The three phases of fitness
All horses are individuals with differing requirements and this is a general timeline and guidance only. If you have any concerns about progressing your horse to the next fitness phase, keep them at their current workload until you are satisfied they are coping. If your horse has been off work due to an injury, follow advice from your vet for their rehabilitation.
Fitness programme in practice
Phase One: Slow & Steady (Weeks 1-3)
- Hardening off- gradual controlled exercise to strengthen the soft tissue.
- Prepares the muscles, tendons and ligaments
20 minutes’ walk work, moving in straight lines on a level surface.
Increase to 30-40 minutes, reaching an hour.
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 Two: Strength & Stamina (Weeks 4-5)
- Improve basic fitness and strength
- Suppling and developing muscle
- Develop balance and self-carriage
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.
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 Three: Schooling & Speed (Weeks 6-9)
- Develop the efficiency of the heart and lungs
- Longer training sessions
- Interval training
Weeks Six - Eight
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 Nine onwards
Your horse should now be back to an adequate level of fitness.
It is important to continuously make assessments throughout your fitness programme, adjusting where necessary.
- Continually assess your horse’s recovery times, and how they are coping with their work. As fitness develops you should notice that heart rate and breathing rate are lower during exercise and that both rates recover 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.
- 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 a sign that that they are not coping in some way.
- 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?
Warming Up and Cooling Down
Warming up and cooling down properly is essential to help keep your horse’s muscle tone elastic and to reduce the risk of injuries to tendons and ligaments. It can also help to prevent painful muscle cramps and colic.
Warming up gets your horse thinking about the job they’re about to do. It raises their heart rate, boosts circulation, and increases oxygen flow to the muscles. There are no rigid rules but bear in mind the weather, ground conditions and temperament of your horse. Horses being ridden from the stable will need a longer time to warm up than those ridden from the field.
Cooling down reduces the heart rate, drawing lactic acid away from the muscles and reducing the risk of inflammation. Gradually bring the horse back down the paces, then walk until their respiration rate has recovered. Cooling also allows the horse a chance to process the work they have done and return to a less focused state of mind.
Following every ride:
- Wash or brush off any sweat marks. Check for saddle rubs, girth galls and bit rubs.
- Check legs for heat and swelling.
- Pick out feet and if wearing shoes, check they are still secure.
Keep walking your horse if they are still breathing heavily, and never put a hot, blowing horse back in their stable unattended, as they are at high risk of overheating, developing muscle cramps, or colic.
Seek guidance from a BHS Accredited Professional Coach (APC) at any stage if you are uncertain or would like advice.
2) 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.