop and get after him if he starts poking along, and soon he’ll learn to keep it moving. Often it helps to go with a buddy to pass the time and keep the horses interested.
Start by power-walking for 30 minutes a day, and within two weeks, gradually work up to 60 minutes. Next, you’re ready for some trotting! Like walking, you don’t want a shuffling, strung-out trot on the forehand. Take up proper rein contact and use your legs to keep the horse stepping under himself and into the bridle. This will have the added benefit of building a beautifully muscled, round topline that will help the horse use himself correctly in his “real” work.
Two days per week (not back to back) should be concentrated fitness work when bringing a sport horse back into competitive form. The other days can be spent schooling simple dressage movements, ground poles/cavalletti or work for your specific discipline.
Eventers use trot sets to condition their horses for cross-country courses. Even if you aren’t planning to jump cross-country, the gradual progression of fitness work benefits any horse by more safely strengthening tendons, muscles and the cardiovascular system.
Fitness trot sets should start off from three to five minutes, depending on your horse’s age, previous fitness and breed. A draft cross is going to be huffing and puffing a lot sooner than an off-the-track Thoroughbred would, so make sure to listen to your horse and slow down if needed. Always incorporate at least 10 minutes of walking at the beginning and end of each ride to give muscles time to warm up and cool down.
Fitness sets are done in threes, with a two- or three-minute break in between (don’t forget to wear a wristwatch!). For example: Trot five minutes, walk two minutes, trot five minutes, walk two minutes, trot five minutes. This would be called a “five by three,” or 5×3, because it is repeated three times. It’s a great idea to mark a calendar with what you did each day, including how your horse felt, so you can track his progress and know when to add a minute or two to your trot sets.
If you’re into technology and always have your smartphone handy, there are apps you can use to track your ride data. Track my Hack offers a free version that captures the time, distance and average speed of your overall ride.
Upper-level eventers might aspire to reach much longer trots, such as a 45 minutes straight, but for most other sport horses, these shorter sets are preferable. You can work up to three 15-minute trots as an end goal for most situations. Keep in mind that a horse should recover in approximately 10 minutes, give or take, depending on the heat and humidity. If you don’t want to count heart rate and respirations, just take note of when he stops puffing visibly (flared nostrils and frequent breaths).
Cantering and galloping adds more wear and tear on horses’ legs than walking or trotting, and for this reason, it’s not really advisable or necessary when conditioning for the average horse. If your horse has a lot of cardiovascular demand in his work (such as jumping bigger cross-country courses), it’s best to do short, uphill canter sets to get the necessary heart and wind exertion with less strain on the body.
Ready to Roll
After about six weeks of gradually increasing trot sets and the occasional hill canters, your horse should be well on his way to being fit enough for a competitive dressage test or jumping a course.
If your horse is getting up in years, it’s a better idea to keep him in light work all year than to let him take three months off every winter. Lots of turnout with room to move around also helps keep joints loose and pain-free.
Horses with arthritis may benefit from joint supplements or other therapies; talk to your vet to see which type might be best for your horse.
Managing Editor HOLLY CACCAMISE is an avid eventer and holds an M.S. in Animal Science with a specialization in equine nutrition & exercise physiology.
This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!