Written by: Dr. Bri Henderson, BVMS MRCVS
How to assess fitness and develop a conditioning plan to suit your horse and your goals.
Any time is a good time to learn how to boost your horse’s fitness. Perhaps you’ve just completed your final competition of the season, and are planning for the next. Maybe you’re embarking on a new relationship with a new or young horse. Some of you may even be facing injury rehabilitation over the coming months. Regardless of where your involvement with horses takes you, a working knowledge of how to assess, monitor and develop your horse’s strength and fitness will improve your relationship with him.
When designing a conditioning program for your horse, it is important to be realistic about: a) your horse’s age, breed and fitness/injury rehab requirements; b) the type and level of sport you wish to compete in; and c) your own fitness and time commitment. From this information, you can start to build a picture of what next season looks like and what your goals will be.
Before beginning a fitness program, every rider should know how to take their horse’s heart rate and check hydration status. Most horses have a resting heart rate between 30-40 beats per minute, and a resting respiration rate around 10-20 breaths per minute. Gums should be moist and “rose petal pink.” Your horse’s eye should be bright and engaged – never dull and despondent. Another hydration test is the “skin pinch” – pinch the skin on your horse’s point of shoulder. It should snap back immediately in a normally hydrated horse. If your horse is dehydrated, the skin tent will return more slowly or, in severe cases, stay tented.
Heart rate – 30-40 beats per minute
Temperature – 37.2°C – 38.3°C (98.96°F – 100.94°F)
Respiratory rate – 10-20 breaths per minute
Mucus membranes – Salmon pink, moist
Capillary refill time – < 2 seconds
Skin tent -< 2 seconds
normal values for an adult horse (>2 years)
Establishing a Routine
Broadly speaking, there are three types of fitness conditioning, which should be included in your horse’s workout schedule:
Cardiorespiratory: improves the ability of the heart, lungs and muscles to produce energy and delivery of oxygen.
Strength: increases power and endurance of muscles (sport specific).
Suppling: increases range of motion of joints and stretches muscles, creating a more aesthetic gait and reducing risk of injury.
And, there are two types of exercise:
Aerobic exercise: activities that cause heart and respiration rates to increase; this type of exercise requires oxygenated blood to be supplied to the muscles for sustained workout periods.
Anaerobic exercise: short-lasting, high-intensity activities where the horse’s need for oxygen exceeds the oxygen supply available; this type of exercise relies on energy stored in the muscles.
The foundation of all fitness programs is the Long Slow Distance (LSD) period. Depending on the age, experience, injury history and how long the horse has been off, the LSD period may last anywhere from a few weeks to a year. The goal is to build the horse’s aerobic base to be able to walk/trot/canter for 45-60 minutes. The goal heart rate should be between 120-140bpm, and the average speed should be four to five miles (six to eight kilometres) per hour
Long slow distance workouts can be done in the arena, however, there is more benefit to be had by hacking and incorporating different surfaces and some gentle hills. Pleasure horses and low level hunter and dressage horses maintain their fitness primarily with this phase of fitness, with the addition of sport specific schooling.
Once the horse has developed the ability to easily walk/trot/canter for one hour, the introduction of periods of high intensity work can begin. For example, endurance horses need to focus on rigorous aerobic conditioning to allow for long duration at moderate intensity (seven to nine miles, or 11 to 14 kilometres, per hour) whereas western timed events and jumpers require greater focus on power and speed (low distance, but high intensity). Eventing, polo, reining and cutting horses require a combination of the high level aerobic conditioning with targeted power/speed training to excel.
The goal of aerobic conditioning is to increase the heart size/strength and to improve the blood supply to the heart and muscles to benefit oxygen delivery.
For endurance horses, aerobic conditioning begins with low to moderate intensity work three times per week. As the mileage volume increases, the frequency drops to two times per week. For fit endurance horses that are maintaining fitness, there should be one long ride (two to three hours) per week at low speed and two to five short conditioning rides (30-60 minutes) per week (dressage, speed play or hill work).
For dressage, jumpers and eventing horses, there should be one easy ride per week with long and low stretching, ideally on varying surfaces (out for a hack). The remaining two to five rides should be sport specific and include gymnastics, pole work and hill work. Lateral work on a gentle gradient is an excellent way to improve muscular strength and suppleness.
