As owners, trainers and riders we are responsible for all aspects of our horses’ health and welfare, which includes ensuring that they are adequately fit for the work we expect them to do. Fitness allows the horse to perform to the best of his ability and reduces his susceptibility to injury.
Conditioning is the process of training the horse to become physically fit by a regimen of exercise, diet and rest. This article focuses on exercise and rest, but remember that the diet should be adjusted according to the horse’s workload and body condition.
Fitness and strength improve when a horse performs a sufficient amount of exercise on a regular basis. The sequence of events is that strenuous exercise results in minor tissue damage that is repaired over the next one to two days. Repeated cycles of tissue damage during exercise and the following repair process result in the horse becoming fitter and stronger.
One of the most important concepts of conditioning is the need for tissue regeneration between workouts, which implies that we must alternate challenging training days with recovery days during which the tissues are repaired and strengthened. Repeating the same type of work day after day creates a situation in which tissue damage outstrips the rate of repair, and this is what causes repetitive strain injuries, such as a pulled suspensory in a dressage horse or a bowed tendon in a racehorse. Ideally, conditioning workouts should be separated by one or two days during which the horse does a different type of exercise. Note, however, that a recovery day does not entail standing in a stall, it simply means doing a different type of work that challenges a different part of the horse’s body.
The footing the horse works on is a crucial piece of the conditioning conundrum. Ideally, horses should perform slow work over a variety of terrain and on different types of footing to provide a diverse loading stimulus to the musculoskeletal system. Fast work and schooling, on the other hand, should be performed on well-groomed, predictable footing.
Conditioning should be specific for the horse’s occupation. If you’re training an eventer, it is not appropriate to condition only at trot and canter. You need to gallop to recruit the fast-twitch muscle fibers and to develop the degree of cardiovascular fitness needed for the cross-country course.
So you first need to assess the fitness goals for your horse as a basis for determining the type, intensity and duration of the exercise necessary to develop a successful conditioning program. If you have a target date when your horse needs to be fully fit, work backward from that date to determine when to start conditioning based on increasing the workload by 5–10 minutes per week. If the requirements of your sport include specific skills, such as jumping, allow an extra month or so to strengthen the appropriate muscles.
If your horse is coming back into work after a layoff, remember to check his feet, teeth and saddle fit before starting your conditioning program. If he’s barefoot, be prepared to use boots when negotiating rough ground until his feet adapt to the new workload. Check how long it has been since his teeth were floated and have them checked if necessary. Saddle fit will need to be assessed again in a few months to take account of changes in the development of his back muscles.
We’ll consider three areas of conditioning that address different physiological aspects of preparing a horse to be an athlete: cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength and suppleness. Although the following sections refer to competition horses, the same principles apply when working with horses for noncompetitive purposes.
Cardiovascular fitness allows the horse to perform his regular work without becoming fatigued. Cardiovascular conditioning enhances the process by which energy from food is converted into energy that fuels the muscles during locomotion. It also makes the body more efficient in dissipating heat that builds up in the muscles during athletic activities. Horses show measurable improvements in cardiovascular fitness after as little as two weeks of regular exercise.
An easy way to develop an appropriate conditioning program is to record videos of competitions at the same level at which you are aiming to compete. When you play the videos back, time the duration of the exercise bursts at different gaits and speeds to determine how much time is spent in fast trotting, cantering and galloping and how long the horse spends walking or trotting slowly. This information is used to develop a conditioning plan that will bring your horse to the required fitness level by building up the work periods until they match those of the sport.
Horses used for show-hunter competitions, lower-level dressage competitions or similar occupations should be fit enough to be ridden for 45–60 minutes at walk, trot and canter. Horses ridden in more strenuous sports, such as eventing and show jumping, should be conditioned specifically for those activities, taking account of whether the fitness requirement is primarily for endurance or speed.
The amount of work performed is described in terms of the intensity (how hard the horse works), the duration (how long the horse works) and the frequency (how often the workouts are repeated). The key to improving fitness while maintaining soundness lies in finding the correct balance among these three elements.
When the goal is to improve cardiovascular fitness, the appropriate workout frequency is two to four times per week on alternate, not consecutive, days so that the tissues have time for repair and regeneration between workouts. When the desired level of fitness is reached, then a couple of workouts per week is sufficient for maintenance, but if the horse is worked less than twice a week he’s likely to lose fitness.
