Spring is around the corner. The frigid temperatures will be easing off, and the thought of riding without toes frozen to the stirrups is refreshing! Some of our horses have become couch potatoes through the winter. The last thing these horses are thinking about is taking us riding. Horses take time to get into shape, and, unfortunately, they can lose their conditioning more quickly than they gain it. Loss of muscle tone and cardio fitness occurs when they are not getting adequate exercise. Sound familiar?
Introduction to Strength Fitness
Overdoing it at the gym on your first trip to a healthier lifestyle can be risky. Similarly, horses are far more likely to sustain injuries if they are working beyond their level of fitness. Rather than expecting your horse to hit the gym to lift weights – your saddle and you – try doing some yoga! Stretching exercises and ground work may seem very basic, but the positive effects of preparing your horse by helping them stretch before and during ridden work will increase their fitness. When you ask them to start lifting weights (you), start with short repetitions until they develop the strength to carry you efficiently. It’s probably a good goal to make your first three weeks of rides no longer than half an hour in duration. When you want to ride longer, consider dismounting and doing some groundwork for a few minutes to rest your horse and then remount for another short period of time. This can be done in the arena, but is quite enjoyable to do in the trails too.
Introduction to Cardio Fitness
Plan a program for your horse, keeping in mind that your goal is to increase speed and length of sessions in order to develop cardio fitness. Start slow with short sessions of mostly walk, then increase the length of sessions at walk. When walking does not cause your horse to become short of breath (for those poor guys who are really out of shape!) start to add shorter sessions that include some transitions. Then lengthen the sessions while beginning to mix up your gaits. When your horse is short of breath and winded at walk don’t expect trot! When he gets winded at two minutes of trot, don’t ask him to trot for 10 minutes. Build up the length of the increased speed and tempo based on how well your horse handles the change. Add short distances of canter to the mix simply because the transition in itself is so good for developing fitness. Allow time for him to develop before pushing harder, otherwise you face the risk of starting all over again AFTER you horse heals from injury or lameness.
A Quick Look in the Feed Room
One misconception I run into frequently involves feed rations: “increasing workload should be paired with increasing feed intake to support the horse’s development.” Although it is important to make sure your horse is getting adequate nutrition, he likely does not need additional calories and fats when you are bringing him back into work. When you cannot see his ribs, he likely does not need extra feed in the form of grain. Giving him grain to prevent weight loss or speed muscle gain may not work in his or your favour. Consider balancing his hay ration with a suitable vitamin and mineral supplement to be sure he is getting all the nutrients he needs while developing fitness. Keep forage available at all times so that your horse has a continuous flow of fibre moving through his digestive system. Consider leaving those starchy molasses grains out of the picture, as they can have negative effects on the actual digestive system of the horse and make exercising more difficult and even uncomfortable. Forage is the most natural and, therefore, safest way to keep a horse fed.
Whether you are planning to compete at a higher level or just hitting the trails this summer, start to consider the level of fitness your horse will need for the task and begin to prepare him early in the season. Keep in mind that a horse that has never been in a training program before has a longer road to fitness. Muscles and cardio can become fit within 10-12 weeks in a progressive program and with consistency, but the supporting structures – bones, tendons and ligaments – take up to six months of regular exercise to catch up with the muscles. Click here for a more in-depth look into fitness development:
Simply put, if you plan on entering an endurance race with your horse then an exercise program suited to a western pleasure horse will not suffice. The jumper and reining horse need different aspects of fitness for their jobs too. Develop an understanding for what your horse needs in order to prepare for the expected task or sport.
Horses can lose conditioning after only a month without their routine exercise. There are some great ways you can increase natural movement within their everyday lives. Track style turnouts are becoming more popular, as they provide a longer distance to travel between forage and water, which causes horses to move more on their own. This regular activity supports a consistent level of fitness that otherwise isn’t possible for the horse living in a smaller pen. Hills in the paddocks can be great too. There is great value in having your horse feel comfortable and relaxed in a stall environment – injuries, emergencies, shows and competitions are a few examples. Otherwise your horse will maintain a better level of physical and mental fitness when he is allowed to live outside.