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Developing a fitness programme

When bringing your horse back into work, preparation is key. A fitness programme should be individually tailored to your horse to bring them safely and successfully into a higher level of work, and you should also consider how your horse’s level of fitness can then be maintained.

  • Last reviewed: 21st July 2022
Aimee Tempest Junior Dressage Overall Individual Champion Aimee Tempest Junior Dressage Overall Individual Champion

Why is it important to follow a fitness programme?

  • Allows you to set precise aims and goals, and gives you direction
  • Provides a framework to tailor exercise to ability and level of fitness
  • Gives a timescale for gradual progression of performance
  • Helps to prevent injury

Considerations when creating a fitness programme:

Fitness level:

Assess the current fitness level of your horse, as well as yourself. (Read more about how important rider fitness is, and how to improve it.)

Plan in easier days, or a few days off altogether, as recovery time for you both.

Previous condition:

If you’re bringing your horse back into work following time off, were they turned away sound? Or are you bringing them back from an injury?

Current condition:

If your horse is carrying excess weight, this can place extra strain on their joints, tendons, muscles and cardiovascular system, and you must keep this in mind when making changes to their workload. Fat score your horse before beginning a fitness programme, and then monitor them at two-weekly intervals.

Age & Experience:

Putting young joints, bones and muscles under excessive stress and strain too soon can lead to debilitating problems later in life, so consider how established and developed young horses are in their work and plan exercise appropriately.

Time out of work:

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


Be prepared for setbacks to your programme plan! These could range from extremes of weather to your horse developing seasonal allergies.

What Level of Work Is Your Horse In?

The classification of work and the number of hours worked per week:

Light - Low (1 - 3 hours worked per week)

Breakdown of work

  • Up to 15 mins trot
  • Up to 5 mins canter

Example activities

  • Hacking
  • Occasional schooling
Light - Medium (3 - 7 hours worked per week)

Breakdown of work

  • Up to 25 mins trot
  • Up to 10 mins canter
  • Occasional jump

Example activities

  • Hacking
  • Occasional schooling
  • Low level dressage
  • Low level Riding Club/Pony Club
  • Occasional showing
Light - Hard (5 - 7 hours worked per week)

Breakdown of work

  • Up to 30 mins trot
  • Up to 12 mins canter
  • Up to 3 mins poles/jumping

Example activities

  • 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 worked per week)

Breakdown of work

  • Up to 30 mins trot
  • Up to 15 mins canter
  • Up to 10 mins poles, jumping, fast work

Example activities

  • 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 worked per week)

Breakdown of work

  • As medium, plus up to 1 hour extra over the week of speed work;
  • increase in galloping and jumping duration

Example activities

  • High level eventing
  • Racing
  • Endurance rides over 80km (50 miles).

Measuring Fitness

To measure your horse’s fitness, it is important to monitor their recovery time.  

  • Make a note of your horse’s resting heart rate and respiratory rate. 
  • Measure both rates again immediately after exercise.
  • Measure again at 1-minute intervals.
  • The time it takes your horse’s heart and respiratory rate to return to their resting rate is their recovery time.

As your horse gets fitter, their recovery time will become quicker. 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
Take A Horses Pulse And Respiratory Rate


How to Take a Horse's Pulse and Respiratory Rate

Implementing a fitness plan

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.

Find out more
Hacking BHS STOCK NOV2016 6130