Spring Conditioning for Horses, where to start?
April 15, 2018 by Jec Ballou
Spring Conditioning: Where to start?
When spring finally arrives, the sunny riding season ahead can meet riders with both excitement and anxiety. Where do I start, you might wonder as you calculate how un-fit your horse has become from a winter mostly off. How long will it take to ease him back to fitness? What sorts of exercises and timelines should you use? In this article, I’ll answer these questions plus offer a simple schedule in addition to some rules you never want to break.
As a starting point, let’s consider when a horse loses the fitness he might have acquired the previous season. Any time a horse’s exercise routine drops below three 45-minute work sessions per week for a period longer than 4 weeks, we consider him to have lost a majority of fitness. If he reaches 12 weeks working less than three times per week, his fitness has zeroed out, including any baseline or foundation. For our purposes in this article, we will assume most readers are starting from this point.
Your priorities for the initial six weeks will be the cardiovascular system and core stability muscles. Your workouts should focus on basic conditioning rather than schooling specific skills and maneuvers. They will remain less than 40 minutes and aim to deliver a low to moderate amount of cardiovascular stress while also emphasizing calisthenics type exercises to engage the horse’s postural muscles. I will offer a sample schedule to meet these goals below.
Keep in mind you do not need to work your horse at a gasping rate of effort in order to achieve gains. In fact, this would be counter-productive. Muscle enzymes, capillaries, and plasma volumes are not yet properly developed in order to benefit from these kinds of workloads. Instead, you would raise stress hormones and fail to improve how the body utilizes oxygen, which should be the focus. If you monitor your horse’s heart rate, it should hover between 120 and 140 beats per minute for the middle portion of your ride between the warm-up and cooldown.
During this initial cardio phase, your strength training should only take the form of slow-moving, controlled calisthenics routines rather than exercises that activate the horse’s big locomotive muscles like the back, rump, or hamstrings. The connective tissues that stabilize and support these larger muscles—and the joints near them– are not toned at this point and will respond with tension and stiffness trying to play their role.
Due to this state in the early phases of conditioning, the horse is prone to developing incorrect neuro-motor patterns or faulty proprioceptive signals, which is another reason we avoid challenges that trigger big muscles. Remember: conditioning is not just about muscles and bones and lung capacity. It is just as much about training the nervous system.
There is no need to rush. More challenging strength training as well as higher cardiovascular efforts can, and will, happen after the first six weeks. Your workouts in weeks one through six will follow this pattern: basic cardio plus calisthenics to improve stabilizing muscles. A sample schedule will look like the following:
Week 1: Flat ground work 3 times per week at a moderate walk for 30 minutes, plus 5 minutes of calisthenics*
Weeks 2-3: Flat ground work 3 times per week at a moderate walk for 40 minutes, plus 5 minutes calisthenics
Weeks 4-5: Flat ground work 3 times per week at moderate walk/trot 40 minutes plus 5 minutes calisthenics.
*choose from calisthenics list at the end of this article
At this point, you have gradually eased the horse’s metabolic system back in to a regular aerobic routine but he is by no means fit. His cells will be more efficiently shuttling blood and oxygen around the body as plasma volumes increase, clearing out wasteful byproducts of exercise that create soreness. His muscles will have increased their capillary density and enlarged the fibers needed for the work at hand. And perhaps most importantly, the low to moderate work load coupled with consistent calisthenics will have woken up and stimulated his postural muscles which otherwise would have remained dormant.
Now the real work begins. From week six onward, you will be gradually increasing the duration and/or intensity of workouts. Please note that when making workouts harder in any exercise program, you do not increase intensity and duration of exercise simultaneously. During a given workout, you only increase one or the other. For instance, you can make a workout harder by either making it longer or by adding difficult exercises to your normal session length. A sample of the next few weeks follows:
Weeks 6-7: Flat ground work four times per week at moderate walk/trot for 40 minutes. One day per week can include schooling over ground poles not to exceed 5 minutes. Continue calisthenics 3 times per week.
Weeks 8-9: Moderate walk, trot, and canter four times per week for 40 minutes; two days per week can be ridden on hilly terrain. One day per week can include schooling ground poles not to exceed 8 minutes. Continue calisthenics 3 times per week.
Weeks 10-12: Moderate walk, trot, and canter 4 to 5 times per week for 45 minutes (one of these sessions should last 70-80 minutes). Include two days of calisthenics per week and one day of schooling over ground poles.
At this stage, your horse will be primed well to reach his full fitness level, which is still several weeks away, but the above schedule gives you a good basic starting place. From here, you will want to add strength and conditioning routines specific to your chosen discipline at least two days per week, and you will also want to develop a variety in the duration of each workout. Most of your workouts will remain around 45 minutes, but one or two per week should run quite a bit longer while one remains shorter than 35 minutes. Your goal is to work the horse at different effort levels day to day, hence these varying times. This article does not have space to delve in to sport specific training, but regardless what your chosen sport might be, every horse needs a well- developed base on which to build.
The schedule I have offered here does contain some flexibility. For example, how you spend your riding time in weeks one through six is up to you—riding in a flat arena, a pasture, down a flat road, and so on.
***Suggested calisthenics exercises; choose three to five per day to execute on the days noted in the conditioning schedule:
-Backing up un-mounted 60 steps
– lateral cervical stretching using either your hands or carrot baits
– Walking slowly over high raised poles (mounted or un-mounted)
– pelvic tucks and/or belly lifts
– Walking and bending around a 10-meter circle with a very low stretched neck position (mounted or un-mounted)
– tight serpentines (un-mounted)
– walking briskly over ground poles placed randomly around an area of varying surfaces, i.e. grass, sand, gravel.