How to Build Your Horse’s Fitness
Building your horse’s fitness is like building our fitness – it takes time. Fitness is much more than how long you ride; it’s about your horse’s cardiovascular system, muscles, mental state, and soundness.
It’s helpful to have your own fitness program away from the barn. Riding and barn work certainly help in the fitness department, but having an exercise plan teaches you one major component of horsemanship – understanding. When you experience sore muscles, stiffness, and lack of motivation, you understand the holistic fitness process you are asking your horse to do.
- Slow and steady is the best mantra for increasing the exercise requests for your horse. Daily work for shorter periods is safer and more effective than being a weekend warrior.
- When addressing fitness daily, give your horse a routine and allow for gradual gains. As your plan takes shape, increase the time or speed that you work your horse. Factor in the exercise difficulty, too. Cantering for 3 minutes in the arena is more manageable than 3 minutes of cantering up and down hills.
Horses that are out all week (hopefully) but are weekend warriors won’t feel great on Monday.
Other factors to consider about your horse’s fitness
Tailor a plan for your horse. Consider a few things:
Young and old horses take longer to develop fitness, as do horses coming off a long-term break from work or injury.
Many times, an injury will sideline a horse. Develop a recovery plan that addresses healing and avoids re-injury. You should absolutely work with your vet on exercises that help an injury recover, and what exercises are too risky for that particular injury.
Current fitness levels
A horse that walks the kiddos around the farm a few times a week is quite different from the same horse that’s ridden daily at trot and canter.
Overweight horses are at a fitness disadvantage. Joints carry more stress, and the extra weight interferes with thermoregulation.
Heaves and anhidrosis are two great examples of disease processes that hamper fitness. Compensate for any medical issues as you design a plan with your vet’s help.
The temperature and humidity can help or hinder your horse’s fitness. Weather extremes challenge your horse’s body, and should limit what you ask of your horse. Respiratory health and thermoregulation are challenging in hot, cold, or humid conditions.
Horses need to be acclimated to working in extreme temperatures.
Make a fitness plan
- Start by logging the work your horse does now. You could collect data for a few weeks to notice trends. Notice if your horse needs help building strength or stamina, or both.
- Then, increase the time walking, trotting, or cantering by 5 to 10 minutes a workout – more for walking and trotting, less for cantering or galloping. Consider that cantering adds to cardiovascular health more than walking, but walking can help build strength in a low-impact manner.
- Follow this formula for a week before adding another layer, such as hills, or more time.
Add more walking and movement everywhere you can
Take every possible step to have your horse walk more.
- Give your horse more turnout.
- Take the long way from the field to the barn.
- Cool out for 15 minutes instead of your usual 10.
- Hand walk after a bath to dry.
- Use the hot walker or treadmill if your facility has one.
- You can also add a 20-minute hand walk into your horse’s day, separate from his exercise.
The bonus is that YOU will log more steps, too!
Get creative and cross-train
No one wants to do the same exercise, day after day – horse or human. Mix things up to take advantage of your facility.
- Use hills to maximize the benefit per step. A few hills up and down will build fitness more than those same steps on a flat surface.
- Use streams and ponds if you have them. Trudging through water is hard work, as is swimming. If you have the means to do this safely, it’s an option. A quick dip in the creek is also nice after a ride to cool off, too.
- Add cavaletti to the mix. Aside from building strength, cavaletti stimulate your horse’s mind, improve balance, help your horse find a steady rhythm, and build topline muscle.
- Go on more trail rides. Hitting the trail offers a change of scenery, and a chance to work on different surfaces. You may not want to gallop along the trails, but uneven ground can make your horse move their body differently than they would in the arena. It’s similar to hiking for one mile versus walking around a flat track for the same distance.
Go on trail rides!
Borrow exercises to boost your horse’s fitness
- Try a different discipline. The fundamentals of all riding disciplines are the same – the engine is in the hind end, and the horse must lift their back to power up. You will pick up some new exercises to help cross-train your horse when playing in a new discipline.
- Take to the fields for trot and canter sets. Steal a page from the evening world and do trot and canter sets. These are defined times of exercise with walk breaks in between. Perhaps you do 5 sets of trot for 3 minutes with a one-minute break. You can work up from there, adding more sets, longer sets, or bump it up to canter.
- Use the shoulder-in during your rides. The shoulder-in is the best exercise to encourage your horse to step under their body. It can be done at all gaits, helps smooth the transitions between gaits, and builds that hind end engine strength.
- You can add lungeing into a fitness plan, but constantly exercising on a smaller circle challenges your horse’s body and should not replace an exercise session. You could switch directions frequently to prevent fatigue.
Form and function matter
- There is a difference in how a horse walks, trots, or canters in different “frames.” A long-rein lolly-gag around the farm will not build fitness the way an active march “on the bit” will. It is vital to allow your horse to stretch and relax the neck and shoulders, but you can turn a trail ride into an exercise session by having your horse march with some contact.
- And sure, keep your horse’s form in mind, but do allow his body to warm up and cool off casually. The same goes for walk breaks. A horse’s frame can’t be held for the entire ride – they need to stretch. And not feel trapped, or develop a fear of being ridden due to discomfort.
Let your horse have walk breaks.
Days off matter
Sometimes horses just need to be naked, without a rider, just doing horse stuff. It’s the same for human athletes – their bodies need to rest and rejuvenate.
How to track your horse’s fitness
Now that you have a fitness plan, you can measure your horse’s fitness. The easiest way is to log your horse’s heart rate.
There are a few critical times to note your horse’s pulse rate:
- At rest, before a ride.
- Immediately after exercise stops.
- Every five or 10 minutes after exercise ends. This logs the recovery time – how long it takes for the pulse to return to normal.
As your horse’s fitness increases, his pulse after exercise and the recovery period will decrease.
How to measure your horse’s pulse
- Using a stethoscope or feeling the artery under your horse’s jaw, you can manually take the pulse rate.
- Wearable heart rate monitors also log the pulse throughout your ride. There are many styles of wearables for horses – only some of them measure the pulse. Others log steps, speed, location, or similar metrics and are worn on the saddle pad or boot.
- Most wearable fitness monitors link back to an app on your phone. This makes tracking data much easier than the pen-and-paper style of logging.
Go slow and steady!
A quick refresher on taking your horse’s vital signs
Don’t worry about your horse’s fitness being a straight line up; there will be days when it seems like you are taking a step back. Look for overall trends over weeks and months, not from day to day.
Click these links to shop for horse supplies and BOOKS! As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases, which are not a penny more for you. I couldn’t be more grateful for your support!
ADC Veterinary Thermometer, Dual Scale, Adtemp 422 – For easy temperature taking
3M Littmann Classic III Monitoring Stethoscope, Black Edition Chestpiece, Black Tube, 27 inch, 5803 – For finding heart rate and gut sounds