Your Horse`s Fitness: Why and How It`s So Important

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Fitness, in terms of the soft tissues in the legs (tendons and ligaments) and muscular strength and tone, is an aspect of training that's often poorly understood or overlooked by many riders and even trainers.

Just like humans, horses aren?t born naturally fit for an athletic endeavor. Yes, certain breeds are better built for certain sports, but developing their fitness must be an intrinsic part of any training regimen. it's actually more important today than ever before, as the majority of American horses don't have the space to live an active life on their own.

To do most of our sports, the horse's fitness needs to more akin to gymnasts, weightlifters or pole-vaulters than to marathon runners or soccer players. They need strong, supple muscles and tendons and ligaments more than they need extraordinary cardiovascular capacity. So this article is about building the overall strength of the average competitive horse, not about preparing a horse for a three-day event or endurance ride. it's about taking him to the gym or yoga ? regularly ? not working out on the track.

Train, Don?t Strain

Human sports coaches or personal trainers know that the key to making progress while avoiding injuries is to make sure their charges are ?training, not straining.?

?Straining? is spending five days a week sitting at your desk and on Saturday playing an hour or two of tennis or 18 holes of golf, then spending Sunday wondering why your knees and shoulders are so sore. ?Training? would be walking for 30 or 40 minutes three or four days a week, plus some weight training or yoga, to get fit to play that game of tennis or golf.

Good coaches plan regular workouts for their athletes, progressively doing more and more work. You don't run 5 miles in your first workout, not run for a week, and then go for another long run. Again, that's straining ? and it's just about guaranteed to discourage the person from training, because, even if somehow they aren?t injured, it will certainly be painful.

Your in the ring fitness should include a variety of movements, such as leg yields, circles and serpentines. Fitness can be developed in the ring, if you include vigorous periods of medium trot.

Your horse needs the same type of progressive work. If you haven't ridden him for three months and take him for a demanding two-hour trail ride or do a rigorous jump school, He's likely going to be sore, and he probably won?t be too eager the next time you show up to ride him. He could also be suddenly lame, leaving you to wonder why your horse is ?always hurt.?

Here are some examples symptomatic of an unfit horse: He looks scrawny or weak, and you're exhausted after you ride from kicking him every step; he trips over nothing or strikes himself, especially late in a riding session (these could also result from poor hoof trimming or a medical problem); he won?t take one canter lead, either on the flat or landing after a jump (this too could be a medical problem); he runs out of gas after 20 minutes of work or two classes at a show; he seems to lack scope over fences or has no bounce to his stride.

Don?t Be Afraid

If you make your horse stronger and, thus, more able to do the work you're asking for, usually he'll become more willing to do the work (less kicking for you), because it isn?t exhausting. Instead, fitness makes it fun and gives him a sense of accomplishment, which most horses like.

So often people are afraid of getting their horses fit. ?It?ll make him crazy,? they insist. Our experience is that almost always what they become is more eager and more workmanlike ? because you?ve given them the ability to do the job. But some riders become so used to riding a lazy bones that they become uncomfortable when their horse actually has some spark.

And if they do seem ?crazy,? then one or more of four factors has probably happened. First, you're not giving or allowing them the physical and mental activity they need now that they?re fitter. Second, they could have a physical problem that's causing pain or discomfort. Third, analyze your horse's feeding program: Is he eating too much high-calorie food or does he have ulcers' What and how much your horse eats can have many effects, but so can the fourth possibility: Something in your riding is upsetting them. Take a hard look at what you're doing with your horse, because only you can fix it.

Yes, Walk For Fitness

OK, you?ve decided it's time to get your horse fitter. Remember: It doesn't happen in a day or a week. it's a long-term project.

Walking is the basic conditioning gait. It strengthens the tendons and ligaments and develops strength throughout the body. But we're not talking about an amble; we're talking about an active, forward, long-striding walk. The walk strengthens the muscles he uses in his hindquarters, back and shoulders to propel himself along.

If your horse has been out of work or only worked occasionally, start with walking around the ring, or around a field, or on trails, for 20 to 30 minutes. Follow this routine for a week or so, riding three to five days a week, then add another five or 10 minutes a day for the next two weeks. After you add whatever ring work you do, continue this walking regimen once or twice a week.

You can continue to increase your horse's fitness with extended walking periods before and after you work him in the ring or take a lesson. Actively walk for 15 minutes before starting to work and for 10 to 15 minutes afterward ? that's 30 minutes of walking.

For fun and fitness, go for trail ride once or twice a week. You can just walk, or you can trot or canter, especially up hills. Find a field where you can trot for 10 or 15 minutes. Again, be sure to work progressively up to this effort over 30 to 90 days, depending on how often you ride.

If you don't have any trails or safe field in which to trot or canter, you can use the ring to develop fitness. Trot for 10 minutes and build up to 15 minutes and even 20 minutes. Make sure you are getting a forward, vigorous trot from the horse.

And don't just go around the merry-go-round; change the rein, make circles and serpentines. After you?ve done this trotting regimen for 30-60 days (depending on your horse's prior fitness), hand gallop for four or five minutes, in the jumping or galloping position.

Our April column was about using specific exercises to efficiently improve your performance, and improving your horse's fitness is a similar situation. Using those flatwork exercises will also develop muscle strength and suppleness, along with eagerness and willingness. A future article will describe jumping exercises designed to do the same thing.

John Strassburger
Performance Editor