Your Horse’s Fitness: Why And How It’s So Important
By John Strassburger
Edited by Bev Gun-Munro
Whether you’re a devoted competitor or enthusiastic trail rider, a fit horse will stay sound longer and be better able to do their job, and please you.
Your “in-the-ring” fitness work should include a variety of movements, such as leg-yields, circles and serpentines.
Fitness, in terms of the soft tissues in the legs (tendons and ligaments) and muscular strength and tone, is an aspect of training that’s often poorly understood or overlooked by many riders and even trainers.
Just like humans, horses aren’t born naturally fit for an athletic endeavor. Yes, certain breeds are better built for certain sports, but developing their fitness must be an intrinsic part of any training regimen. It’s actually more important today than ever before, as the majority of American horses don’t have the space to live an active life on their own.
To do most of our sports, the horse’s fitness needs to more akin to gymnasts, weightlifters or pole-vaulters than to marathon runners or soccer players. They need strong, supple muscles and tendons and ligaments more than they need extraordinary cardiovascular capacity. So this article is about building the overall strength of the average competitive horse, not about preparing a horse for a three-day event or endurance ride. It’s about taking him to the gym or yoga—regularly—not working out on the track.
Train, Don’t Strain. Human sports coaches or personal trainers know that the key to making progress while avoiding injuries is to make sure their charges are “training, not straining.”
“Straining” is spending five days a week sitting at your desk and on Saturday playing an hour or two of tennis or 18 holes of golf, then spending Sunday wondering why your knees and shoulders are so sore. “Training” would be walking for 30 or 40 minutes three or four days a week, plus some weight training or yoga, to get fit to play that game of tennis or golf.
Good coaches plan regular workouts for their athletes, progressively doing more and more work. You don’t run 5 miles in your first workout, not run for a week, and then go for another long run. Again, that’s straining—and it’s just about guaranteed to discourage the person from training, because, even if somehow they aren’t injured, it will certainly be painful.
Your horse needs the same type of progressive work. If you haven’t ridden him for three months and take him for a demanding two-hour trail ride or do a rigorous jump school, he’s likely going to be sore, and he probably won’t be too eager the next time you show up to ride him. He could also be suddenly lame, leaving you to wonder why your horse is “always hurt.”
Here are some examples symptomatic of an unfit horse:
: Your horse looks scrawny or weak, and you’re exhausted after you ride from kicking them every step of the way.
: They trip over nothing, strike themselves, especially late in a riding session (these could also result from poor hoof trimming or a medical problem)
: They won’t take one canter lead, either on the flat or landing after a jump (this too could be a medical problem)
: They runs out of gas after 20 minutes of work or two classes at a show
: They seem to lack scope over fences or has no bounce to their stride.
If you make your horse stronger and, thus, more able to do the work you’re asking for, usually he’ll become more willing to do the work (less kicking for you), because it isn’t exhausting. Instead, fitness makes it fun and gives him a sense of accomplishment, which most horses like.
Don’t Be Afraid. So often people are afraid of getting their horses fit. “It’ll make him crazy,” they insist. Our experience is that almost always what they become is more eager and more workmanlike—because you’ve given them the ability to do the job. But some riders become so used to riding a ”lazy bones’ that they become uncomfortable when their horse actually has some spark.
And if they do seem “crazy,” then one or more of four factors has probably happened. First, you’re not giving or allowing them the physical and mental activity they need now that they’re fitter. Second, they could have a physical problem that’s causing pain or discomfort. Third, analyze your horse’s feeding program: Is he eating too much high-calorie food or does he have ulcers? What and how much your horse eats can have many effects, but so can the fourth possibility: Something in your riding is upsetting them. Take a hard look at what you’re doing with your horse, because only you can fix it.
Walk Your Horse Daily & Especially Before & After WorkOuts
Yes, Walk For Fitness. OK, you’ve decided it’s time to get your horse fitter. Remember: It doesn’t happen in a day or a week. It’s a long-term project.
Walking is the basic conditioning gait. It strengthens the tendons and ligaments and develops strength throughout the body. But we’re not talking about an amble; we’re talking about an active, forward, long-striding walk. The walk strengthens the muscles he uses in his hindquarters, back and shoulders to propel himself along.
If your horse has been out of work or only worked occasionally, start with walking around the ring, or around a field, or on trails, for 20 to 30 minutes. Follow this routine for a week or so, riding three to five days a week, then add another five or 10 minutes a day for the next two weeks. After you add whatever ring work you do, continue this walking regimen once or twice a week.
You can continue to increase your horse’s fitness with extended walking periods before and after you work him in the ring or take a lesson. Actively walk for 15 minutes before starting to work and for 10 to 15 minutes afterward—that’s 30 minutes of walking.
For fun and fitness, go for trail ride once or twice a week. You can just walk, or you can trot or canter, especially up hills. Find a field where you can trot for 10 or 15 minutes. Again, be sure to work progressively up to this effort over 30 to 90 days, depending on how often you ride.
If you don’t have any trails or safe field in which to trot or canter, you can use the ring to develop fitness. Trot for 10 minutes and build up to 15 minutes and even 20 minutes. Make sure you are getting a forward, vigorous trot from the horse.
Round & Round an Arena is BORING!
And don’t just go around the merry-go-round; change the rein, change it up with 10 – 15 meter circles, reverse and change leads, do serpentines; stop, back up, relax, practice stops and starts. After you’ve done a variety regimen for 30-60 days (depending on your horse’s prior fitness), hand gallop for four or five minutes, in the jumping or galloping position.
Our April column was about using specific exercises to efficiently improve your performance, and improving your horse’s fitness is a similar situation. Using those flatwork exercises will also develop muscle strength and suppleness, along with eagerness and willingness. A future article will describe jumping exercises designed to do the same thing.
A Little Less Can Be More
You may have noticed that we didn’t recommend riding your horse six days a week to develop his fitness. That’s because we believe that if you work your horse effectively and correctly, you don’t need to ride him more than four days a week (for unfit or young horses) or five days a week (for older or higher level horses).
Sometimes less really is more. We believe that—just as with children—their bodies and minds usually can’t take “pounding” day after day. They can’t give you their best effort every day; they need time to physically recover or mentally process the new exercises or challenges you present to them. “Give ’em a break and let ’em think,” we say.
You’d think that endurance riders would work their horses six days a week to get ready to negotiate 100 miles in 24 hours. But they don’t. They work them two or three days in a row (usually with one long ride of 20 miles or so and one or two days of half that distance or less) and then give them two or three consecutive days off to recover.
Yes, there is a caveat to this advice. Some horses don’t respond well temperamentally with more than one consecutive day off, and horses who are never turned out often need to work six days a week to overcome boredom and to get fit. Use the walking exercises we’ve described to encourage their fitness and relaxation.
#1: Developing your horse’s fitness should be a vitally important part of their daily/weekly lifestyle.
#2: Irregular but demanding exercise is “straining, not training.” ~ Not fair.
#3: If your horse runs out of gas after 20 minutes of work, lacks scope over fences, or has no bounce to his stride, he probably needs to be more fit.
Remember: Just like with humans, vigorous walking is the basic conditioning gait.