3 Stress-Free Strategies to Maintain Fitness

Here are fun, low-key ways to help maintain your horse’s conditioning this fall and winter so you can more easily step into spring.

As competitive series and year-end finals draw to a close and the holiday season gears up, you might be planning some well-deserved downtime for you and your horse. It’s time to enjoy focusing on turkeys, gift giving, tree-trimming and ringing in the new year!

With all the festivities, it may be difficult to stay focused on a riding plan and to set meaningful goals. Plus, for many, the weather and waning daylight hours can make getting quality workouts in the saddle a challenge. 

We’ve dug through our files and found three fun, low-key strategies to help you maintain your horse’s strength and suppleness through the winter. We also have some tips on how to build a conditioning plan for your horse from the comfort of home (see “Start Planning Your Conditioning Strategy” below). These strategies and tips are easy enough to put into practice now—no matter your schedule or discipline. And, they will help you and your horse be in the best possible place and shape to return to your riding goals once the decorations have been put away and the birds start to sing.

Asking your horse to march forward in the walk, especially up and down hills, is a low-impact way to help him maintain strength and conditioning. © Amy K. Dragoo

1. Enhance Pre-ride Preparation 

Your pre-ride preparation already involves grooming and tacking up. Additionally, consider adding basic unmounted stretching activities for your horse. One such practice is carrot stretches. 

Veterinarian and researcher Hilary M. Clayton, BVMS, PHD, Dipl. ACVSMR, MRCVS, a leading expert in equine biomechanics, explains why: The muscles that move and stabilize the joints in your horse’s neck and back are activated in a carrot stretch. 

Research studies have shown that regular performance of carrot stretches, even in the absence of any other type of exercise, activate the muscles that stabilize the horse’s back. 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 spinal arthritis. Doing the stretches immediately prior to the start of exercise prepares these muscles for the work that follows.

Here is Dr. Clayton’s method for carrot stretches:

1. Cut a carrot lengthways in strips about 1 centimeter in diameter. The carrot pieces (or other food treat) will be used as bait to entice your horse to move his head and neck into specific positions. Always wear leather gloves to protect your fingers in case your horse snatches at the bait as he reaches to get it. 

2. Stand your horse against a wall or have a helper to prevent him from moving his feet as you teach him to stand still while his muzzle follows the carrot downward or sideways. The stretches are chin to chest, chin between the knees, chin between fetlocks and chin to shoulder, chin to girth, chin to flank and chin to hock (see photos below). 

3. Try to get your horse to hold each stretched position for a few seconds before allowing him to take the bait, and then let the muscles relax before repeating the stretch. 

When your horse is learning these exercises, be happy with a little stretching and then increase it gradually over time. A horse who is well motivated to get the treat will be more eager to stretch farther than a horse who is less motivated. The key is that your horse should stretch as far as he can without losing his balance. Even without maximal stretching, these exercises are useful for activating the muscles that round and bend the back and that stabilize the joints of the back and neck. It is recommended that a horse perform at least three repetitions of each stretch daily. The sideways stretches are performed both to the left and right sides.

2. Stretch to Strengthen Stifles 

Another unmounted exercise can help you strengthen your horse’s stifles through stretching, says Kenneth L. Marcella, DVM, who has served as a veterinary official for many FEI competitions around the world. Injuries to the ligaments of the equine stifle generally result from a combination of speed and rotation. These include awkward takeoffs or landings from jumps, sudden stops, quick changes of direction and other missteps a horse may take when traveling at speed or when out of balance, Dr. Marcella says. 

Dressage horses may also be affected by stifle injuries because the requirements of their sport necessitate bending and rotating their upper bodies, which can also place the stifle joint at risk. Additionally, the stifle is susceptible to arthritis, resulting from a slow process of wear and tear occurring as a normal consequence of athletic activity, and/or more acute, traumatic soft-tissue strains and tears.

Careful progressive strengthening work can help protect your horse’s stifles against injury.

Here’s Dr. Marcella’s method for stifle stretches: 

In each of the following exercises, lift your horse’s hind foot off the ground and stretch as described until you feel slight resistance. Hold the stretch for 10 to 20 seconds as tolerated, then release. As he becomes more accustomed to and comfortable with a stretching routine, you will be able to work on gradually improving his range of motion.

1. Flex the hip and stifle by lifting your horse’s hoof upward and pushing it inward toward the midline of the body. This is similar to the motion veterinarians use to do a hock flexion test as part of a lameness or prepurchase examination. Then, with the hoof still lifted and the hock flexed, pull the leg outward away from your horse’s body.

