Is Your Horse Fit Enough?

I entered by the old wood doors around back.  I had been to this barn many times and the famil­iar smell of hay and hors­es per­me­at­ed the air.  Today I was called in for a rou­tine check­up on a client’s dres­sage mare that was just com­ing back into work.

We had a long, tough win­ter.  Bit­ter cold.  Too much snow.  No one want­ed to go out­side into the bit­ter wind, not even the hors­es.  Some rid­ers bun­dled up and braved the wrath of ole man win­ter but most of my adult ama­teur clients curled up on the couch instead.  Who can blame them?  It’s hard enough bal­anc­ing work, fam­i­ly and rid­ing but then add the weath­er dif­fi­cul­ties too.  In fact there were many days I would have stayed inside… if I had the choice.

She lost some fit­ness this win­ter” the client warns as she pulls off the blan­ket.  “But I want­ed to make sure she felt okay now that we’ve start­ed rid­ing again.”

Yeah, you can real­ly see it in her top-line and hind-end mus­cles” I reply.  “What’s your plan for bring­ing her back into full work?” I ask.

Not sure” the own­ers says.  “What do you rec­om­mend?”

I get asked this ques­tion often.  Some­times because a horse has off a month or two due to unfore­seen cir­cum­stances and some­times because an injury has the horse laid up for longer.  Whether is reha­bil­i­ta­tion or just get­ting fit, there are some guide­lines to fol­low and some con­cepts to be aware of.

Let me com­pile some infor­ma­tion and email it to you”, I say.  “That way you have if for future ref­er­ence”, I add.

I start­ed think­ing, I bet oth­ers are in this same predica­ment right now.  This would be a good time to share what I researched.  Basi­cal­ly, if you under­stand how the body reacts to exer­cise demands, you can devel­op a train­ing pro­gram for your spe­cif­ic horse and dis­ci­pline.  Of course, with injuries, always con­sult your vet for the best reha­bil­i­ta­tion sched­ule.


Here’s what I sent her…

The best sce­nario is to review the infor­ma­tion below and then come up with your indi­vid­ual horse’s sched­ule based on dis­ci­pline, age, health and future goals.  How­ev­er, Dr. Lori War­ren says, “as a rule of thumb, each addi­tion­al month off beyond the first month of layup requires a month’s recon­di­tion­ing”.  After pro­longed layup, it’s impor­tant to work on gen­er­al fit­ness first, pay­ing atten­tion to build­ing mus­cle and car­diac fit­ness. Strength work and work in a par­tic­u­lar dis­ci­pline come lat­er. Once work in a par­tic­u­lar dis­ci­pline is part of the horse’s rou­tine, make sure only about 50% or 3 out of 6 rides in actu­al­ly in the dis­ci­pline. The oth­er work­outs can be in gen­er­al fit­ness or cross train­ing.

When first start­ing a horse, the most impor­tant aspect of fit­ness is the 2–12 months spent on long, slow, dis­tance train­ing.  The rule is to progress slow­ly and give alter­nat­ing days of rest.  This is true for the horse who has had the win­ter off and the horse who is com­ing back from an injury.  The goal is to pre­pare the horse for 45–60 min­utes of easy exer­cise at walk, trot, can­ter.  Once this stage is reached, then you can increase the objec­tive accord­ing to the dis­ci­pline.

The Big Question

When bring­ing a horse back after some win­ter time off, the ques­tion is how much fit­ness is lost and how fast will it build back up?

Fair­ly quick­ly the body adapts to the train­ing and fit­ness increas­es.  After 10 days the horse will plateau in his fit­ness unless chal­lenged more.  Dr. David Mar­lin sug­gest that a change of inten­si­ty in the train­ing occur around every 2–3 weeks.  They key is to bal­ance fit­ness ver­sus risk of injury.  If you increase the inten­si­ty too quick­ly, you risk injury. On the oth­er hand if you increase too slow­ly, you risk wear and tear type injuries.  How­ev­er, the worst type of train­ing for pre­vent­ing injury is inten­sive three days a week back to back and then 3 days off.  No week­end war­riors here.  Not if you want your horse to be sound.  Dr. Lori War­ren also warns that large oscil­la­tions in fit­ness are detri­men­tal to long term sound­ness.  “In old­er hors­es, it is par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant to main­tain fit­ness in the off-sea­son because recon­di­tion­ing takes longer as the horse ages.”  So as hard as it may be, you have to come out after work, rain or shine and keep the horse fit dur­ing the week and dur­ing the win­ter.


