Structure Your Ride to Get Your Horse Fit Safely

Regardless of whether you ride purely for pleasure or are a serious competitor, your horse will benefit if you apply the principles of exercise physiology to shape your riding time into a logical sequence of activities. When you participate in an exercise class yourself, it typically begins with an easy warm-up, followed by an increase in exercise intensity in the middle part of the workout. Then the intensity decreases as you cool down, and you finish with some stretches. In this article, I’ll explain how to structure your horse’s daily exercise and why this is important for his health and soundness.

The components of a horse’s exercise period are the pre-ride preparation, warm-up, workout, cool down and post-ride activities. The emphasis given to the different phases will vary with the type and intensity of exercise, but when you know the basic principles, it’s easy to apply them every time you take your horse out. By applying the principles of exercise physiology, you will reap the dual rewards of getting your horse fit for his job while reducing the risk of injury.

Pre-Ride Preparation

During a carrot stretch, the muscles that move and stabilize the joints in your horse’s neck and back are activated. When he is moving, these muscles hold his back in a rounded shape and prevent small amounts of motion between the vertebrae that could lead to arthritis. Pre-ride preparation involves grooming and tacking up and it may also include some exercises to activate important muscles prior to the start of exercise. Carrot stretches (see sidebar, below) are much more than just a way to stretch your horse’s neck and back. As he reaches downward or sideways to follow the movement of the carrot (or other treat) with his head and neck, the muscles that move and stabilize the joints in his neck and back are activated. These muscles are very important during locomotion when they hold the back in a rounded shape and prevent small amounts of motion between the vertebrae that predispose the area to the development of arthritis. As a general rule, exercises that involve stretching are not performed until after the muscles have been warmed up, but there are some very good reasons to do carrot stretches as part of the pre-ride preparation. These stretches are safe to perform during the warm-up because your horse is moving voluntarily and will not stretch beyond his comfort zone. Research studies have shown that regular performance of carrot stretches, even in the absence of any other type of exercise, stimulates enlargement of the muscles that stabilize the horse’s back and protect against the development of spinal arthritis. Doing them immediately prior to the start of exercise each day preactivates the stabilizing muscles in preparation for the work that follows.

The Warm-Up

The second stage of a horse’s daily exercise program is the warm-up, which is perhaps the most important part of the entire process. In the scientific world, there has been considerable discussion in recent years as to the merits of warming up and what types of warm-up exercises are potentially most beneficial with horses. The underlying principle is that you start work slowly—walking, riding in large circles—and then increase the exercise intensity and the demands on your horse’s body gradually over a period of 10 to 15 minutes. The exact type and duration of the warm-up exercises vary depending on the horse (age, injuries, management practices), the weather, the facilities and the goals of the upcoming workout. 

Horses who have spent the last few hours standing in a stall need a longer period of walking and more gradual warm-up than horses who have been wandering around in the pasture all day. Also, many older horses with osteoarthritis will benefit from a longer, slower warm-up. In frigid weather, however, remember that a clipped horse will start to feel cold if he walks for a long time, so consider using a quarter sheet during the warm-up in cold climates.

As the intensity of exercise increases to include trotting and cantering, the horse’s heart rate increases, pumping more blood around his body. The blood distribution changes with more of the blood flowing through his actively contracting muscles and less blood going to body organs such as the intestines. At the same time, his respiratory rate increases, delivering more oxygen to his lungs and ultimately to his muscles. A gradual increase in exercise intensity is necessary to allow time for these changes to occur. As the horse’s muscles contract, they generate heat. During exercise, his body’s thermostat is reset so as his muscles generate more heat, his body temperature rises by 1 or 2 degrees. This small increase in temperature allows his muscles to contract more powerfully and his ligaments and tendons to become more pliable. You should allow several minutes at trot and/or canter to produce this increase in body temperature. Although most of the physiological changes that occur during the horse’s warm-up are similar to those of a human athlete, a major difference is that the horse’s spleen releases stored red blood cells into the circulation during intense exercise. The extra red cells increase the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood and help to decrease lactic-acid accumulation, so it is beneficial to have them already available in the bloodstream if the workout will include high-intensity exercise such as galloping. Even a brief gallop during the warm-up is sufficient to release stored red cells from the spleen, so if you plan to do high-intensity training, include a short gallop at the end of the warm-up. 

The type of exercise you do in the warm-up might be longeing, in-hand work or exercise under saddle. If you begin with longeing, start on a big circle and, if possible, have your horse walk for the first five minutes in a long outline before picking up the pace. Of course, some horses, especially those who have been in a stall all day, have pent-up energy and little intention of starting slowly. If you know your horse is likely to rush off on the longe, walk in-hand for a few minutes before starting to longe. The initial period of walking activates the muscles, stretches the ligaments and tendons and moves the joints so the joint fluid circulates between the contact surfaces. These physiological changes prepare your horse’s musculoskeletal system for the more strenuous exercise that will follow. 

If you start your daily work under saddle, the same principles apply. Begin with a period of walking on a long rein with your horse’s neck stretched down and in a round outline. After five–10 minutes, pick up the reins and walk with contact in a shorter, rounded outline. Gradually increase the intensity of the warm-up by moving forward at trot or canter, whichever is your horse’s preferred or easier gait on straight lines and large circles. After a few minutes of forward-moving exercise to increase your horse’s body temperature, take a break at walk, then return to trotting or cantering with a focus on working toward the type of exercise that you will be performing in the workout. 

