Your Horse Needs Fitness To Perform

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Proper and thorough conditioning makes a horse eager to do his job.

Proper and thorough conditioning makes a horse eager to do his job.

A properly conditioned horse?a horse with strong and supple muscles?is one who appears to bound across the ground, to easily jump over fences, or work for hours without slowing. An unfit, poorly conditioned horse is one who looks as if He's moving through quicksand.

Riding and training are athletic endeavors for both horse and rider, and thorough, proper conditioning is essential. You need to plan for pointed physical preparation to create a body strong enough to withstand the demands placed upon it, especially for a highly demanding sport, such as upper-level eventing or endurance riding.

Why does fitness matter' First, strength and fitness make the horse's job easier, which makes him more able and more willing to do what you're asking him to do.

Think of yourself?wouldn?t you be keener to undertake a five-mile walk through the woods or play a vigorous game of tennis if you?d gotten regular exercise, instead of just sitting at your desk or on your couch' If you walked energetically four or five times a week or did weight training, yoga or swimming, you?d enjoy that hike or that tennis game much more while you were doing it, because you wouldn?t feel so tired or sore or discouraged.

The second major reason is injury prevention. When muscles, tendons or ligaments get tired or sore during exercise, other soft tissue has to start pulling a heavier load if the exercise continues. And that's when over-use injuries occur. In simple terms, fitness is a simple, inexpensive method of injury prevention.

Today?s Horses. Your horse's fitness is actually more important today than ever before, as so many horses don't have the space to live an active life on their own. Many are forced to live in a confined space, instead of in an open field. Nature intended the horse to be constantly on the move.

Muscular fitness and cardiovascular fitness are the two types of fitness you can develop in horses. Muscle fitness is overall fitness of all soft tissues, including muscles, tendons and ligaments, as well as bone and cartilage strength. You can develop it through general riding and by doing exercises on the flat like transitions, shoulder-in, leg-yield and lengthening of the stride. You can also develop muscle fitness outside the ring by climbing and descending hills.

Flatwork, or dressage, is really gymnastic training of the horse. While developing his obedience to your aids, it strengthens and supples the muscles and in hindquarters, back and shoulders to propel or carry his mass, easing the strain on the soft tissues in his legs. At the same time, flatwork strengthens and supples the tendons and ligaments in his legs.

To do most of our sports, your horse's fitness needs to more akin to gymnasts, weightlifters or pole-vaulters than to marathon runners or soccer players. Most horses need strong, supple muscles, tendons and ligaments more than they need a highly developed cardiovascular capacity.

General fitness doesn't happen overnight or with occasional riding, though. It develops over a period of months and years, as the result of regular and productive training and exercise.

Depending on your discipline and goals within that discipline, it probably doesn't mean you have to ride five or six days a week, 12 months a year, though. For most horses competing in the lower levels of most sports, working three to four times a week (but that doesn't mean just crawling around a ring for 20 minutes) will provide a training and conditioning benefit.

With regular work that incorporates flatwork, longeing, jumping (if that's part of your sport) and conditioning work, You'll see your horse develop muscles in his topline, forearms and gaskins, and your horse will feel stronger and more supple, and he'll probably be less prone to common injuries.

Do you need to gallop to get your horse fit' Galloping isn?t mandatory unless you're eventing at training level or above or doing endurance or competitive trail riding. But occasional galloping (once or twice a month) can be mentally and physically beneficial for novice or beginner novice eventers, dressage horses or show jumpers.

it's even better if you can find a hill or two of 300 to 800 meters or a beach to gallop on. Inclines and sand increase the conditioning effect at low impact.

Remember, too, that the walk is a conditioning gait?if your horse is marching along. You can add to the conditioning value of your flatwork days by walking for 15 to 20 minutes before or after you school, particularly if you can do it outside the ring. Walking is especially useful if you have a hilly or rolling area, which will make the horse push and stretch and give him a little cardiovascular workout too.

We like to take a conditioning walk at the beginning of our rides, because it relaxes and warms up both horse and rider before starting to work. But you can also do it as part of your cooling-out routine.

Fitness programs that expand the horse's cardiovascular capacity are necessary for a few disciplines (upper-level eventing, endurance racing and racing on the flat or over fences). They require galloping sets of three to eight minutes at a time to prepare the horse for competition. But these programs must begin with developing the overall fitness of the horse's body.

Bottom Line. Horses are individuals. What's too much for one horse can easily be too little for another, or vice versa, with potentially serious consequences. Seek input into your program from an experienced trainer or competitor, or even your veterinarian, if you're not sure, because you can easily injure your horse.

This is especially true when evaluating the horse's level of fitness and need for more or less conditioning work. Keeping a record of the horse's respiration and heart rate (using a stethoscope or a heart-rate monitor) can be extremely helpful. Basically, the pulse and respiration should show that the horse is doing the same amount of (or more) work more easily as your training proceeds, although you do have to factor in weather and footing.

For instance, competitive trail riding or endurance riding require careful tracking of mileage and speed (or a feel developed through years of experience) to prepare a horse for a 25-, 50- or 100-mile race. it's a gradual conditioning process.

it's much like eventing above the training level, in which the horse is required to demonstrate beginning collection and extension in dressage, gallop across country at 520 meters per minute over 25 or more jumps, and then show jump.? These two sports require galloping, work on hills and more, and conditioning a horse for them is part science and part art.