Not all hors­es respond the same to train­ing.  Old­er hors­es lose fit­ness more quick­ly and gain it back much more slow­ly.  Past injuries and health issues will also slow the process.  Of course, genet­ics and con­fir­ma­tion play a role too.  If the horse finds the work easy, it may be too easy and actu­al­ly delay fit­ness. Of course, you will have less risk of injury if they find the work too easy. On the oth­er hand, if the work is very hard for the horse, pro­ceed at a slow­er pace and keep the dura­tion short.

Oth­er vari­ables that influ­ence your fit­ness sched­ule include inten­si­ty (how hard the work is), dura­tion (how long) and fre­quen­cy (how often).  High inten­si­ty for a long time on a fre­quent basis is a recipe for dis­as­ter.  Good prac­tice is to change one vari­able at a time but not the oth­ers.  Increase the fre­quen­cy every 2–3 weeks but not the dura­tion or inten­si­ty.  Or increase the inten­si­ty but not the fre­quen­cy or dura­tion.

The body doesn’t gain fit­ness lin­ear­ly. Some tis­sues and sys­tems gain fit­ness more quick­ly and oth­er take months to gain strength.  Let’s talk about these sys­tems.

Types of Fitness

One way to mea­sure a horse’s car­diac fit­ness is with a heart rate mon­i­tor.  With increased fit­ness, you will notice that not only is the heart rate slow­er dur­ing exer­cise but also recov­ers more quick­ly when you stop exer­cis­ing.  To record this, your horse has to be wear­ing a heart rate mon­i­tor dur­ing exer­cise.  Oth­er fac­tors that will influ­ence your horse’s heart rate include pain, heat, dehy­dra­tion, excite­ment and heart prob­lems.  A change in your horse’s car­diac fit­ness will hap­pen in as lit­tle as 1–2 weeks of start­ing train­ing.

VO2 is the oxy­gen con­sump­tion by the mus­cles dur­ing exer­cise.  An impor­tant part of the car­dio­vas­cu­lar sys­tem is to deliv­er oxy­gen to the work­ing mus­cles.  VO2max is a mea­sure of the car­diac, res­pi­ra­to­ry and mus­cu­lar sys­tems’ abil­i­ty to work at capac­i­ty.  The most sub­stan­tial increase in VO2max hap­pens in the first cou­ple weeks of train­ing. In addi­tion, in the first cou­ple months the body increas­es the red blood cells, hemo­glo­bin and plas­ma vol­ume to bet­ter car­ry oxy­gen to the mus­cles.  After about 4–6 months of train­ing, the num­ber of mito­chon­dria which make ATP (ener­gy the mus­cle cell can use from glu­cose) increas­es.

Fit hors­es sweat more eas­i­ly and are bet­ter at dis­si­pat­ing heat before it over­loads this sys­tem.  Ther­moreg­u­la­tion is anoth­er sys­tem that reacts fair­ly quick­ly to increas­es in train­ing. How­ev­er, a min­i­mum of 2 weeks is need­ed for the horse to accli­ma­tize if moved to a cli­mate with high­er heat and humid­i­ty.



Time Course

Increase in VO2MAX

1 — 2 weeks

Increase in plas­ma vol­ume

1 — 2 weeks

Improved sweat­ing response

1 — 2 weeks

Increase in red blood cells & haemo­glo­bin

2 — 4 months

Increase in mus­cle cap­il­lar­ies

3 — 6 months

Increase in mus­cle mito­chon­dria

4 — 6 months

Increase in mus­cle aer­o­bic enzymes

4 — 6 months

Increase in bone den­si­ty*

4 — 6 months

Strength­en­ing of ten­dons and lig­a­ments*

4 — 6 months

*Avail­able research on train­ing adap­ta­tions of sup­port­ing struc­tures is lim­it­ed.


How­ev­er, the most impor­tant take home mes­sage from this chart is that it takes 4–6 months for the bones, ten­dons and lig­a­ments to strength­en.  This slow adap­ta­tion lim­its the entire fit­ness pro­gram and time must be giv­en for these impor­tant sup­port­ing struc­tures to adapt.  Even con­sid­er the lig­a­ments of the back and neck, not just the legs.  It is these sup­port­ing struc­tures that adapt more slow­ly and are sus­cep­ti­ble to over­load­ing injuries. 

Remem­ber when reha­bil­i­tat­ing an injured ten­don or lig­a­ment to con­sult your vet­eri­nar­i­an for the prop­er train­ing sched­ule to ensure com­plete recov­ery.

