It’s that time of year again. We have emerged from the bitter cold days of winter and the warm temperatures have returned. With the warmer weather here we are usually determined to get out and do more, and that often involves our horses. After a more sedate approach to riding during the winter months it is important to make sure your horse is ready for the frenzy of activity that comes with summertime and show season.
Unless you have been diligent over the winter months and have ridden your horse on a regular exercise regimen it is generally safe to say that some conditioning workouts are in order. Here are some simple steps to ensure you and your equine partner are ready to tackle the summer of 2016.
Make sure your horse is healthy to start a conditioning regime. Check off all the veterinary necessities your horse needs for a healthy baseline. Vaccinations, de-wormer, teeth floating, and a regular check-up.
Talk with your veterinarian about the training schedule you have in mind and get confirmation that your horse is physically ready for it. Be sure to talk about nutrition with your veterinarian and what increased dietary needs your horse may have with more activity. A ration balancer is always a plus to make sure your horse is getting proper micronutrients. As always, make sure your horse is seen regularly by your farrier and that your horse’s feet are prepared for the type of work and surface that you will be riding on if it is different from that during winter months. And call your favorite animal chiropractor to have your horse checked so his body and nervous system can function at its optimal level. *Insert shameless plug here.*
If your horse’s body shape has changed over the winter it may be a good idea to have your saddle fit checked (stay tuned for next month’s blog on Saddle Fit!). The angle and contours created by the panels of your saddle should match the contours of your horse’s back.
This allows the rider’s weight to be evenly distributed and prevents points of excess pressure on your horse’s back. Even if you don’t feel your horse has changed much in size or shape it is important to regularly check the fit of your saddle to ensure freedom of movement and comfort for your horse when riding. We recommend having your saddle checked by a professional saddle fitter at least once a year, and if you are an avid rider or your horse’s shaped has noticeably changed it should be checked more often than that.
It’s time to ride! If your horse has had the winter off of work or was not worked consistently be sure to start with frequent, short workouts that are relatively low in intensity level. This will help prevent injury and will allow your horse to build both muscle and endurance. If your horse has had the winter off and is just starting back to work it is recommended to start with about 15 minutes of walking under saddle for the first week. The second week you can add trot work and it is recommended that you start with a 5-minute warm up including vigorous walking, followed by 8-10 minutes of “long and low” trot work or “long trotting”, and finish with a 5-minute cool down to start building muscular and cardiovascular endurance. If you don’t think your horse is quite ready for a full 10 minutes of trotting you can break up that time with a 1-2 minute walking session to let him catch his breath. Once your horse is comfortable with the 20 minute pace and is still fresh after riding you can slowly increase the length of each training period, but keep the same low-level intensity. “Slow” means increasing the workout by approximately 10 minutes each week. Remember, frequent but short workouts will best suit your horse. It is recommended to work your horse a minimum of three days per week in order to build fitness. It is also recommended that your horse have at least one day of rest per week for adequate rest and recovery time so his muscles can heal and rebuild. Remember to tailor each training session to the individual needs of the horse. It’s important to take into consideration your horse’s age, breed, previous level of fitness, specific discipline requirements, and any previous injuries.
When it comes to increasing the intensity of your workout you can do so gradually by first asking for longer periods of trot, varying the terrain as well as incorporating suppling exercises. After your horse has worked up to 30 minutes of trotting per session you can start to add canter work followed by adding hill work and/or jumping exercises. This will help build muscle strength along with the endurance you have been working on. But note that 10 minutes of hill work is much more taxing on your horse than 10 minutes on the flat. You will have to adjust ride time accordingly if you add this type of riding into your routine, and it is not recommended for every workout. After you have slowly increased the level of intensity and your horse is comfortable with those physical requirements you can add discipline specific work. It should take you about 6 to 8 weeks to build your horse up to “normal work” after an extended period of time off. Be sure to change up your your exercise program so your horse remains engaged and willing in his work. Alternate strengthening workouts with days working on suppling exercises and flexibility.
Don’t be afraid to add groundwork exercises into the mix. In fact, we encourage it! You don’t have to ride every day or with every workout. Working on the ground helps build trust between you and your horse, and allows your horse to know that every time you come out to the barn doesn’t mean a grueling workout. Also be sure to schedule your grooming with intention time (see last month's blog) before or after your conditioning workouts.
It is imperative to monitor your horse along the way. Knowing your horse’s normal vital information such as heart rate, respiration rate, and temperature are key to proper management of your horse’s health. Once you know his normal vitals you can check them again at the end of your workout to see how long it takes to return to normal levels. This will give you an indication of your horse’s fitness level.
Check his legs for any areas of swelling or inflammation. Heat can indicate an area of stress that may be related to an overuse injury. Keep an eye on the footing you are riding on. While varied terrain offers different conditioning benefits it can also lead to potential stress injuries. There is a big difference between riding indoors on well maintain footing as opposed to pavement or muddy conditions. Also, your horse’s appetite and attitude should remain normal throughout this conditioning process. You will most likely need to increase feed rations to compensate for the increased workload, and monitor proper electrolyte and mineral balances. If you notice a significant change in your horse’s appetite or body condition, it is time to step back and evaluate what may be the cause and address it accordingly.
You should now be ready to tackle your spring training sessions! Make sure YOU are ready to ride and compete as well. The winter can be slow and less active for riders too, so be kind to your body and get it ready properly for this increased workload. A healthy, fit, and balanced rider helps the horse perform better as well. Check out this article to help you get ready for riding. And as always if you have more questions or would like help with a certain aspect of the conditioning regimen please ask Dr. Kyla or Dr. Maya. We would love to help. Also, check out some helpful resources below!