Speed Play: Increasing Aerobic Capacity
The anaerobic threshold is the point at which energy production moves from using fat and carbohydrates for energy (slow and steady) to anaerobic metabolism, which uses carbohydrates to produce a fast and short-lived burst of energy without oxygen’s help. Anaerobic metabolism can produce a great deal of lactic acid (lactate) as a by-product that can cause cramping and other muscle issues. Generally, the anaerobic threshold is approached at a heart rate of 160bpm in the average horse, but through aerobic training we can push that limit to 165-185bpm.
Speed play is a form of interval training similar to Fartlek (speed play in Swedish) training in human runners. Controlled acceleration and partial recovery (i.e. slow canter vs. walk) stimulates the body to become more efficient at aerobic metabolism. It is an excellent way to boost aerobic capacity and delay the switch to anaerobic metabolism. Speed play involves 20-30 second bursts of an extended canter with a heart rate at 170-185bpm with periods of recovery (40-60 seconds) at a slow canter with the heart rate around 130bpm. In order to gain the maximum benefit from speed play, horses should be balanced over their back to ensure the correct activation of muscles.
If exercise intensity is too high, or periods last too long, lactate accumulates in the muscles, leading to fatigue and injury. Signs of fatigue are an unexpected rise in heart rate and reduced ability to maintain speed.
Your horse’s ability to efficiently burst with power and speed is something that must be trained. The powerhouse of the cells is called the mitochondria. These mini organs are inside every cell and produce energy. By training intervals and speed play we can actually increase the number of mitochondria in each cell and improve the ability of the horse to move between aerobic and anaerobic metabolism. It is important to note that sprints under 20 seconds (pure anaerobic metabolism) can’t be improved with training. The focus of aerobic training and speed play is to improve the efficiency and power of the aerobic fitness of a horse – this is where endurance lives. All sports benefit from speed play to improve their horses’ aerobic capacity.
Exercises to Boost Aerobic Capacity
1. Interval Training: two minutes of canter, two minutes of walk (increase by one minute intervals to 3:3 and 4:4 minute intervals).
The heart rate should increase to 130-160bpm during the intense interval and recovery to below 100bpm during the recovery interval. If the horse’s heart rate does not recover by the end of the walk interval, you must stop the exercise for that day to prevent fatigue.
2. Speed play: start with two accelerations per workout and increase by two per week until the horse is able to handle 10 per workout without demonstrating fatigue or delayed recovery.
Once he is able to handle 10 accelerations per workout, you can slowly increase the distance of each acceleration.
3. Hill training: hill climbing (at a walk and then steady trot) has the ability to increase the heart rate and stress the cardiovascular system without matching that stress in the bones and ligaments.
Frequently, when developing an unfit horse, I will ask him to trot the first half of a hill and then walk the top half. When his energy and strength is sufficient that they are able to trot the entire length of the hill, I know I’m getting somewhere!
For horses involved in sports that require explosive speed and power (show jumping, eventing, polo, cutting and reining), the addition of anaerobic exercise, where no oxygen is needed, but lactate is produced, is important. These sports demand rapid changes in speed and direction. Typically, training involves a heart rate greater than 170bpm through the use of speed or hills. As mentioned earlier, be cautious of fatigue and over loading; we must constantly monitor our horses during intense training. The benefit of hill training is that we get the increase in cardiovascular and respiratory rates without the high stress on bones and ligaments.
Barrel and roping horses require a powerful 20 second (or less) burst of speed. This will be primarily anaerobic in nature, and cannot be improved with training. Because of this, the focus has to be on creating a solid base of aerobic fitness, strength and suppleness to allow the horses to compete in the pen all weekend and reduce the risk of injury from overloading. Originally, this work was done on ranches and riders would often say their horses were trained with “wet saddle pads,” indicating the long hours in the saddle moving and working cattle in the field. In comparison, show jumping, eventing and western performance horses require bursts lasting longer than 60 seconds. In these sports, training the aerobic capacity to reduce the accumulation of lactic acid accumulation/fatigue is critical. The greater the ability of the horse to compete within the aerobic zone, the greater the endurance of that horse during a competition.
The role of strength training is of optimum importance in all sports. Increase in muscle tone and ligament strength reduces the risk of injury. In human literature, strength training reduced injury rates by 50 per cent, by stabilizing joints and reducing exorbitant strain on ligaments and tendons.
