Reconditioning After a Winter Break

Nutrena Warmblood Horse Annick-7120If you live in a state that has cold winters, chances are that even if you have an indoor arena you are taking a break on those dreaded frigid dead-of-winter weeks or months. But when things begin to thaw and your horse begins to shed like crazy, it’s time to get back to it! If your horse has had more than three weeks off, he will need to be worked back into a routine strategically in order to help reduce the risk of over-stressing or injuring him in the process.

As eager as you are to get back to jumping, reining or piaff-ing, it’s best to start slow. Think of how you feel the first day back to the gym after a long break. Now picture yourself about 10x the size that you are now, in the gym, out of shape. It’s exhausting just thinking about it! Your horse might have built up energy and seem to be ready to get right to it, but it’s best to work him up slowly to help avoid an injury that could set you back even further.

Plan on a six to eight week conditioning schedule depending on how much time your horse has had off. Start with low impact hacking for about 15 minutes, working only at the walk. You could also utilize a hot walker if you have one available or hand-walk if you would like. Unless your horse is very obedient on the lunge line, it’s not a recommended way to get him into shape just in case he is extra excitable. Bolting away and galloping in a small circle on the lunge could result in injury to him or even you.

5-7 days after you begin your walking routine add in 5 minutes of trot work each day. After two weeks of solid walk-trot work you can gradually introduce the canter, again working up slowly from 5 minutes just as you did the trot. After thirty days of flat work you can begin to add more strenuous activity to your conditioning program like jumping or speed work (barrels) but work up slowly. Figure in another month to get your horse back to where he was before he took the break. Begin with jumping a single, low fence both directions for the first week, then add in a line and work your way back to a full course. Once you are jumping a course at a smaller height, gradually increase the size of your fences and the complexity of the course.

If you are worried that you or your horse might get bored working on the flat, remember that flatwork is the foundation for your riding no matter what discipline you ride. It’s a good time for you to work on yourself as well, starting you out on the right foot (or hoof) for the season. Work on your position or ride with no stirrups. When your horse is feeling more fit, do some lateral work and get him really listening to your aids so he’s sharp when the time comes to compete.

As far as feed is concerned, as you are reconditioning, the correct feeding program will depend on what your horse’s body condition score is coming out of his break. If he is on the thin side, you will want to increase his feeding rate as you work him harder or include a fat supplement. Make sure to always provide fresh, clean water and free choice hay. If he is on the heavier side of the scale, keep his feeding rate the same but keep an eye on that body condition score as you may need to adjust your feeding rate as he gets back into shape and is working harder.

Conditioning Your Horse: 5 Types of Fitness

Spring is officially here and you’ve probably got a season full of shows, races, trail rides, and more planned for you and your horse. But before you put your horse back to work, take a minute to think about the importance of conditioning. Conditioning is a huge part of your horse’s health and well being. Taking time to prepare for an event by gradually increasing speed and distance over several weeks is essential to keeping your horse healthy and safe.

Conditioning directly relates to five types of fitness in the horse:

  1. Cardiovascular fitness refers to how well the blood can circulate through the muscles. As the horse gains more cardiovascular fitness, his heart does not have to beat as hard to transport oxygen.
    1. Normal Resting Heart Rate:
      1. 36 BPM or less (the more fit the horse, the lower the Resting Heart Rate)
      2. Moderate Work: 75-105 BPM
      3. Heavy Work: 200 BPM or higher
      4. The heart rate of a working horse should recover to 60 BPM or lower after 10-15 minutes of rest; if the horse is in poor condition it may take 30-45 minutes for recovery
  2. Respiratory fitness is how oxygen is introduced into the blood. The more fit the horse, the less acidic the blood will be (from CO2 and lactic acid), making respiration easier since the horse doesn’t have to breathe as hard to get rid of excess CO2 and take in more oxygen.
  3. Thermoregulation is simply the horses need to cool itself, which happens through breathing heavily and sweating. Fat horses and horses that are extremely muscular are not able to cool themselves as well as leaner, less muscled animals. Too much heat production can lead to serious problems, such as lethargy and becoming uncoordinated.
  4. Muscular fatigue is also a serious indication of poor condition. Muscles that are worked hard create lactic acid and metabolic wastes. If too much lactic acid builds up in a certain area, soreness will result. Conditioning will help your horses’ muscles burn fuel more efficiently and with less waste; another important way to reduce muscle soreness is to be sure to allow adequate cool down time (at least 30 minutes walking after a hard workout).
  5. Skeletal fatigue can occur in your horse’s bones, joints, tendons and ligaments. Horses with skeletal fatigue are more likely to suffer sprains and strains. As you ride, your horse’s bones are constantly compensating for your weight as well as the type of work being done. For this reason improper preparation in a certain event may lead to skeletal fatigue. For example, a western pleasure horse taken on an endurance ride without the right preparation may lead to problems with the bones, ligaments, joints and /or tendons.

A conditioning program should be based on what you want to achieve with your horse. A dressage horse will have a different conditioning program than a barrel racing horse, so keep your long term goal in mind. The most common method of conditioning includes alternating between slow speed and fast speed conditioning, continually increasing the amount of work done as the horse becomes more fit until optimum condition is reached.