Horse Conditioning for Top Performance
By Jennifer Petterson
September 18, 2020
We all know what it feels like when your horse is able to execute every maneuver with energy and confidence. This is the horse who finishes a long trail ride with the same forward step that he had at the start of the ride, or the show horse that is able to give you one last effort at a long spot before a fence. He has enough left in reserve to give a stellar last trot before the line-up. Many will comment on how well-trained the horse is or what a smart ride. While this could certainly be true, it also speaks to effective conditioning for the job. Every horse and rider will benefit from reviewing conditioning goals, creating benchmarks and then executing an informed conditioning plan. A physically prepared horse is less likely to suffer from injuries as a result of fatigue or training roadblocks that stem from being physically sore or worn out.
It can be challenging to start thinking like a personal fitness trainer for your horse, but that is exactly how professional trainers and sales preparation facilities approach conditioning horses. While we will focus on the exercise portion of a conditioning program, it is critical to also evaluate your horse’s nutrition plan. A comprehensive conditioning program cannot be successful without providing the horse with the right combination of feed to compliment your goals. I have seen many horses suffer with a slow to develop topline or hindquarter who were not on a feed program designed to meet their conditioning benchmarks. A consultation with an equine nutritionist or your veterinarian can put you on the right track.
Your first step is to establish a goal for your program. For riders and trainers with a specific event or competition in mind, this is often the target. If you know that you will want to be able to finish the summer with a multiple day camping experience, then that can serve as a goal. I find that riders who cannot pinpoint what exactly they want in a conditioning program struggle to stick to a plan. I like to think through a few basic questions. What do I want my horse to be able to do? How much saddle time is it going to take to train for this? How much time should this take if everything goes well?
A horse’s body is physiologically very similar to you in that challenges trigger repair, reshaping and strengthening. The difficulty is that I know when I’m challenging my body beyond what is easy and can regulate myself. Your horse relies on you to fully understand his current level of fitness and to recognize for him when he’s appropriately challenging his body.
Identify your horse’s current fitness level and what level they need to complete your goals
If you are moving a horse from a low level of conditioning for activity to a high level of activity, you will need to allow for the time it takes to develop the various body systems of the horse. The outline or shape of the horse, or how heavy or light they look can be an indicator, but it isn’t the whole picture. You can start by thinking about how to develop and reshape muscles and strengthen bone, tendons and ligaments. The respiratory system is yet another system that must be challenged in order to improve. If you fail to incorporate aerobic work into your plan but have a high level of lung function at the heart of your goal, you will struggle to achieve the results you want.
A horse’s body is physiologically very similar to you in that challenges trigger repair, reshaping and strengthening. The difficulty is that I know when I’m challenging my body beyond what is easy and can regulate myself. Your horse relies on you to fully understand his current level of fitness and to recognize for him when he’s appropriately challenging his body. Riders and trainers with many years of experience may not specifically identify that this is what is helping them achieve the fitness goals that they have for their horses, but they are intuitively pushing the horse for a bit more and then letting them recover.
I wish riders understood that training and conditioning are two different things. Riders often misinterpret their horse being more successful at a given moment as an improvement in fitness, which it sometimes can be, rather than the horse just becoming familiar with what you are asking them to do.
Dr. Paul Schiltz, University Veterinarian at William Woods University teaches this concept in depth during his Equine Anatomy and Conditioning class. As an experienced veterinarian charged with maintaining a working herd of over 100 performance horses in four riding disciplines, he offers advice for riders and trainers that crosses over riding styles. He explains that the veterinary perspective is “physiology based rather than performance based and is routed in scientific investigation.” He sees a gap in many riders’ understanding of training versus conditioning. “I wish riders understood that training and conditioning are two different things. Riders often misinterpret their horse being more successful at a given moment as an improvement in fitness, which it sometimes can be, rather than the horse just becoming familiar with what you are asking them to do.” He encourages properly identifying a horse’s current level of fitness as a critical first step to designing an effective plan. Not taking an appropriate amount of time for long, slow work is another common mistake. It takes careful planning to determine how you will accurately measure improvement, and he describes this as another common stumbling block for riders.
Monitor your horse’s heart rate
It is hard to be a successful equine fitness coach without having command of some basic equine fitness tests. If you know what your horse’s normal resting respiration rate is, then you can correctly calculate how long it took him to recover to his resting rate after aerobic exercise. You need to be able to count breaths to determine breaths per minute to compare. Monitoring heart rate is very helpful for the same purpose. An athletic horse recovers efficiently and moves to a resting heart rate relatively quickly. There are tools on the market that will help you track heart rate while you ride, but even checking heart rate after dismounting and then again after untacking will give you data to track. For all of you who love charts and graphs, the data can be tracked and charted. It will also help you determine whether or not your stresses to the body systems are actually providing the challenge you think they are. I remember riding a laid-back horse and thinking that I was out of breath so they must be too. It turned out that the horse’s respiratory rate had hardly increased at all. I was working hard, but he was barely working. It’s easy to mistake your own fatigue and challenge for your horse’s fatigue and challenge. Using objective measures for comparison purposes will help you to avoid this.
Conditioning is beneficial for all horses
Conditioning for performance is not a goal for elite equine athletes alone. A light conditioning program is appropriate for any horse. A lesson horse doing flat work five times a week with children will benefit from having a program that helps them stay comfortable and physically capable doing the work required. A recreational horse who does twice monthly trail rides should be fit enough to avoid “weekend warrior” pain after a ride. An academy lesson horse in a saddle seat program will have an easier time teaching people to post a trot if they can trot for 10 minutes at time with minimal effort. Remember that your horse has a different vocabulary to tell you that they are sore or fatigued. Maybe the lesson horse is struggling with the last lesson of the week, or a normally agreeable horse is riding with their ears pinned. These are examples of a horse who might be physically struggling but yet not unsound. Pay attention to how long or how far you have gone. There are a number of terrific phone applications that riders are using to track distance and time. This is a great way to keep your recreational riding fitness goals on track.
