With summer almost upon us, the competition season in full swing, and more daylight hours many of us will be planning to spend more time in the saddle and get out and about more with our horses. However, it’s vital to remember that an unfit horse, particularly, if he’s carrying an unfit rider, is more predisposed to injury. Whatever you are planning to do with you horse over the coming months your horse must be fit for the level of work he will be doing to help minimise the risk of injury.
In this blog, we look at the importance of building fitness in the muscular and cardiovascular system and why they both work hand-in-hand and are so important for the health and welfare of your horse.
Why Horses Need Cardiovascular Fitness
Horses need to be fit to be ridden and help with back strength. Even if you’re just hacking a couple of times a week cardiovascular fitness is still important. This is because the breathing muscles are connected into the back.
This interesting topic is something that Gillian talks about in the online lecture demonstration, Riding from the Anatomical Perspective - you can find it in the Horses Inside Out Academy.
Building fitness takes time and there are no short cuts, you need to give your horse’s body time to adjust to the changes in his work level. Try and rush this process and you run the risk of injury and time off work.
It is also worth considering other factors that can impact on how long it will take to get your horse fit. These include age, breed, temperament, what discipline you are doing, and your training goal. Remembering that every horse is an individual and it’s important to put together an individualised programme with your end goal in mind. If you’re not sure talk it through with your trainer who will be able to help you.
Stage One – Long Slow work (LSW)
This forms the basis for endurance, stamina and develops muscular endurance. It is this slow work that makes up the initial stages for all fitness programmes and is an essential stage for all horses whatever the end goal. As the name suggests for this stage it’s important to take your time starting with walk work and gradually increasing the amount of time over a number of weeks before introducing trot and then canter.
This stage of fitness can be done out hacking, on the lunge, long lines or in the school.
Stage Two – Building Strength and Stamina
In this next stage we move on to building muscular strength and improving stamina. Muscular strength is important for many things including stability, balance, posture and performance. Using strengthening exercises improve muscle tone and their power and strength, as well as improving joint stability.
Strengthening exercises usually require a greater amount of isotonic and eccentric muscular contraction, which are harder work for the muscle and key to stabilising joints and building tone within the body. For example when you do a plank exercise you are using a lot of isometric muscle contraction and when you do sit ups and squats you are using eccentric muscle contraction.
You should limit strength training sessions you do to two – three a week, this allows the muscles time to recover.
Strengthening exercises include:
Raised pole work
Riding through water
Finding the right strengthening exercises for you and your horse is key to making the most effective changes to your horse's fitness. A good understanding of muscle contractions as well as the biomechanics
of all the different exercises will help you.
You will find lots of helpful advice and suggested exercises in the following on-demand webinars:
It is important to make sure you vary your horse’s work. This is good for his mental and physical fitness. This also includes using different terrain.
During your fitness programme and beyond, it is important to make assessments and adjust where necessary.
Monitor your horse’s recovery times, and how he is coping with the work you are asking of him. As his fitness develops you should notice that his heart rate and breathing rate are lower during exercise and that he recovers more quickly when you stop exercising.
As we’ve stressed before, it is so important to know what is normal for your horse and to notice any subtle changes in his behaviour. This can be a sign that he may be in pain, or that he’s not coping with the level of work you are doing. Listen to what your horse is telling you and seek advice if you are not sure.
You can learn more about the importance of correct fitness in the book Horse Anatomy for Performance.