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Horse Health and Fitness | Developing a Fitness Programme

March 2021

Whether you are bringing your horse back into work, perhaps due to time off over winter or recovery from an injury, or looking to develop their fitness and increase workload, preparation is key! When devising a fitness programme this must be tailored to your horse ensuring individual considerations are made along the way, so the transition can be made safely and with success. Thought must also be given to how your horse’s health and fitness will be maintained throughout all stages of the fitness programme and once the desired level of fitness has been achieved.



Considerations when creating a fitness programme:

Level of fitness: Consider both your horse’s and your own current level of fitness. Give yourself time, and where needed have easier days, or a few days off to give yourself and your horse time to recover.

Condition when turned away: If you are bringing your horse back into work following some time off, consider their condition when turned away. For example, were they turned away sound? Are you bringing them back from an injury?

Current condition: Any weight gain means a strain on joints, tendons, muscles and the cardiovascular system is highly likely, and must always be at the forefront of your mind when making a change to your horse’s workload. To monitor condition fat score your horse before your fitness programme begins and at 2 weekly intervals.

Age & Experience: If working with a younger horse consider how established they are in their work and their level of development with regards to the exercises you introduce through your fitness programme. Putting young joints, bones and muscles under excessive stress and strain too soon can lead to debilitating problems later on in life.

Facilities: What is your goal for getting your horse fit, for example are you hoping to complete a prelim dressage test or a 10-mile fun ride? Consider the facilities you will need to achieve this for example, an arena, or safe hacking for road work.

Time of year: Be prepared for setbacks in your programme due to the weather as this may affect facility access. If your horse suffers with allergies or is a head shaker, the time of year will be a really important consideration when devising a fitness programme.

Length of time out of work: The longer your horse has been rested the longer it will take to bring them back to the desired level of fitness.


Why is it important to follow a fitness programme?

  • Gives direction for you to see what exactly will be achieved.
  • Allows you to set aims and goals.
  • Tailors the work to horse and rider in terms of level of fitness and ability.
  • Provides time scale - be mindful that returning a horse from grass to Riding Club level fitness will take between six-eight weeks, perhaps longer depending on horses’ age, weight, type, and any previous health issues.
  • Allows for a gradual load of the systems to enhance performance and prevent injury.

 


What Level of Work Is Your Horse In?

Classification of work Hours worked per week Breakdown of work Example activities
Light - Low 1-3 hours Up to 15 mins trot

 Up to 5 mins canter
Hacking

 Occasional schooling
Light - Medium 3-7 hours Up to 25 mins trot

 Up to 10 mins canter

Occasional jump
Hacking

 Occasional schooling

 Low level dressage

 Low level Riding Club/Pony Club

 Occasional showing
Light - Hard 5-7 hours Up to 30 mins trot

 Up to 12 mins canter

 Up to 3 mins poles/jumping
Faster hacking

 Regular schooling

 Low to mid-level dressage

 Low level show jumping

 Riding Club/Pony Club

 Regular showing

 Short sessions on the gallops
Medium 5-7 hours Up to 30 mins trot

 Up to 15 mins canter

 Up to 10 mins poles, jumping, fast work
High level dressage (Advanced plus)

 Riding club/ Pony club

 Medium level show jumping (Newcomers plus)

 Low-medium level eventing (up to intermediate)
Hard 5-9 hours As medium, plus up to 1 hour extra over the week of speed work;

increase in galloping and jumping duration
High level eventing Racing

 Endurance rides over 80km (50 miles).


Rider Fitness

To be a good partner for your horse you must also be focused on your own fitness. When riding you need to be able to maintain balance and follow the movement of your horse, no matter the discipline or ridden activity you partake in. The rider’s cardiovascular fitness is also an essential part to this. If you are finding yourself getting tired whilst riding you will likely begin to lose your balance. Continuously riding off-balance and making adjustments to how your weight is distributed in the saddle can lead to unclear and inconsistent aids. As a result, the horse may have to adapt how they work to account for the movement which can increase the demands of exercise on the horse2,3.

Being conscious of your weaknesses and training to improve these areas for example, balance or mobility, is an important aspect to developing and maintaining your horse’s health and fitness. It will also help you to be more precise in the saddle and decreases the risk of injury while riding.

The Three Phases of Fitness

Please note this is general guidance and all horses are individuals. If you have any concerns about progressing to the next phase, keep them at the current workload until you are satisfied they are coping. If your horse has been off due to an injury, continue to follow or seek advice from your vet for their rehabilitation back into work.