The moderately active horse might be a weekend show horse in moderate intensity events (flat classes, lower level dressage tests, low over fences classes, or moderate western events for example). It is helpful to consider this the “mid-range” equine athlete. While these horses need stamina, strength, and power, they won’t typically be asked to use every bit of energy in their respective events. This is the category in which I see many conditioning problems. It is easy to concentrate on training but forget to give the horse’s body time to reshape itself to the new demands. Many horses in this category are also helping to teach their riders the ropes and the human practice schedule might not include fitness conditioning. The answer in many cases is to remember that your goal is to make the horse’s body work for him rather than against him. It takes time and discipline to achieve this. It might mean waiting to add events or new skills until the horse’s body has caught up with his new training. Being able to execute a maneuver once or twice is only the beginning. Now you need to continually develop the body systems so that the new techniques or maneuver is physically as efficient as possible.
I’m grouping my last category of horses into what I call “elite equine athletes.” These horses are asked to use up every bit of gas in the tank during their job. A five gaited American Saddlebred leaving the ring will look like he has just run a race. A reining horse at the final sliding top has used every bit of effort in a quality run down and stop to finish out a competitive pattern. A speed horse is asked for every ounce of speed he can muster. The last big oxer in the jump off and the final halt in a Grand Prix dressage test requires a horse to dig deep and find a little bit more. Riders of horses performing at this level of physical effort need to take special care to develop a systematic plan to allow their horses to find this “reserve” when they ask. An experienced rider will tell you that this level of elite fitness cannot be attained by just practicing the show ring skills. You find this level of fitness by carefully analyzing what the horse’s body needs to do and how you can improve its efficiency. For many seasoned equine competitors, this means much more than riding. Many trainers practice an equine version of cross-training to achieve this level of fitness. The further you move into the world of the elite equine athlete, the more it begins to look like the same type of conditioning protocols that an elite human athlete might use.
Work your horse outside of the saddle
Separating conditioning and training and including workouts outside of riding can be an incredible tool for maintaining fitness in a horse at any activity level. The lesson horse may not mentally need another schooling ride for fitness, but they might enjoy being ponied on a trail for conditioning purposes. Saddle seat trainers frequently long line or jog horses on days that they don’t ride. This is an opportunity to work toward enhanced aerobic fitness, observe cadence, rhythm, and work on suppleness in the bridle without sitting in the tack. Long lining and educated longeing is a fantastic training and conditioning tool when used with purpose. Free jumping or a round pen can enhance an effective conditioning workout. Pole work is sometimes thought of as an exercise for hunter/jumper horses and western trail horses alone. However, pole work can assist you in developing careful footwork and self-carriage in any discipline.
How I track the work and progress
What does this look like in practice? It feels like being a fitness trainer. I think of myself as having two obligations every time that I ride. I need to teach the horse the skills that they need to be able to do their job, and then I need to work on preparing their body for the challenge. I can’t rush muscles, lungs, ligaments and tendons. I can’t strengthen bone by wishing. I wear a watch when I ride to make sure I know exactly how long I’ve been trotting or loping on an aerobic day. I know the circumference of the arenas and spaces that I work in so that I can keep track of distance. I like to write down my plan because it helps me to stick with my program.
I recognize that in order to build a horse’s hindquarters, gaskins, and stifles, I need to incorporate movements that engage those areas. This is where I find that putting the fitness trainer in the driver’s seat makes everything easier. While preparing an older gelding for the ranch division at a world championship horse show, I knew that I needed to build some strong musculature on his already stout frame. I am methodical about counting repetitions and sets when working on fitness goals with my horses. This horse didn’t need to learn how to back, but he needed the strength and muscle that the backing was going to provide. Over the course of months we worked up to 10 repetitions of 10 back steps through deep sand and eventually up a slight hill. It took slow and methodical work get to that point. Would it have been more fun to spin him a few more times instead? Yes, but that wouldn’t have built the hind end I was looking for. Thinking objectively and separating what you need to teach and what you need to fitness train can be incredibly helpful.
The power of rest
Rest is critical to any conditioning program. The horse and human body needs time to repair and rebuild after the challenge of the workout. Failure to plan for regular rest periods is a frequent misstep in a novice program. Many riders begin thinking that more is better. It can sometimes feel that way when you are knee deep in training. However, the remodel process requires time to heal. A horse who does not receive ample rest days will not develop as you expect. Remember that the horse who is body sore will often start to tell you that they need a break. I try to make sure that I include a rest day after periods of high intensity training or work. In a given week, most programs will include one to two days off. Your horse’s rest days are just as important to his conditioning program as his work days.
Advanced or just beginning your riding career, taking a step back and creating a conditioning program will focus your riding and your equine workouts. Establish realistic goals for your horse and then work backward to determine how much time is required for the horse’s body systems to reshape and remodel. Then you can start to document your plan and determine if you are on the right track. The reward is a horse with a body that is shaped for the task and can perform at your desired level with physical ease. A horse with a rider as a fitness coach is a horse who will be ready to give you the enhanced performance that an effective conditioning program can create. You can be the key to helping your horse recover and rebuild for peak performance.