For dressage and endurance horses, strength training that focuses on long duration (high repetitions) at low intensity is likely to reap the most benefits. In comparison, jumping and western horses have greater benefit from low repetitions of high intensity work. After an intense strength training session, most horses require two to three days of active recovery (suppling, long slow distance). When muscles fatigue, the horse will compensate by recruiting other muscles not designed for the activity. If the strength training continues after the horse is fatigued then the wrong muscles are used and overloaded (fatigued) increasing the chances of injury.
Strength Exercises for All Sports
1. Basic dressage/lateral movements (leg yield, spiral circles, shoulder in): can be done at walk then trot. Transitions between gaits and within gaits (lengthening and shortening stride) also work to improve muscle strength and flexibility providing the rider focuses on the horses’ core and engagement.
2. Hill work: walking hills and leg yield on a gentle gradient.
3. Trotting poles: improves strength and balance by making use of poles on the ground and elevated eight to 12 inches (20-30 centimetres). These exercises are excellent for development of core and back strength.
4. Gymnastics/cavaletti work/grid work: a continuation of pole work, these exercises continue to strengthen topline and core muscles, but add maximum contraction of muscles as the horse navigates a series of bounce strides. Elasticity and suspension are also improved in upper level dressage horses through the use of grid and cavaletti work. These exercises can be considered introductory plyometric work (in which muscles exert maximum force in short intervals of time). They create the strength and suspension necessary for a horse to handle the explosive nature of true plyometric exercise (i.e. uphill steps in eventing horses, working the timed start in roping horses).
Aerobic condition (HR recovery)
100 beats per minute
Within two minutes of rest/recovery
Less than 60 beats per minute
Within 10 minutes
Anaerobic threshold (V02MAX)
An aerobically fit horse will be able to sustain moderate exercise for longer/with a higher heart rate before moving to primarily anaerobic metabolism.
Maximum heart rate
210-280 beats per minute
Be cautious with heart rates this high during training!
Sport Specific Strength Exercises
Dressage: Sport specific exercises such as shoulder-in (on straight lines and circles), travers, transitions between gaits progressing to half steps and half pass, and collected movements with periods of stretchy trot as rest.
Jumping: My favourite quote is “jumping is just flat work interrupted.” Balance, adjustability of stride and muscular strength are pillars of a jumpers training. Jumpers that are schooled in low level dressage (training and first level) and schooled over gymnastic and cavaletti exercises are less likely to suffer muscle imbalances and will be more easily navigated through a complicated course. Explosive speed/strength is also required in jump off situations and so the use of interval training, plyometrics and hill work will aid in developing this skill.
Endurance: I am a huge advocate that all endurance horses must be training in basic (training-first level) dressage. Just as marathon runners must also do yoga and strength training, endurance horses benefit from the suppling and correct development of muscles to encourage biomechanically correct gaits and reduced risk of injury during competition when muscle fatigue sets in.
Eventing: Steps or a drop act as a plyometric exercise creating maximum muscle contraction. A series of uphill steps is an excellent exercise to develop strength and power with a series of muscular contractions recruiting the maximum number of muscle fibres.
Working western (timed and performance): In the past, most western horses were trained working cattle on a ranch and were used to pushing cows and dealing with the rope falling anywhere on their body. Today, it is more typical that these horses only see cows at competition, so we must adapt our training.
Never underestimate the MASSIVE aerobic base that ranch horses developed by working all day. The long slow distance and aerobic capacity training should not be skipped on these horses. In addition, they require rapid response to minimal aids (transitions within gaits as well as lateral movement) and explosive power. Cross training out of the arena in fields as well as use of lateral movements (leg yield, spiral circles, roll back) as the foundation will give the horse a better experience when they begin to track cattle (or flags).
There are two types of suppling exercises: passive suppling and dynamic suppling. Passive suppling involves slow controlled movements to the natural limit of a joint or structure (carrot stretches, back lifts and limb stretches). In contrast, dynamic suppling involves stretching through active muscular contraction/weight bearing (long/low stretching, trotting poles, lateral work). Suppling work should play a central role in the daily warm up, cool down and active recovery of our horses.
Dr. Bri Henderson, BVMS MRCVS, of Cheltenham Veterinary Centre, specializes in equine sports medicine. She is currently enrolled in the American College of Sports Medicine and Rehab residency program.