Horse Care – Equine Fitness

Horse Care – Equine Fitness

To reduce the risk of injury to both horse and rider is important that both partners are fit enough for what activities they are taking part in. At best, it is unfair to expect a horse that is only ridden once or twice per week to attend a hunter trial, at worst it risks serious injury to the horse and drastically increases the chances of a rider fall. For those with horses and ponies attending pony club and riding club camps this summer, now is the time to start thinking about getting them fit. It takes approximately 3 months to bring a horse from being turned away or only ridden occasionally to being fit enough to safely compete in a one day event and horses that will be working several hours a day at camp need plenty of time to get fit too. For those who don’t compete and just take part in hacking, fitness is just as important if you want to do faster work or ride for longer at the weekends. Could you happily go for a two hour run on Saturday if you had stayed in bed all week eating?!

Fittening requires a gradual increase in work intensity; too little work and fitness won’t improve, too much too soon and you risk injury and stress. A stepwise progression is required with regular monitoring to see how the horse is coping with the workload being adjusted accordingly. Whatever the activity, training aims to increase stamina, increase muscular strength, improve skill, delay fatigue, reduce the risk of injury and maintain the horse’s willingness to work. The more demanding the activity, the more important training becomes for all of these objectives and any form of competing at any level requires a considered training programme for fitness and skill.

Response of a fit horse to exercise

  1. Good or acceptable performance. e.g. Smooth jumping, horse willing & forward.
  2. Normal physiological response, e.g. light sweating.
  3. Quick recovery post exercise (heart rate & breathing).
  4. Normal behaviour.
  5. Alert expression, sound movement, normal appetite.

Response of an unfit horse to exercise

  1. Poor performance. Refusing to jump, unwilling to go forward, slow.
  2. Abnormal or extreme physiological response, e.g. Foamy white sweat, breathing heavily.
  3. Slow recovery post exercise (heart rate & breathing).
  4. Stiffness, lameness or illness.
  5. Depression, altered appetite, lethargy movement, normal appetite.

There are three main stages to a training programme:- 1) Long, slow distance exercise, 2) Improving strength and skill and 3) Fast work.

For those that don’t compete and just take part in hacking, fitness is just as important if you want to do faster work or ride for longer at the weekends

Long, slow distance exercise starts conditioning the heart and blood vessels and also the musculoskeletal system, which is very important to minimise the risk of injuries such as strained tendons. It consists of walking and trotting and gradually increasing the distance covered. At least a month (several months for a young horse) of this type of exercise should be carried out before going any faster. From there, training to improve strength and skill continues to develop the cardiovascular system and bring about positive changes to the muscles, including improving suppleness and balance. This stage includes sport specific exercise (such as jumping) and increasing the work effort, such as introducing exercise up, down and across hills. Even horses that don’t compete should do strength and skill training specific to the demands placed on them because having a horse that is a safe, enjoyable hack still requires training! The final stage of a training programme is fast work (fast cantering & galloping), this isn’t needed by all sports but is certainly needed by any horse that will be going cross country.

The exact training programme followed will depend on the individual horse and chosen activities. Feeding, shoeing and saddle fit will all need to be monitored as the horse’s work load changes and the correct adjustments made. Fittening correctly is part of the art of owning a horse and it results in a healthier horse, more able to comfortably carry out the required activities with a reduced risk of injury.

Fitness & Saddle Fit

Very few horses stay the same shape all the way throughout the year.  Changes in grass, feed, weather, fitness, exercise and training can all affect how much muscle and fat the horse has and this will affect how a saddle fits.  It is therefore wise to check the fit of your saddle at least once a year (preferably twice) to make sure it still fits and that the flocking isn’t hard or lumpy.

Good saddle fitting is an important part of your horses welfare and rider safety. If a saddle doesn’t fit or needs re-flocking it will cause discomfort, pain and physical restriction. The horse’s behaviour will change to try to cope and the horse won’t be able to perform well, even just out hacking.  A comfortable saddle that is checked regularly is as important as regular farriery, worming, dental checks and veterinary treatment.

Did You Know?

  • Heart rate is proportional to speed but the fitter the horse, the lower the heart rate for a given speed.
  • Horses can sweat at rates of up to 15 litres per hour.
  • At the gallop, healthy horses link breathing to their stride, so there is one breath per stride.
  • The total surface area for gas exchange in the horses lungs is around ten doubles tennis courts.
  • Respiratory disease, which will limit fitness and performance, is very common in horses. 9 out of 10 horses with a cough have some sort of respiratory disease.
  • Horses have approximately 700 individual muscles, the longest one is the longissimus dorsi, which has many important functions. It runs the full length of the back and we sit on it!

Natalie Bucklar
(BSc (Hons), MSc (Equine Science)

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