Improvements in cardiovascular fitness are achieved by increasing the intensity or duration of exercise on a weekly basis. Don’t be tempted to increase both intensity and duration simultaneously due to the risk of overloading the tissues and causing an injury. Endurance sports, which include eventing, are where the horse performs at a low to moderate intensity for several minutes to many hours. Horses competing in endurance sports are prepared by relatively long duration workouts at moderate speed, often incorporating short bursts at higher speed. To improve cardiovascular fitness for these horses, the duration of exercise is increased by about 10 minutes per week while maintaining a consistent exercise intensity.
Horses who compete in sprinting sports, which include show jumping, benefit from interval training in which the horse works at high speed or intensity for a short time then walks or trots during a recovery period that is five to six times longer than the work. During the recovery period, lactic acid is removed from the muscles and heart rate decreases. The horse then performs another high-speed work followed by a recovery interval. Breaking up the work into short periods separated by recovery intervals allows the horse to perform a larger total volume of work with less risk of injury. To improve the cardiovascular fitness for horses participating in power or speed events, having a weekly increase in exercise intensity while maintaining the same duration is appropriate. An increase in intensity involves working at a faster speed, working with more impulsion or performing more transitions.
Another way to increase the conditioning stimulus is to add a new type of exercise to the regimen, such as hill work or jumping. Introduce new exercises gradually and then progressively build up their intensity or duration as appropriate. Cantering uphill significantly increases the workload and is an excellent way to improve fitness without overloading the limbs, but note that limb concussion is high when traveling downhill so it is recommended that horses walk on the downhill slope.
The horse’s workload increases progressively until his fitness level slightly exceeds the competition requirements. Having the horse a little fitter than the minimum necessary for the sport and level of competition gives him some energy reserves in case the circumstances are more challenging than anticipated. For example, hot, humid weather or deep footing is associated with early onset of fatigue, but this is less of a problem in a fitter horse.
Strength training targets the development of the locomotor muscles in the neck, back and limbs. Sports that benefit most from strength training include jumping, which requires explosive bursts of muscle power, and all sports that require collection, which calls for endurance in the muscles that carry weight on the haunches and elevate the withers. Strength training also protects against injury by recruiting and strengthening the muscles that stabilize the joints, especially when they are loaded in a different or unexpected manner, for example, if the horse stumbles or steps in a hole.
Muscles contain a mixture of slow-twitch and fast-twitch fibers that are specialized for different types of exercise. The proportions of the different fiber types vary between breeds and individuals. Slow-twitch fibers are fatigue-resistant; they contract repeatedly for hours at a time, which benefits performance in endurance competitions. Horses with a preponderance of slow-twitch fibers have lean flat muscles as in a fit Arabian endurance horse. Fast-twitch fibers provide power and speed for acceleration, sprinting and jumping. When horses with a high percentage of fast-twitch fibers are conditioned, their muscles bulk up as in a racing Quarter Horse.
People use free weights or machines to strengthen specific muscle groups. In horses the addition of weight, for example in a weighted saddle pad, is possible but has the disadvantage of increasing the load on the limbs, which puts the horse at greater risk of injury. Therefore, we need to be innovative in developing strength training exercises for horses that recruit the appropriate muscles without increasing the risk of injury. This can be accomplished using hill work and gymnastic jumping.
When the horse travels uphill the propulsive muscles in the hindquarters must work harder. Steep uphill slopes are particularly valuable for strength training and should be negotiated at walk or canter rather than trot to avoid twisting around the sacroiliac joints when the hind limbs push off independently at trot. As with all types of conditioning exercise, start with a small number of repetitions and increase either the number of repetitions (duration) or the speed (intensity) at which they are performed on a weekly basis.
When the horse travels downhill, the workload decreases but forelimb concussion increases so downhill conditioning should be done at a walk. When a horse walks down a steep slope in self-carriage without leaning on the rider’s hand, the stifle and hock joints are flexed and the muscles that raise the withers are activated. Therefore, the muscles used in collection are being trained. The benefits are maximized by walking slowly and including frequent halts and even rein back.
