With Coronavirus vaccinations now circulating, our thoughts are shifting to recovery on all levels. For many horse owners itching to get back out and about, our minds are starting to focus on recovering our horses’ fitness, ready to take full advantage when we can get back to competing.

What is fitness?

Fitness is relative, it depends on where you are now and what your end goal is. It is the ability of the horse to perform at a specific level without sustaining injury or becoming tired. It has to take into account his conformation, weight and body condition, his baseline level of fitness, temperament, underlying conditions or injury, current daily activity level and the end goal in his specific discipline. It’s quite different getting a dressage horse fit for advanced international events and a riding horse fit for local weekend competitions. 

First things first

Get the basics in order. Our horses need a solid foundation on which to build fitness and skill. After a break, one of the first things to consider is booking a check-up with your vet. This is to ensure your horse is in good general health and can withstand the work you will ask of him. It’s an opportunity to check he’s up to date with worming and the required vaccinations. The visit should also include a dental exam unless it’s been done recently. 

Next, make sure his feet have recently been assessed and trimmed by your farrier and you’ve got his regular slot booked in. The saddle fit should also be checked by a professional because his shape may have changed if he’s been out of work for a while. It’s likely to need rechecking after a month or so of training to ensure he’s still comfortable as he changes shape again.

Other factors

You’ll need to alter your horse’s feed ration and content for his level of activity, weight and fitness as you progress. Keep a weight tape on hand and measure him each week. You can compare this to his feed guidelines and make gradual alterations to make sure he’s getting what he needs. At his check up, ask your vet for advice on appropriate feeding while you increase his work level.   

If your horse has underlying conditions, has had previous injuries, has recently foaled, or is getting older, then the pre-training check up with your vet cannot be emphasised enough. Have a good chat with them to help decide what your horse’s ability is realistically. Then how long a training programme is appropriate for him, as well as any individual factors or recommendations with regards to additional therapies, physiotherapy, supplementation and feeding.   

Training for success

Although some horses are naturally fitter than others, all working horses should be trained to some extent. This ensures that their bodies are slowly acclimatised to perform work. It is particularly important when intending to compete. This is how we help them to avoid injury whilst getting them closer to their true athletic ability so they perform better. 

Biologically speaking…

Training aims to improve oxygen consumption and delivery to the cells. This enables them to withstand increasing activity. The horse normally uses aerobic (meaning with air/oxygen) metabolism to provide energy for movement. But when the oxygen level is lowered with repeated exercise, they switch to anaerobic metabolism (ie, no oxygen); this produces lactic acid. The lactic acid hinders further muscle contraction and ends up causing the horse to become tired. It then needs some time to be removed from the system so the muscles can work better again. 

The switch from aerobic to anaerobic metabolism is faster in under-trained horses so they tire quicker, but training helps to gradually delay this process so they can endure harder, faster and longer exercise. Fitness also helps to tone and build required muscle, condition the horse neurologically (eg, to get the hang of movements) and train him psychologically to sustain the attitude he needs to do his job happily.

Devise a training programme and stick to it

Now for the fun part! There isn’t a one-size-fits-all training programme, this is why it’s important to have regular contact with either your vet or a reputable trainer in your discipline who can help devise a plan for your horse. You should aim for a minimum of 8-12 weeks to build to a level of fitness that allows your horse to undertake regular work at the desired level. 

However, this really does depend on the individual, time available and the goal. A training programme should be detailed day by day, incorporate a day off to relax and allow for leeway depending on how the horse is getting on. It should start off gently and increase slowly, to increase his fitness gradually. The programme should set exercise periods and intensities for each day, it should allow varied work that doesn’t just concentrate on his discipline, in order to prevent injury and keep him mentally stimulated. 

Ideally it should involve some hillwork and fast work to enhance cardiovascular fitness. It’s important to remember to always warm up and cool down, and remember to do some gentle stretching exercises.

Pull your own weight

It’s easy to focus all our efforts on preparing and fittening our horses, but we should remember that as riders we are responsible for making sure that we too are fit enough for the job. We are a partnership at the end of the day. You don’t want to make it harder work for your horse by not having the strength to keep you balanced in the saddle. 

As horse owners, we seem to do plenty of weight training between tipping wheelbarrows and hauling feed sacks around, but we should all try to squeeze in some additional regular exercise so that we can help our horses do the best they can.

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