Often, Horse Journal readers write to ask how much work their horses should do, how often they should be ridden each week? Sometimes they even ask how long they should be ridden?
The answer, like so much that involves horses, is that one size doesn’t fit all horses. There isn’t a single prescription for the right amount of work.
But I do believe that the answer revolves around three parameters: First, the horse—his temperament, age, fitness and soundness.
Second, the job he’s doing (the discipline and the level at which he’s working and competing in that discipline). The higher the level of training and competition, the more work it requires, for fitness and quality.
And, third, his living situation. Is he stuck in his stall, or does he spend most of his life wondering around a field?
Plus, I would add that rest is important. Too often riders forget this and think that if some work is good, then more must be better. But, just like you in your work, or any high-level athlete in his or her training, you have to give the horse a chance to rest his brain and his muscles from the strain you’re putting them under.
Let’s begin by looking at the horse, because no two are the same. Some horses are like young children and need daily physical activity and mental stimulation, otherwise they think of things to do themselves—often destructive things to do. Others are eager workers; they’re happiest doing a job, and the more work you give them, the happier they are. Others are couch potatoes, happiest to be left alone to just eat and sleep, and they need intervals of work and vacation to keep them fresh and happy.
Generally, younger horses need—and can take—more work than older horses. But older horses usually have a lifetime fitness base and can physically withstand more work than younger, unfit horses. You don’t want to start working a horse who’s been out of work for months, or years, on a six-day-a-week work schedule. He’ll go lame and probably become sour from the stress.
Soundness is a similar limiting factor.
Does the do well working three days a week—enough to keep him fit and supple, but not too much to strain an old joint or back injury—or can you do more? The answer depends in large part on the job he’s doing? Can he get fit enough to do the job working three days a week? What about four days?
So let’s look next at the horse’s job. The question here is, how fit does he need to be to safely and correctly perform the tasks of his discipline?
Remember that soft-tissue fitness (muscle, tendon and ligament) is far more important than cardio-vascular fitness, unless you’re competing at the upper levels of eventing, show jumping or endurance racing. Soft-tissue strength is what keeps a horse sound while performing the repetitive exercises of dressage and jumping—and that’s the result of consistent exercise over months and years.
Third, let’s look at the horse’s living situation. Does he get turned out, or is he confined to a stall? Horses who are outside six to 10 hours outside during the day, or 12 hours or more at night, or who live outside full time need fewer hours of structured work than those who live in a stall or have only a run or tiny paddock. Why? Because turned-out horses can move around, maintaining on their own base level of fitness, as Mother Nature intended.
Being turned out also keeps them relaxed, without you having to do anything. Think of it as you being able to go for a walk in the park or in the woods or sunbathing by the pool or at the beach. If all your horse looks at is the four walls of his stall, and maybe the barn aisle out his Dutch door, then you have to regularly do something to entertain or mentally stimulate him. That usually means you have to ride him more often.
How many days a week should a horse work? Three days a week is necessary for a horse you’re expecting to perform at the lower levels, if he can move around in a real pasture, not just a run off the stall or tiny paddock. Fewer than an average of three days a week isn’t fair if you expect your horse to perform safely and well, at anything. If he doesn’t work that much regularly, it’s like asking you to run a 10K race when you’ve only been jogging slowly for 2 miles twice a week.
Four to five days of work is a good barometer as the maximum for most horses. But if your horse never does get to leave his stall, you should probably add one to two days of light work—walking along the trails or around the ring.
I also wouldn’t recommend jumping a horse more than an average of two days a week. Yes, sure, you can do more if the horse is fit and if the number of jumping efforts is small (15 to 25 efforts per day) and the jumps are small (2’6’ to 2’9”).
And remember that it’s OK to give him a few days or a week or two off. Give him a real vacation once or twice a year. Don’t panic if your life requires your horse to have a break.
Editor's Note: We welcome your training/performance questions, as much as your product and veterinary care. If you have a question for John, you can email it to him at: email@example.com.