It Has Been a Long, Long Winter

By: Tracy Turner, DVM, MS, DiplACVS

Winter will be over (sometime).  This means that you’re going to want to get back in the saddle and out on the trail, cross country course, sorting pen, or any number of venues.  Winter (especially this one) keeps many horse owners from riding as much as they would like because they don’t have access to indoor facilities or the temperatures are simply not conducive to outdoor riding. This means that as spring comes with warmer temperatures, horses are going to be ridden a lot more than they are used to after such a long break. When you’re getting ready to ride after so much time off, it’s important to keep in mind that just because your horse takes off running in the pasture doesn’t mean he’s ready for hard riding. These horses are going to need some conditioning as well.

Conditioning Pic 1Conditioning your horse involves more than a 10-minute lunge.  It’s not uncommon for people to bring the horse out of his stall, throw the saddle on and get to riding.  This is hard on a horse in more ways than one and is similar to you going to the gym and running a mile on the treadmill after not running all winter.  It’s hard on you and you’re going to get tired very quickly.  The same is true for your horse.

There have been numerous studies done on equine conditioning.  Most have found that conditioning is very important to prevent injury to your horse after a long winter.  They suggest that when you bring your horse up to the barn after a long layover, you should begin with easy and slow work that will help them to regain their muscle and bone strength. Research also suggests you give your horse ample time to warm-up.  Start with the slow paces and then incorporate small bursts of speed worked into your riding routine.  These bursts will help the horse’s muscles get prepared for exertion and allow them to reach their peak oxygen consumption levels sooner.  You also want to warm your horse up at various levels of speed.

In general for the unfit horse, one needs to ride at least three days a week and keep your horse in a large pasture with company the other days. Start with 30-minute rides and gradually, over a four-week period, work up to 90 minutes per ride. For the first few rides, walk and trot for 15 minutes, alternating as many time you’d like. Over time you can add canter work. A good four-week goal is 90-minute rides with 20 minutes at a walk, 50 minutes at a trot, and 20 minutes at a canter, again, broken up and ridden in any order you’d like. Where you ride is also important. Train for where you want to ride. If you are training for trail work, ride on the trails.

As your horse’s fitness increases, you will notice that the work will become less laborious for the horse and the pulse recovery after fast work will drop into the 60s in five minutes or less. You can check the pulse with a stethoscope or your fingers with a bit of practice. Even if you don’t use pulse rate as an indicator, you’ll notice your horse’s fitness increasing in other ways, your horse will not become “winded” as easily, the horse’s body will become more muscular and the gaits will be “forward” and the horse will be eager to work for longer periods of time.

Principles of Conditioning

Conditioning Pic 2The success of a conditioning program relies on the horse’s adaptive response to the stress of exercise. If the horse performs the same amount of exercise every day, a certain level of fitness is attained as the horse adapts to the workload. However, without a further increase in training load (an increase in training duration, intensity, or both), there will be no further increase in fitness. To achieve a conditioning or training effect, the horse must be subjected to gradual increases in workload. Each new level of training is maintained until the body has adapted to the added stress, after which a further increase in training load can be applied. Alternating periods of increased workload with a period of adaptation is known as progressive loading.

The idea behind progressive loading is to prescribe exercise that will gradually stress the horse sufficiently, such that the horse will be able to tolerate the same exercise the next time with less stress. For aerobic conditioning (endurance), progressive loading is accomplished through gradual increases in either the duration or intensity (speed) of the exercise on a weekly basis. For anaerobic conditioning (speed), progressive loading is accomplished by a weekly increase in the exercise intensity (speed) or in the number of repetitions of high-intensity activity.

For any equine discipline, performance is most effectively improved by training the specific muscles and systems involved in that discipline. In other words, training exercise must be focused on the specific demands of the particular event the horse is training for. The physiologic and psychological demands of competitive events such as the 3-day event, show jumping, dressage, endurance rides and racing over distances of 400 m to 3200 m are extremely different. Therefore, training should be specific to the event, thus training the appropriate structures and physiologic systems. This principle of conditioning is known as specificity.

Training of horses should be specific to the athletic event involved whenever possible. This principle need not be followed rigidly, since there are circumstances when alternative types of exercise are appropriate for certain horses. For example, working the horse over hilly terrain has the advantage of increasing heart rate (workload) without increasing speed, thereby sparing the bones, tendons and ligaments from excessive stress.

One of the most important principles of conditioning is that of individual differences. Horses vary in their individual response to conditioning. Some horses will respond more quickly than others and will tolerate faster increases in training load. The magnitude of the overall training response will also vary among horses. Genetic factors play a major role in this variation in training response, but another consideration is the state of fitness at the beginning of a training program. A horse which has been inactive for a long time (12 months or more) will require a longer period of training to reach a certain level of fitness compared to a horse which has had a six or eight-week layoff after a season of training and competition. Age is also important. Younger horses are capable of greater adaptations in response to training. By comparison, recent studies have confirmed that older horses (age 20+ years) have a reduced capacity for exercise. Ultimately, training programs must be individualized in order to attain maximum benefit while minimizing the risk of injury.