Has your horse’s fitness levels dropped over the Winter months? Or has your horse recently suffered an injury and is ready to get back to work? Or perhaps your horse has recently been backed and ready to begin their journey as a ridden-horse. There are many reasons a horse may have poor fitness/stamina. This blog will help guide you into getting your horse fit for the upcoming season!
Trying to get your horse fit is much like a human trying to get fit. If you push too hard you increase the risk of injury. They have to work on muscle building exercises as well as cardiovascular fitness much like ourselves.
Exercise is the most effective way of improving your horse’s fitness. Starting from the basics is the best place to begin. This will ensure a good understanding of straightness, lateral and longitudinal flexibility and engaging the hind quarters before heading on to faster work. The aim to get your horse improving their fitness effectively and safely, is to encourage your horse to engage all of their muscles.
Working on hard but even ground is great for strengthening bones and tendons. You can also use walk to really get your horse engaged and listening to you. Whether you’re out on the roads or schooling at home, try riding transitions within walk. Go between a free walk and medium walk and vary between work on a long rein and then working in an outline. This will really get your horse thinking and concentrating which will come in handy when you start asking them to work for longer periods or ride more complex movements in the weeks to follow.
Once you are happy with your work in walk and have gradually increased the length of your rides it is time to move up a gear. Start introducing trot work in short spells be it at home or out on a hack. If you have any safe inclines nearby you can make use of these for hill work in trot. Hill work can really help to build up muscle as well as cardiovascular fitness. Think about how you would feel jogging up a hill and how it would make you open your lungs up and get the blood flowing to your legs. You should also aim to be exercising your horse as often as you can whilst still allowing them a couple of rest days each week. Obviously this will be dependent on your other commitments and how much time you have to spare each day.
After 2-3 weeks of working on the trot using a variety of hill work, lunging and schooling it’s time to think about canter. With your horse having increased in fitness over the past few weeks there is a chance they will be excited when you ask for the first canter. Whether ridden or on the lunge, restrict them to short bursts of canter at first. Just because your horse is looking and feeling fitter at this stage it doesn’t mean they’re necessarily ready for cantering non-stop for long periods straight away. You can gradually start increasing these periods until they are able to maintain a good canter for a good few minutes at a time.
Interval training. Once your horse has mastered balance and stamina in all three gaits; walk, trot, canter; you can begin upping their fitness by interval training. When hacking out or schooling, ensure you are constantly changing your gait to prevent your horse getting bored. Interval training will help improve their transitions and ensure all their muscles are working throughout each gait.
Exercise doesn’t just have to be ridden. Lunging can be a very useful tool to get your horse fit. Through lunging you can watch your horse’s movement in a way that you can’t do from the saddle. You can use lunging to make sure your horse is working correctly and in a balanced manner. It is also good for building muscles. You may consider using training aids to encourage engagement of the hind quarters and promote balance. Remember that lunging is hard work for your horse as they have to stay on a constant circle. This means you can replace an hour hack with a much shorter lunge session (perfect for days when you’re short on time).
Are you a fan of jumping? It can be both good fun and a useful muscle builder. You don’t want to start jumping until you have established a balanced canter with a good rhythm and also built up the leg muscles and tendons in the previous weeks. Introducing more lateral work can also do a lot of good for building muscles but is also fantastic for exercising the brain. If you’re training towards competition you will want your horse to be able to concentrate for long enough to complete a course, ride a test or make it through an entire show class.
It’s time to up the ante! Training and improving your horse’s fitness at home – schooling and hacking is a fantastic way to up your horse’s fitness. However, once their fitness has excelled at home… it’s time to explore new turfs! Here are some great places to take your horse to continue improving their fitness:
- Cross-Country Training Days
- Farm Rides
- Beach days
- Countryside trials
- Riding camps/holidays
- Horse/Pony Treks
Hill work is highly effective in building your horse’s fitness and muscle. This is because it requires your horse to use their hind legs and muscles to get up the hill. Hills are also a great way to encourage your horse to stretch through to the front. As it requires them to lean forward, it results in their back muscles to stretch which is highly beneficial for their flexibility and suppleness. Begin walking up hills, but once they’re fitness has improved and they don’t seem out of breath/sweaty/struggling, see how well your horse does trotting up the hill!
Things to bear in mind!
- Each and every horse is different and may differ in the time their fitness increases. Be patient with yourself and your horse.
- Stick at it! You wont see results over night.
- Consistency is key. Don’t let it go weeks without exercising your horse, try to set goals each week, i.e. flatwork x 2, hack x 2, lunge x 1, jumping x 1, rest day x 1.
- Keep it fun for your horse! When a horse gets bored, they are more likely to use less effort and muscle. Keep things exciting for them (don’t just do one thing all the time!)
|Tuesday||Hack – use interval training – regular gait changes (walk, trot, canter), hill work.|
|Wednesday||Flatwork Schooling – interval gaits, circles, serpentine’s, relaxation, straightness, balance work.|
|Thursday||Lunge – each week alternative between loose lunging and lunging on a line. Interval gaits and regular circle-size changes.|
|Saturday||Do something fun! Days-out, hack out with friends, competitions.|
|Sunday||Schooling – jump courses, dressage test sheets, riding lesson.|
The food your horse eats can have a huge effect on their fitness. This includes the type of food and the quantity. When horses exercise they use up the food they eat for energy. Different types of food give different levels of energy to your horse. You will want to feed high energy foods to your horse if they are competing at a top level and expire a lot of energy in doing so. You may also opt for these foods if your horse is somewhat lazy and in need of a boost. Mixes are often a good choice for higher energy as they tend to have plenty of cereals in. On the other hand there are certain horses you won’t want to feed these sorts of foods too as it can make them fizzy. For these types of horses look for low energy foods and consider whether a calming supplement might help. Foods low in starch and high in fibre can be a good choice.
If you’re unsure on which feed to choose, read our blog ‘Choosing a Feed‘.
A big mistake people make is confusing fat for muscle. You cannot achieve good topline through feeding alone as you need to build up the muscles too. If you increase your horse’s feed but don’t increase their exercise they may look like they’re improving but the fundamental strength and fitness won’t be there. That being said, good condition comes from the inside and so your horse’s food will make a difference in how your horse looks. You may consider asking a nutritionist to come to your yard to give you an idea of how you can utilise diet to help when you are trying to get your horse fit.
Both exercise and food are really important to get your horse fit. It is also hugely important to have regular visits from the farrier, vet and dentist. This becomes even more important if you are getting your horse fit after an injury. Remember that there are no shortcuts when it comes to fitness so don’t expect miracles in week one. If you ever feel that things are moving slowly just remember your end goal and try to remain focused on that.