Jumping has similar benefits to hill work. The propulsive muscles in the hindquarters are strengthened during takeoff and the muscles that raise the withers are strengthened during landing. The repeated takeoffs and landings during grid work are particularly beneficial. Jumping should be used for strength training only if the horse jumps in good form. A horse who has poor form over fences, such as hollowing the back, will not benefit from using this as a training technique to build strength.
A highly sport-specific method of strength training is to perform repetitions of a movement that is part of the sport and that requires muscle strength, such as jumping or steps of piaffe, in an interval training program. You alternate repetitions of the movement with easy recovery periods at walk or trot, then increase the number of repetitions each week to stimulate strength improvements in the appropriate muscles. The key is to perform the movement with good technique so the correct muscles are recruited and trained. Stop the exercise if your horse shows signs of fatigue, which implies a recruitment of incorrect muscles.
Another important type of strength training for horses is core training, which targets the muscles that move and stabilize the back. Carrot stretches are a valuable type of core training that have been proven to strengthen the muscles that protect the back from injury. The horse is trained to follow a bait, such as a piece of carrot, with his nose. Rounding exercises move the horse’s nose downward to the underside of the neck, the middle of the chest, between the knees or between the fore fetlocks. Bending exercises take the nose sideways to the shoulder, the girth, the flank and the hind fetlock on each side. Ideally each position in held for up to five seconds before allowing the horse to eat the bait and three to five repetitions are performed daily. These exercises improve the horse’s suppleness (see next section), but their main benefit is in strengthening the core muscles.
A supple horse controls the movements of his joints smoothly through a large range of motion. Exercises that promote suppleness primarily target the joints of the neck, back and upper limbs. In addition to strengthening core muscles, carrot stretches also promote suppleness by moving the back and neck through their full range of motion in the standing position, which is not possible when the horse is in motion.
Under saddle, suppleness is enhanced using movements that require the horse to round and bend his back. Spiraling in and out on a circle is particularly useful because the horse uses progressively stronger contractions of the muscles on the inside of the turn while stretching his body on the outside of the turn as the circle gets smaller. The changes in circle size teach him to adjust muscle tension smoothly in a coordinated manner. Over time it will be possible to spiral into a smaller circle as the horse’s suppleness and muscle strength improve. Lateral movements, such as shoulders-in and -out, haunches-in and -out and half-pass and full-pass, are also beneficial for improving suppleness of the back and neck.
The ability to swing the limbs through a large range of motion both forward/backward and from side to side is enhanced by turning, lateral movements and changes in stride length. On turns and circles, the limb on the outside has to reach farther around a longer arc. Lengthening and shortening the stride on large circles develops freedom of movement in the shoulders. Lateral movements improve suppleness in the upper part of the limbs as they are alternately moved away from and across the body. Be sure to perform suppling exercises equally on the left and right sides.
Conditioning is an ongoing process that requires frequent evaluation of the horse’s fitness level versus his fitness needs and appropriate adjustments of his exercise regimen to ensure that he can perform safely and to the best of his ability.
Key Concepts in Conditioning
• Introduce the conditioning program gradually with a small amount of exercise
• Increase the workload in increments on a weekly basis
• The type and amount of exercise should be appropriate for the athletic goals for the horse
• Balance challenging workouts with easier days to avoid the development of repetitive strain injuries
• Perform different types of exercise on successive days
• Start the conditioning program early enough to reach your conditioning goals at the appropriate time
• Progress more slowly when rehabilitating the horse from an injury
Conditioning is an ongoing process that requires frequent evaluation of the horse’s fitness level versus his fitness needs and appropriate adjustments of his exercise regime.
Hilary M. Clayton, BVMS, PhD, Dipl ACVSMR, MRCVS, is a leading expert in equine biomechanics. She grew up in England and earned her veterinary degree from the University of Glasgow before going on to research and teach at veterinary colleges in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Canada and the United States. From 1997 to 2014, she served as the Mary Anne McPhail Dressage Chair in Equine Sports Medicine at Michigan State University. She is a charter diplomate and past president of the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation and is past president of the Association for Equine Sports Medicine. She has been a member of the U.S. Equestrian Federation Dressage Committee since 2009. Also an experienced eventer, show jumper and dressage rider, Dr. Clayton is a U.S. Dressage Federation bronze, silver and gold medalist and a certified coach in the U.K. and Canada.
This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.