Winter in Canada can put a halt to your riding. Even if you have access to an indoor arena, wind, snow falling off the roof, and cold temperatures might discourage you from riding regularly.

If your horse has been out of regular work over the winter, it’s important to bring him back into work gradually with a conditioning program to rebuild fitness, prevent injury, improve performance, enhance health, support mental well-being, establish routine, and build trust and partnership between you and your horse. By following a gradual and systematic conditioning program, you help your horse return to work safely and effectively.

Gradually increase either time or challenge, but not both at the same time.

If your horse has been off work for several weeks or months, have a four-to-six-week plan that focuses on basic conditioning rather than training specific skills or movements. Put the emphasis on strengthening core muscles and the cardiovascular system, and improving suppleness. Start slowly with walking that encourages stretching before adding trotting. Gradually increase either time or challenge, but not both at the same time.

Here are seven tips to get you started:

Tip 1 – Assess Current Fitness

It’s important to know where you’re starting from by assessing your own as well as your horse’s current fitness level. Evaluate your horse’s overall health including his weight, muscle tone, and soundness. Ensure his teeth and feet have been kept in good shape. Consider your horse’s age, any underlying health issues, previous fitness level, and the fitness level needed for this year’s goals.

Tip 2 – Set Realistic Goals

Set achievable goals based on your horse’s and your current fitness. Break goals into short-term and long-term objectives such as improving flexibility, strength, and stamina.

Set achievable objectives based on the horse’s current condition and what you want to achieve.

Keeping a training journal can help you assess how your horse is progressing.

Tip 3 – Design A Progressive Conditioning Plan

Create a structured plan spread over several weeks. Start with short, light rides that focus on walk and trot. Gradually increase duration and then intensity by incorporating hill work, pole exercises, and transitions to engage different muscle groups.

Tip 4 – Monitor and Adjust

Keeping a training journal can help you assess how your horse is progressing. Note any signs of fatigue, stiffness, or discomfort as well as improvements and areas to be adjusted. Be flexible with your plan, modifying it as needed to adapt to your horse’s individual needs and abilities.

Tip 5 – Nutrition

Speak with an equine nutritionist to ensure your horse is getting an appropriately balanced diet tailored to his energy needs based on his age and work level. Of course, he should always have access to quality forage and fresh water.

Tip 6 – Rest and Recovery

Your conditioning program should not only be about riding sessions. It should also include regular rest days to allow your horse’s body to recover and adapt to training, as well as active recovery activities like hand-walking or turnout to promote circulation and relaxation.

Beware of signs of overtraining such as reluctance to work, changes in appetite, or behavioural changes.

Tip 7 – Build Mental Confidence

Start your conditioning program in a place where your horse feels comfortable and safe. As his fitness improves, gradually expand his comfort zone by introducing novel objects and locations to help build his confidence and resilience. Using positive reinforcement techniques to reinforce desired behaviours will strengthen his trust in confidence in you.

Sample Conditioning Plan

This plan is suitable for horses that have had several weeks or months off work. It is based on having five to six rides per week. If you ride less frequently, increase the number of weeks in your plan.

In every session, be sure to start with a warm-up, include rest and recovery breaks between between each gait, and finish with a cool-down.

  • Week One – 20 minutes walking – Start off easy, focusing on loosening up and noticing any stiffness
  • Week Two – 20 minutes walking plus 10 minutes trotting – Add trot and one or two simple exercises to build strength (e.g. large circles, serpentines, transitions, simple lateral work, riding on hills)
  • Week Three – 30 minutes walking mixed with 10 minutes trotting and 5 minutes cantering or loping – Slightly longer periods of strenuous work to increase stamina
  • Week Four – 40 minutes of walking mixed with 15 minutes trotting and 10 minutes cantering or loping
  • Week Five – 40 minutes of walking mixed with 20 minutes trotting and 10 minutes cantering or loping – Increase the length and intensity of the sessions

Taking time bringing your horse back into work pays off in the long run. You’ll prevent injuries and resistance due to discomfort in your horse. Remember: you can’t go too slowly, but you can go too fast!