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Athletic Conditioning For Your Horse


From Flab to Fab: Gearing Up for the Season

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In this Article:


Physical Benefits





With Spring comes days that are getting longer and rain and mud that will (hopefully!) be drying up soon. It is time to start thinking about pulling your horse out of the pasture and dusting off your saddle to go for a ride. With the excitement of the coming warm days, competitions, events, trail rides, etc., it is important to take a step back and realize that your horse has likely had a break in their fitness regimen and are a little on the soft side. Before asking too much of your horse, it is important to get them back into shape as having your horse "fit" is essential to maintaining their health and soundness. Conditioning programs are useful to implement, regardless of your horse's discipline, as they can aid in avoiding future lameness issues.  Read on to learn more about how to develop a conditioning program for your horse. Be sure to talk to your veterinarian if your horse has a history of lameness or is recovering from an injury of any sort.

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Considerations & Goals


When planning the athletic conditioning of your horse, several factors must be considered:

  1. What are your expectations for the use of your horse

  2. What type of event will the horse be competing in or performing

  3. The level of competition planned to compete

  4. The time until optimal conditioning is required

  5. The level of fitness previously achieved


The goal of any conditioning program is to optimize both the physical and psychological responses of your horse to exercise. Physical responses include enhanced skills, greater strength and endurance, and minimizing soreness or injury due to exercise. Psychological responses with exercise include a greater ability to perform with greater confidence, and minimize boredom and resentment.


Physical Benefits of Conditioning


Some of the important physical responses of the horse to a conditioning program include the following:

  1. Cardiovascular System - decreased heart rate during exercise, increased heart strength, decreased vascular resistance, increased oxygen carrying capacity of the blood, improved thermoregulation

  2. Respiratory System - ventilation during exercise is decreased, increase in oxygen uptake

  3. Muscular System - increased aerobic capacity (increased time prior to muscle fatigue), increased muscle size and strength

  4. Tendons and Ligaments - strength and quality may be affected

  5. Bone - increased bone density and geometry


Several veterinary problems can occur with a lack of basic conditioning for your horse regardless of his intended use. Horses can have serious tendon and ligament injury, which can require extended time off or be career ending. Bruised soles, pedal osteitis and coffin joint inflammation are possible without careful training techniques.


Type of Conditioning


Slow Speed Conditioning


This type of conditioning should be used in all horses regardless of their intended use. Horsemen should be starting each horse off slowly and gradually increasing the distance/work every two to three weeks. It includes sessions at the trot and slow canter for long distances to promote aerobic production of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which is required for energy. Slow speed conditioning provides improvement in aerobic capacity, limb strength, and adaptation of skeletal muscle. The length of time required for slow speed conditioning varies depending on the intended use of the horse. Endurance horses require 8 to 9 months of slow speed conditioning versus a race horse which is given 4 to 6 weeks of slow speed followed by 2 to 3 months of high speed conditioning. Pleasure horses should have 2 to 3 months of increased work prior to the being used for trail rides, shows or rallies.


High Speed Conditioning


This type of conditioning is used to improve the anaerobic conditioning of the horse. Most commonly used in racehorse training, horses are "breezed", that is exercised at 75 - 80 percent maximum capacity every 5 to 7 days. Another option is some trainers will gallop their horses at near maximum speed one out of every 5 days. High-speed conditioning is also used with upper level 3-Day Event horses. The goal of high speed training is to stimulate the production of anaerobic ATP without causing fatigue or over-training.


Interval Training


Interval training is multiple workouts on the same day with rest periods in between. That is, several sets of trot or canter followed by periods of walk. This type of training is used primarily for endurance horses and during conditioning of 3-Day Event horses. It is typically used in conditioning when long distances over hilly terrain will be required.


Example of a Basic Conditioning Program


Following is an example program for a jumping horse that has not been ridden for 6 months:


Week 1: Walk under saddle for 15 minutes for 3 days

Week 2 & 3: Walk and trot for 20 minutes for 3 to 5 days

Week 4: Walk, trot and canter for 30 minutes for 3 to 5 days

Week 5: Walk, trot and canter for 40 minutes for 3 to 5 days, including hilly terrain

Week 6: Walk, trot and canter for 50 minutes for 3 to 5 days, including hilly terrain

Week 7: As above plus add in some grid work 2 times this week

Week 8: As above plus jumping course work 1 or 2 times

Week 9 - 12: Gradually increase exercise time & effort and your horse will be fit & ready for beginning your competition season.


This schedule can be adapted for your horse, depending on the discipline and activities they will be performing. Follow Weeks 1 through 6 and during Week 7 and on, add in your discipline-specific work, such as patterns for reiners, more challenging terrain for trail horses, or barrels and poles for gamers.


Stretches for Your Horse


We have been conventionally told to stretch before exercise, when our muscles are cold, to prevent injury during exercise. However, recently studies have shown that it is better to stretch after the muscles have been warmed as stretching "cold" muscles can lead to strains, tears and other injuries. In general, stretching can improve flexibility and range of motion, reduce post-exercise muscle fatigue, soreness and stiffness, and prevent injury by strengthening supporting tissues and guarding against tightness and shortening of muscles.


When stretching, it is extremely important to not force a horse into a stretch, push or pull on their joints to achieve a stretch, or move their limb or neck out of their normal range of motion. Also, make sure you maintain proper posture, keeping your knees bent and not lifting with your back when doing leg stretches. Not all stretches are appropriate for all horses; check with your veterinarian before performing any stretches. Remember: if your horse is uncomfortable with a stretch, stop!

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