So, for those of you who gave your horse the win­ter off because of the bad weath­er, you can’t expect them to come back into full work, col­lec­tion and car­ry­ing capac­i­ty in 1–2 months.  It’s more like 6 months.  It’s an impor­tant reminder when we look out­side at the drea­ry weath­er and decide to stay inside.  We may be okay giv­ing our horse time off but we must real­ize that our plans for show­ing ear­ly in the sea­son or mov­ing up a lev­el will have to be delayed.

What Are We Training For?

When get­ting your horse fit, it’s impor­tant to remem­ber what you are train­ing them for. Will they need pow­er or sta­mi­na? Speed or dis­tance? What hap­pens when you change dis­ci­plines? Is the horse fit for gal­lop­ing but you want to teach it col­lec­tion? Giv­ing the horse’s body time to adjust to the demands of a new dis­ci­pline are equal­ly as impor­tant as get­ting them fit in the first place. In addi­tion, you may have the horse fit for what you can do but is the horse fit enough to go to the train­ers where the demands will be high­er? These are all impor­tant ques­tions to ask one­self if you want your horse to stay sound both now and in the future.

Note: Sprint­ers need large, pow­er­ful mus­cles with few cap­il­lar­ies and mito­chon­dria that car­ry them quick­ly for a short dis­tance and work pri­mar­i­ly anaer­o­bi­cal­ly.  In con­trast, an endurance horse has thin mus­cles, packed with mito­chon­dria and cap­il­lar­ies and work pri­mar­i­ly aer­o­bi­cal­ly.  Although much of this is deter­mined genet­i­cal­ly, you can train a horse to be good at one or the oth­er but not both.

Dressage Horses

Accord­ing to Dr. David Mar­lin, dres­sage hors­es in com­pe­ti­tion work at heart rates around 120–150 beats per minute.  To improve their aer­o­bic capac­i­ty, they should be trained at around 150–180 bpm for around 10 min­utes sev­er­al times per week.  This kind of train­ing can only be accom­plished by fit­ting your horse with a heart mon­i­tor but usu­al­ly a fit horse has to be at a hand gal­lop to reach a heart rate of 150–180 bpm.

While car­diac fit­ness is impor­tant in dres­sage hors­es, so is strength. After gen­er­al fit­ness is achieved and you start work­ing on dis­ci­pline spe­cif­ic move­ments then mus­cle strength is impor­tant. When build­ing mus­cle for spe­cif­ic move­ments, it’s best to begin with per­form­ing the move­ment for 20–30 sec­onds with rest in between.

While we know that dres­sage is pri­mar­i­ly an aer­o­bic exer­cise, it’s real­is­tic to think that dur­ing intense strength train­ing (ie piaffe) anaer­o­bic (with­out oxy­gen) path­ways are being used when the mus­cles are engaged and work­ing hard.  Work­ing anaer­o­bi­cal­ly should only be asked from the horse once it has a fair amount of fit­ness. Oth­er­wise, you will only be break­ing the horse down.  Think of a race horse.  First they must be able to gal­lop a mod­er­ate dis­tance before you can ask them to run all out a short dis­tance.  This takes us back to the con­cept of inten­si­ty, dura­tion and fre­quen­cy.  In dres­sage, in intense exer­cis­es which require large pow­er­ful mus­cles to car­ry the horse (ie piaffe, pas­sage, pirou­ettes), it’s best to first be able to increase inten­si­ty. The horse must slow­ly learn to increase the car­ry­ing capac­i­ty of it’s hind legs. As the hind legs gain the pow­er, you can increase the dura­tion. Only then can you ask for a few ½ steps or a few steps of ultra col­lect­ed can­ter. Then over the course of months, you can only increase the inten­si­ty of that move­ment (more col­lec­tion) OR the dura­tion (ie more steps of piaffe) OR the fre­quen­cy (sev­er­al times a week). It is still impor­tant to remem­ber that it takes 4–6 months for the ten­dons and lig­a­ments to respond to the increase in work­load and also that work­ing in a par­tic­u­lar dis­ci­pline should only take up about 50% of your train­ing time.

Remem­ber our goal should always be to increase skill, per­for­mance and resis­tance to injury. Train­ing too hard too quick­ly sets the horse up for lame­ness. On the oth­er hand, if you nev­er chal­lenge the horse by increas­ing either dura­tion, inten­si­ty or fre­quen­cy, your horse will nev­er be fit enough to han­dle the demands of the sport.