The long winter months are drawing to a close, your horse may have had a winter holiday. Now is the time to start thinking about getting your horse fit for the level of work he will be expected to do. Fitness should be improved gradually, with the amount of time taken dependent on whether the horse is in any work, or has any base level of fitness already. There are no short cuts when it comes to strengthening and conditioning the body though, and corner cutting can result in pulled muscles, injury and enforced time off work.
It is a good idea to make a yearly health check part of your pre season routine before any fitness work is started. Now is a good time to organise dentistry checks, vaccinations and to review things like worming requirements and shoeing needs that may have changed dependent on the work type your horse is now doing.
Many riders do not follow a specific plan and go by ‘feel’ when it comes to their horses fitness. It is a good idea to follow a plan to make sure that your horse is improving at a safe rate. There will be things that can influence the time it take for your horse’s fitness to improve.
- The horse’s age — veteran horses and very young horses will take longer to get fit than those in their prime
- How fit the horse is now — a horse which has been kept ticking over during the winter will be fitter than one which has had a field holiday with no exercise
- Any previous injuries — a horse is coming back into work following time off with an injury will need many weeks of slow work to ensure too much pressure is not applied to the injured part
- Has the horse been fit before — a horse which is used to being let down over the winter and brought back up in the spring will be fitter quicker than a horse being got fit for the first time
Most fitness programmes can be broken down into three stages:
- stage 1 – slow work to prepare the body’s muscles, tendon and ligaments
- stage 2 – work to improve strength and stamina and basic fitness
- stage 3 – faster work to prepare the horse for cross-county type events.
Once your horse has completed each phase, he will be fit to compete in a variety of different disciplines.
A rough fitness programme like the one below will work well for a horse that has been in some light work over the winter but who intends to compete regularly in riding club activities or affiliated competitions through the summer months. Ideally horses should have ample turnout time (even if restricted grazing is necessary) and at least one day off per week.
Walking on the roads or on a firm surface is a great way of preparing the body for an increase in workload. Tendons will have time to tighten and bone density will increase.
Week 1 – Around 20mins roadwork in walk each day
Week 2 – Increase roadwork to 30-40mins per day
Week 4 – Extend hacking time to up to 90mins per day (can be in two separate rides) including some trot work on suitable ground
Week 5 – Start introducing some gentle schooling in the manège (20-30mins max). Exercise can be increased to 2hrs daily including some trotting up hills (not on roads)
Week 6 – Gradually increase time spent schooling and introduce some cantering on suitable ground out hacking
Monday: one-hour hack including bursts of trotting and slow cantering, preferably up slight inclines.
Tuesday: 20 minutes’ gentle flatwork plus 40-minute hack or hill work.
Wednesday: as Monday.
Thursday: some simple gridwork with a 20-minute warm-up and a 30-minute hack afterwards to cool down.
Friday: as Tuesday.
Saturday: as Monday and Wednesday.
Sunday: day off.
Week 7 – Build up the period of time in canter, including some cantering up hills. Continue with schooling in the menage, start to introduce jumping
Week 8-9 – Continue with the current work and introduce some faster work (strong canter, controlled gallop) in either a continuous training or interval training format.
A horse that has been in regular work in other disciplines, such as hunting or showjumping, can start here.
While it may prove difficult for those working full-time to fit in up to 2hrs riding, working on your horse’s fitness at the start of the year will not go to waste, so asking a competent friend or employing a professional to help with some of exercise sessions could be a worthwhile investment in the long term.
Week 10: aim to go cross-country schooling, but only do as much as your horse’s level of fitness allows. Keep up the cantering (once a week) and hill work (twice a week), and focus on more discipline-specific training.
Week 11: a varied week of hill work, two strong canters, some discipline-specific training (possibly another cross-country schooling session or a jumping show) and relaxing hacking.
Monday: 30 minutes’ flatwork plus 30-minute hack incorporating some hills.
Tuesday: strong canter day — aim for double the amount of time you’ll be expecting your horse to gallop across country (ie for a four-minute course, aim for eight minutes total divided into two or three bursts).
Wednesday: 45-minute jumping session plus 30-minute hack, or a jumping show.
Thursday: as Monday.
Friday: as Tuesday.
Saturday: cross-country schooling or another training/competition outing.
Sunday: day off.
Week 12: ready to compete.
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