Our horses are athletes, there is no question about it. Just like any other athlete they have to be properly conditioned in order to perform optimally. But how do we create a fit horse?
That depends on a lot of factors, meaning that getting a horse fit is not a one-size-fits-all approach.
However, in this article we will walk through some important things to keep in mind when developing a conditioning schedule for your horse.
Step 1: Assess the starting point
Before you can begin increasing your horse’s fitness level, you should assess where they are starting from right now.
Take stock of your current training program, what kind of exercise your horse is doing and how often. Then, you can move on to assessing their current condition.
The first thing to take into account is your horse’s resting heart rate, or the heart’s beats per minute when the horse is standing comfortably and quietly with low stimulation. It may require a few tries to get a correct resting heart rate on your horse because even the slightest distraction may increase their heart rate rapidly.
The next step in assessing your horse’s baseline condition is to perform an exercise test that you can standardize. This step will be very different from horse-to-horse and rider-to-rider but must be something you can repeat later on. Some ideas for tests include a certain number of minutes walking, trotting and cantering, or completing a jumping course, a reining pattern, or a dressage test.
Once you know what you are going to choose for your horse’s test, it would be optimal to have a heart rate monitor to assess heart rate throughout the exercise bout, however, if this is not practical for you, you can take your horse’s heart rate IMMEDIATELY after you are finished with the test. This must be taken as soon as you are done because a horse’s heart rate will return to resting 1-2 minutes post exercise.
Once you have obtained an exercising heart rate, continue to monitor your horse and note how long it takes to return to normal resting rate.
In addition, take note of subjective measures such as how much your horse sweat during the exercise, if it felt like they had a hard time getting through the test, etc. Be sure to write this information down because you will refer back to it later down the road as your conditioning program progresses.
Step 2: Set a reasonable goal
Once you have obtained your baseline values, shift your focus to what you want to achieve with your horse. It is hard to decide how to get your horse in shape if you don’t have an end goal that you are trying to reach.
Once you have clearly defined goals, you can gradually start to condition your horse by increasing their amount of work. Increasing the workload can come in many forms including, but not limited to:
- Increasing the amount of time that they are performing faster gaits like the trot or canter.
- Increasing the overall length of your ride.
- Decreasing the amount of time they have to rest between exercises during your ride.
- Riding more frequently throughout the week.
- Increasing the intensity of special skills or maneuvers in your daily training.
It is important that you increase the workload gradually. Slowly begin to intensify your horse’s exercise routine over a span of several weeks. Do not overwhelm your horse by asking them to do a significantly higher workload all at once, as this could lead to injury.
However, you should make an effort to push your horse out of their comfort zone to get them to work harder. This will probably not be comfortable for them at all times but if you do not push their limits, they will not improve. Over time you should start to feel that things that were once difficult for your horse are becoming easier, and that is when you can increase the workload once again.
Step 3: Evaluate how fitness level has changed
Now that you’ve gone through weeks, if not months, of executing a horse fitness plan, it is time to re-assess his or her level of conditioning.
Look at your new normal schedule and see how it compares to your previous program. Then, you will once again measure resting heart rate, complete the same exercise test (see step #1), evaluate the heart’s beats per minute immediately following the test, and monitor the time it takes to return to the resting rate.
If your horse has become more fit, you might see a slightly lower resting heart rate (but don’t expect to see much of a change here, as this doesn’t seem to be an indicator of fitness like it is in humans).
However, you should see a lower heart rate immediately after the standardized exercise test, and a shorter length of time for their heart to return to the resting rate. You can also think about the subjective factors you made notes of, like how hard it felt for your horse to get through the test and how much sweat they produced.
Step 4: Maintain fitness
Once you have achieved the level of fitness you are interested in, the work does not stop! In fact, it has just begun.
Horses can lose their cardiovascular and muscular fitness rather rapidly if they are out of work, so it is important to maintain fitness levels once they have been achieved.
As with human fitness, consistency is key. That is not to say that you have to do the exact same thing every week; in fact, it’s better not to do the exact same thing all the time.
Cross training can be a beneficial part of a conditioning program to help increase muscle strength and cardiovascular ability. Cross training could include days on a walker, hacking days, exercises on an aquatic treadmill, hill exercises, and so on. Again, this is dependent upon what your main goal is, but it will keep the program interesting for both you and your horse, build muscle and overall strength, while reducing risk of injury.
While your horse may now be at a high level of fitness and need frequent work to maintain this condition, do not take rest for granted. Horses need to be able to adapt to their new workloads and must have time to recover, just like human athletes. This gives their body the chance to repair muscle, replenish energy stores required for intense exercises, and provides them with space to recover mentally.
Now this doesn’t necessarily mean they need to stand in their stall for long periods of time (does sitting on the couch help you if you have sore muscles?), but they do need activities outside of training. This may be a day of just walking, turnout in a pasture, etc.
When you have established a good routine of rest, discipline-specific exercises, and cross-training, you can continue this program to maintain conditioning.
Step 5: Don’t underestimate nutrition
While most of what we have discussed so far has been centered around training, it would be wrong to leave out the nutritional component of having a fit horse.
A horse certainly will not be able to perform to the best of their ability if they do not have the proper diet to provide them with the energy sources and other nutrients that they need.
Horses in heavy exercise will have higher nutrient requirements than more sedentary horses. These horses may need to have grain in their diet to meet these requirements, but it is still important to remember that forage should be the basis of any equine diet, and the benefits of long-stem roughage cannot be replaced by grain.
This diet of mostly forage and some supplemental grain is probably providing all of what your horse needs. However, it doesn’t matter how high quality the feed is that you are providing your horse if they cannot properly digest it.
The equine microbiome consists of all the bacteria (good and bad) that live in the horse’s digestive tract. If this microbiome is not well balanced and not full of the good bacteria, your horse may have problems digesting and utilizing the nutrients you are providing to them, which will negatively affect their performance.
FullBucket’s Athletic Formula improves the microbiome in your horse, which allows them to properly utilize all the nutrients you are already providing them. Athletic Formula can help enhance feed digestion, maintain energy and stamina, provide proper bone and joint support, among many other benefits! This can help ensure that you are able to help your horse reach their full potential and make them the fittest version of themselves.
Depending on your horse and your goals, a conditioning program is going to vary from animal to animal. However, to establish a horse fitness schedule, regardless of discipline, you must be able to evaluate your starting point and your end goal.
Over time, you can gradually increase exercise intensity to increase your horse’s fitness, then set up a good plan to maintain that condition. Ensure that your horse can reach their full potential through proper nutrition and balancing their microbiome.