PHASE 1) Slow & Steady (Weeks 1-3)

  • Hardening off- gradual controlled exercise to strengthen the soft tissue.
  • Prepares the muscles, tendons and ligaments

PHASE 2) Strength & Stamina (Weeks 4-5)

  • Improve basic fitness and strength
  • Suppling and developing muscle
  • Develop balance and self-carriage

PHASE 3) Schooling & Speed (Weeks 6-9)

  • Develop the efficiency of the heart and lungs
  • Longer training sessions
  • Interval training

 

Fitness Programme in Practice

PHASE 1

Ride Safe
WEEK 1 20 minutes’ walk work, moving in straight lines on a level surface.
WEEK 2 Increase to 30-40 minutes, reaching an hour.
WEEK 3 Continue walk work up to 1 hour, including hill work and large shapes. Work on varied surfaces such as arenas, roads and grass. Each gives slightly different benefits to the development of the horse’s soft tissue4,5.
PHASE 2

Dressage
WEEK 4 Continue hacking out, introducing short schooling sessions (20-30 minutes). Include trot work for around 5 minutes in total, in short 1-2 minute stretches.
WEEK 5 Introduce pole work, basic lateral work and lungeing or long reining. Always ensure to keep circles big and lunge for no more than 20 minutes.
PHASE 3

Horse riding in field

WEEKS 6-8 Introduce canter work, longer schooling sessions and jump training into sessions. Include interval training: Short periods of intense exercise for example trotting for 2 minutes or cantering for 1 minute followed by a recovery period. As fitness improves, the period of exercise can increase and recovery period decrease.
WEEK 9 ONWARDS Your horse should now be back to an adequate level of fitness.

Photo credit: Jon Stroud

 

Remember this is a rough timeline, continuously assess your horse’s performance and recovery time, making amendments where needed. Each horse is an individual and must be thought of as this when devising a fitness programme.

Measuring Fitness

To measure your horse’s fitness, it is important to monitor their recovery rates:

  • Take your horse’s heat rate and respiratory rate at rest.
  • Measure both rates again immediately after exercise and at 1-minute intervals following this.
  • Monitor the time it takes your horse to return to their resting heart rate and respiratory rate (this is known as recovery time).
  • As your horse gets fitter the recovery time will be quicker.

Watch our video below on how to take your horse’s heart rate and respiratory rate:

As well as this you can also look out for visual signs of improved fitness:

  • An increased willingness or ability to cope with exercise
  • A change in body shape, with better muscle definition
  • Ability to maintain a regular and even speed in any gait
  • Less sweating for the same amount of work under similar conditions
  • More rapid recovery in breathing after finishing work

Keep Assessing

It is important to continuously make assessments throughout your fitness programme, adjusting where necessary. Considerations should include:

Recovery Time: Continually assess your horse’s recovery times, and how they are coping with their work. As fitness develops and the horse’s heart and lungs become more efficient, you should notice that heart rate and breathing rate are lower during exercise and that both recover much more quickly when you stop exercising. If this is not the case, you may need to extend certain weeks. Slow work now will lay down the foundations for faster work later and will minimise the risk of injury.

Behaviour: It is important to know what is normal for your horse and to notice any subtle changes to their behaviour. This can be an indication of pain or that they are not coping in some way.

Ground conditions: It is important to be aware of the ground conditions you are riding on as this will impact your horse’s physical wellbeing. Is the arena level? Has it been raining excessively making the ground slippery or slightly deep? Is the ground hard?

Seek guidance from a BHS Accredited Professional Coach (APC) at any stage and riding lessons can commence once your horse is comfortably fit enough.

References

1) The British Horse Society (2017) BHS Complete Horsemanship Volume 3. Kenilworth press Ltd.
2) Williams, J & Tabor, G. (2017) Rider impacts on equitation. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. Vol 190. P 28-42.
3) Uldahl, M., Christensen, J, W. & Clayton, H, M. (2021) Relationships between the Rider’s Pelvic Mobility and Balance on a Gymnastic Ball with Equestrian Skills and Effects on Horse Welfare. Animals. 11(2) P 453.
4) Skivington A, et al. (2020). Investigation into Whether Proximal Suspensory Desmitis of the Hindlimb Could Predispose Horses to Sacroiliac Disease. Equine Science.
5) Parkes R.S.V & Witte T.H (2015) The foot–surface interaction and its impact on musculoskeletal adaptation and injury risk in the horse. Equine Veterinary Journal. 47(5) P. 519-525.

 

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