In the warm-up for a trail ride, you can pick up the pace as the warm-up progresses and include some differences in terrain. Working on an uphill gradient activates the propulsive muscles in your horse’s hind limbs. Walking slowly downhill with your horse in self-carriage activates the muscles that raise his withers. When trail riding, work your horse in a rounded frame so that he uses his core muscles and include some lateral movements, such as leg-yielding, to stretch and supple both sides of his body.

When warming up for flatwork or dressage, introduce some stretching exercises by gradually making the circles smaller and adding some easy lateral work. When circling, your horse contracts the muscles on the inner side of his body to bend his neck and back so his spine matches the contour of the circle. The tissues on the outer side of the bend are stretched. As the circles get smaller, the bending muscles work harder to create sufficient bend to match the line of the circle while muscles, tendons and ligaments on the outside of the turn are more stretched. Spiraling in and out on a circle is a particularly good warm-up exercise. Circles and lateral work also prepare your horse’s hind legs for the engagement and propulsion that will be required during the more-intensive part of the workout. If you plan to school over fences, your warm-up should follow the routine for a flat workout but will progress to work over rails on the ground and gymnastics in preparation for the larger fences that will follow. As I described earlier, when the workout will include high-intensity exercise, such as interval training at a gallop, try to include some higher-intensity exercise, such as a short gallop, in the warm-up to prepare the cardiovascular and respiratory systems for the intense exercise that will follow. 

The Workout

The warm-up merges into the workout, which is the main part of your ride and is the time during which your horse performs the most strenuous or technically difficult exercises. This is when you accomplish your goals whether they involve enjoying a ride through the countryside, galloping to improve cardiovascular fitness, schooling a new dressage movement or improving jumping technique. The intensity and duration of the workout should be limited by your horse’s current fitness level and the amount of work he performs on a regular basis. Just like human weekend warriors, horses who are worked too hard when they are not accustomed to a regular fitness program will be stiff and sore for a few days afterward. In addition, the amount and type of work done by the horse should not be identical day after day. Wear-and-tear injuries, such as bowed tendons and pulled suspensories, are a consequence of stressing the same parts of the body in the same way repeatedly. The risk of wear-and-tear injuries is reduced by varying the type of exercise, by working your horse on different surfaces and terrains and by scheduling easy days in between hard workouts.

The Cool Down

After the workout, your horse should be allowed to cool down gradually before going back to the barn or pasture. This is accomplished by reducing the intensity of exercise so his heart rate decreases, the blood is redistributed away from his muscles to the other
organs, lactic acid that has built up in the muscles is dispersed and your horse starts to lose the accumulated body heat. This process is a reversal of the warm-up. 

During the cool down, it’s a good idea to repeat the stretching and relaxing exercises performed in the warm-up. This loosens muscles that have been contracted repeatedly during exercise and relaxes your horse both physically and mentally. 

Finish the ride by walking on a long rein for a few minutes. In hot weather, a longer walk may be beneficial. If the weather is cold, take care that your horse doesn’t get chilled.

Post-Ride Activities

During exercise, the muscles generate heat, and the harder the horse works, the more heat accumulates in the body. In cold weather, heat is lost easily, but in hot, humid weather it can be difficult for your horse to cool down. After dismounting, observe how he is breathing, which is a good indicator of heat stress. If he is taking rapid, shallow breaths, then he’s panting in an effort to lose heat. Panting is a sign that your horse will benefit from having some help in cooling out. To do this, cold-hose your horse for one minute, scrape off the excess water and walk him for one minute, then repeat the process until he stops panting. It used to be thought that the application of cold water or ice over the large muscles would lead to tying up. We now know this is not true and cold application to the large locomotor muscles is, in fact, one of the most effective ways to cool your horse. After a hard workout, such as gallop training or jumping, it is also worthwhile cold-hosing or icing the lower limbs to cool the tendons.

Passive stretching exercises, in which the joints are moved through a large range of motion, can be performed after exercise but while the tissues are still warm. There are many passive stretches, but the most effective are those that mobilize the hip, shoulder, neck and back. The hip-flexor stretch shown on page 39 is particularly effective after a horse has been doing a lot of highly collected work. Carrot stretches also can be performed after exercise.

Hilary M. Clayton, BVMS, PhD, Dipl. ACVSMR, MRCVS, is a veterinarian, researcher and horsewoman. She grew up in England, graduated as a veterinarian from University of Glasgow and has worked in veterinary colleges in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Canada and the United States. She has done extensive research on the biomechanics of equine locomotion, conditioning programs for equine athletes and the effects of tack and equipment on the horse and rider. In 1997 Dr. Clayton became the first incumbent of 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 a past president of the Association for Equine Sports Medicine. She has been a member of the USEF Dressage Committee since 2009. Dr. Clayton has competed in a range of equestrian sports including eventing, jumping, combined driving and polo. She currently trains and competes in dressage through the Grand Prix level and has earned her U.S. Dressage Federation bronze, silver and gold medals.

This article originally appeared in the January 2014 Practical Horseman magazine.