2. Pull the hind hoof forward toward the back of the knee of the front leg on the same side.

3. Pull the hoof backward, stretching out the hind leg in the same position you would use to pick out the foot or that a farrier would use to trim it. Slow pressure without forceful pulling and your horse’s relaxation will eventually allow for a good deal of extension in this position.

Flex your horse’s hip and stifle by lifting the hoof upward and forward. As you flex the joints, help the horse maintain his balance by keeping the lower leg toward the midline and the horse’s weight centered over the supporting leg. Hold each stretch for 10 to 20 seconds initially.
With the hoof still lifted and the hock flexed, push the point of the hock toward the midline while you pull the foot away from the midline. This motion rotates the stifle and stresses, and eventually strengthens, the ligaments and supporting structures of the inside stifle. Reversing this exercise—pulling the point of the hock outward and pushing the hoof inward—rotates the stifle in the opposite direction and serves to strengthen the outward supporting structures.
Pull the hoof backward, stretching out the hind leg in the same position you would use to pick out the foot or that a farrier would use to trim it. Slow pressure and your horse’s relaxation will eventually allow you a good deal of extension in this position.

3. Walk Your Horse Into Shape

Dr. Marcella says another way to strengthen the stifle is hand-walking your horse up and down slight inclines. Doing this exercise unmounted is especially valuable because the horse can focus on his own balance and movement without trying to compensate for the rider’s weight and position. 

Here’s Dr. Marcella’s strategy: Walk your horse up and down a small hill. Ask him to walk slowly and maintain a straight line, not allowing him to cheat and swing his haunches to either side. This requires balanced use of the stifles. Periodically halt him—this increases the forces on the front part of the quadriceps and patella (kneecap) ligaments—and then walk off again. As with all attempts at strength and conditioning work, an improperly done exercise is nearly worthless and often damaging, so keep the exercises simple—and do simple well.

Similarly, walking your horse under saddle strengthens and stretches the stifles and helps with overall conditioning. A quality working walk “requires him to be balanced on each leg and to use his quadriceps to push forward. This, in turn, strengthens muscles and ligaments,” Dr. Marcella says.

Walking is also a large part of Olympic veteran Jim Wofford’s conditioning plan at the start of a horse’s new season. His reason is simple. “Both the walk and the gallop are four-beat paces,” he says. “When you walk your horse, you are galloping in slow motion with little concussion and a low risk of injury.”

Here’s Wofford’s strategy: Every time your horse’s shoulder moves forward, close your opposite leg in rhythm with the walk that you want rather than the walk he might offer. For example, as his right shoulder moves forward, close your left leg at the girth and then your right leg at the girth as his left shoulder moves forward. When you get off after an hour’s vigorous walk, your legs should be more tired than your horse’s legs. 

When the weather and footing is nice, Grand Prix dressage rider Jessica Jo “JJ” Tate says to take the walk outside and add some hill work if possible.

Here’s Tate’s strategy: Start with 15 to 20 minutes of walking, allowing your horse to stretch out and lubricate his joints. This will give you time to connect with him as well—and to settle into the present moment, letting go of outside stressors. Give him as long and free a rein as possible, maintaining just enough contact to control him in case the unexpected happens (safety first). Encourage him to march forward and swing his back. Ask for a little bit of poll flexion so that he’s softly on the bit and chewing nicely. Avoid holding him tightly on a hard contact, which will make him brace in his topline.

Additionally, you can gain a lot of thrust by walking up and down hills, Tate says. As you ride on a hill, continue to ask your horse to stay round and soft over his topline, always working toward shifting more weight from his front legs to his hind legs. Keep your seat bones in the saddle when going uphill but close your knees a little so you can lighten your seat and stay in balance while offering him some support. Going downhill, lean back and close your knees slightly as well. The more you can support your horse with your seat, knees and thighs, the less pulling you’ll have to do on the reins.

Especially going downhill, Tate adds, ask your horse to take very measured, even steps. This will help teach him to lower his croup, sink into his hocks and flex his stifles, which will, in turn, improve his ability to “sit” in his collected dressage work.  

walking on hills
Hand-walking your horse downhill and uphill is a great exercise to make your horse utilize his hind end and work the muscles and structures that support not only the stifles but also the lower back and pelvis. © KLM Equine

Start Planning Your Conditioning Strategy

As fall turns to winter, you might not be ready for full-conditioning mode with your horse, but it is a good time to start planning your goals for next year and setting up a conditioning strategy.

An easy way to develop an appropriate conditioning program is to watch videos of competitions at the same level at which you are aiming to compete, says Hilary Clayton, BVMS, PHD, Dipl. ACVSMR, MRCVS. When you play the videos, 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. Use this information 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, Dr. Clayton recommends. 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.

If you have a target date for 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 approximately an extra month to strengthen the appropriate muscles.

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