Build your horse a fitness plan with this quick and easy guide. We take a look at how you can schedule an effective programme for improving your horse’s performance and help reduce the chance of injury.
Before You Begin
Before you begin your horse’s fitness plan, he or she should be given a general health check. This is an ideal time to:
- Check saddle and other tack fit
- Have a physio assess you’re horses way of going
- Trot your horse up and check for any lameness or gate issues
- Ask your farrier to trim up/shoe and check on hoof balance
- Arrange the dentist to make sure your horse is comfortable in the mouth
- Condition score your horse
- Get up to date with vaccinations – especially if you’re planning on competing or going out for clinics etc
First Things First
If you’re starting from scratch, take a look at our guide to bringing your horse back into work. However, if you’re upping the intensity or returning from a short break in routine, you still need to ensure your horse is ready to begin.
Riders must also consider their horse as an individual when building their fitness plan! Each horse’s plan will differ in time and intensity, depending on;
- Age; young and veteran horses will take longer to reach higher levels of fitness and strength.
- Previous fitness level; a horse who has been very fit in the past will find it much easy to build its strength and stamina back up to this level than those who have never been trained to a higher level.
- Current fitness level; horses who have been ridden will find it easier to regain fitness than those let down in the field for a prolonged period.
- Previous injury; if your horse has suffered injury previously, a period of slow work may be required to strengthen the injured tissue before more intense work can begin.
Building Your Horse’s Fitness Plan
Once you’ve considered your horse’s starting point, planning your next steps is crucial to achieving your goals.
Fitness plans often follow a basic outline of working from slow, conditioning work to a faster, intenser workload.
Slowly does it …
Beginning with slow work primes the musculoskeletal structure for future work. Apply gentle pressure. Slow work helps to build the strength and stamina of muscles, tendons and ligaments, which stabilise movement. Slow work is also great for balance, further preventing injury.
For slow work, begin with hacking, schooling and in-hand exercises such as long-reining, mostly in walk and short bouts of trot. This can be built up to work on hills, extending time ridden and working for longer periods in trot.
Sessions should begin at approximately 20 minutes or shorter if your horse becomes tired and build up to your desired session length. Slow work sessions should be gradually increased over a 4-5 week period to allow appropriate adaptation.
The next stage of your horse’s training plan should focus on conditioning your horse’s strength and stamina! This means; incorporating lateral work into hacking sessions, helping to build stabiliser muscles and balance; working more in the arena; nailing responsiveness to aids and focus and adding lungeing to your groundwork exercises. Still working on extending trotting periods, you can begin to add in very short bursts of canter on a flat surface. Add some trotting poles into the mix and start building up canter work within a 3-4 week period.
Now your horse should be cantering comfortably in the arena and breezing through basic lateral work. So, the final stage of your training plan should look to take your horse’s fitness up to a level they can comfortably compete at. This may mean raising your trotting poles to encourage greater joint range of motion, eventually building to jump work to your desired level! Incorporating hill work in canter and even controlled gallop work in open spaces will aid in increasing cardiovascular fitness. In addition, small outings to unaffiliated events will help get your horse used to a combination of mental and physical stimulation! Build session intensity over a 3-4-week period.
Other Things To Consider
Although stages of a horse fitness plan follow approximate time scales, which you should see adaption in, some horses may develop quicker or slower depending on various individual factors.
Be aware of your horse’s behaviour in the stable and when ridden. Keeping a diary of your horse’s behaviour and the work they are doing will help identify if your horse is struggling with the workload mentally or physically. If you notice negative changes in behaviour when increasing the workload, try extending lower-intensity work for at least another week. Remember, every horse will react differently to training.
To keep your horse’s physical and mental health at its prime during your training programme, sessions should not be completed every day! Rest days are crucial to allow appropriate time for optimal musculoskeletal recovery and development. Three to six days a week of exercise is enough to see exercise-induced development in horses.
Finally, fitting in your horse’s training between other commitments can be hard to balance. When devising a training plan, ask yourself;
1. What is my overall goal?
2. What do I need to do to achieve my goal?
3. When do you want to achieve it?
4. How realistic are my goals?
Planning your overall goals and devising smaller steps is great to keep you on track for success, as well as setting out a timeline in advance. Asking yourself how realistic these goals are will ensure you are not too hard on yourself or your horse. Look closer at barriers which may prevent you from reaching your goals; whether it is this time, money or commitment, there may be a way of getting around them.