If you’ve read this blog for very long, you probably know that I’m really really really really (add like 200 really’s here) into horse fitness and conditioning. It is fascinating, and I think that it’s one of – if not the – most crucial aspects when it comes to enhancing a horse’s soundness and overall ability. I knew the basics, from way back in my working student days, following all the written notes for the conditioning rides on the 2* and 3* horses. Which, to show my age… back in those days eventing was still long format. I never really spent a lot of time thinking about it in depth, though, until Henry and I were getting ready for our N3D in 2016.
My horse is a little bit of a special case in that we know he has scar tissue in his lungs that makes it harder for him to get enough oxygen, especially when it’s humid. In 5 years of experimenting with the horse, the only thing I’ve found that helps him is to keep him really fit at all times. When we showed up at Coconino for that N3D 3 years ago, I basically had a horse that was Prelim fit. But given his issues, and the fact that it was summertime, and that we were showing at pretty high altitude, it seemed better to err on the side of too fit than not fit enough. It worked out well, and I’ve adopted the same approach ever since. He doesn’t need to be as fit as a 3*+ horse, obviously, but I try to always keep him a little fitter than he really needs to be. The fitter he is, the more sound he has stayed, too. He’s stronger and finds all of his other work to be much easier. Everything is better when he’s fitter.
Figuring out where to start can definitely be mindboggling. There’s a lot of good information about conditioning programs on the internet (I’ll put some links at the bottom of this post), among different videos and articles. I think those are a good starting point, but I also think it’s super important to have a professional who knows your horse well to weigh in on it too. Some horses hold their fitness better than others, some breeds and body types need more than others, some horses can’t mentally handle being overfit, while others really benefit from always having plenty leftover in the tank, different climates can mean different needs, etc. So you’ll never see any kind of “how to” or specific suggestions from me, since I think the right answer can vary widely. I still to this day always run changes by my trainer first, to get her opinion. She’s more experienced than I am, after all, and her thoughts matter a lot. The internet is a good starting point, but nothing you find will be a one size fits all.
I will say that there are a lot of things that I think are important when it comes to this whole fitness thing. 1) Knowing your horse’s TPR. You have to know what’s normal in order to gauge how fast they’re recovering and thus, how fit they are. 2) Varying the work. If you think I spend a lot of time galloping, you’d be wrong. I minimize the pounding as much as I can by varying the different type of fitness work that we do. 3) Strength is very important too. A horse that does all it’s fitness work on perfect, flat footing doesn’t do you much good when you get to the show and encounter lots of terrain or harder/deeper footing. Hills, polework, and varied surfaces are your bestest friends. Think of it as cardio vs weight training – each compliments the other. 4) There’s no way around it: a fit horse requires a lot of riding. 5) Recovery and aftercare – learn it. Do it. If you want a sound horse you have to figure out how to maintain it.
Figuring out Henry’s TPR and what’s normal for him was an interesting learning curve in the beginning. Because of his lung issues (and seasonal allergies on top of that, which just exacerbate his breathing problems) his respiratory rate is always the first thing to go up and the last thing to come down. It can be a bit deceiving, because he’ll get to puffing pretty hard sometimes, especially when it’s humid. It took me a while to learn what was normal for him in that regard, and I really had to go more off of his temperature and heartrate. It’s entirely possible for his respiratory rate to still be quite high while his temperature and heartrate have already returned normal. This is why I think it’s so important to know your horse.
During the hotter times of the year (or if, like last fall, it will not stop effing raining), I really maintain Henry’s fitness almost exclusively with long trots and really long walks. The ground gets too hard to gallop much, but it’s still possible to maintain a pretty high level of fitness just with walk/trot work. Of course, when I say that I mean 35-45 min long-trots, at a forward pace, working (not bumming around with his nose up in the air) or 1.5hr marching walks (again, forward pace and working over his back). I have become a big believer in the long slow fitness work as being absolutely crucial to a horse’s overall base fitness and soundness. You can bet that Presto will be spending a lot of time going on long walk and trot hacks before he ever starts formal work.
I also ride at least 6 days a week, which has a lot to do with keeping him fit. I’m always on him for a minimum of 30 minutes, and sometimes up to 2 hours. I’ve learned by now the best way to vary his schedule to work best for Henry. I never do fitness days or jump days (the two most physically stressful) back to back, or after a day off. I never do intense dressage rides (the most mentally stressful for him) two days in a row. During show season I plan his work around the show days, since a show day counts as a fitness day. He does get an extended vacation for about a month in the summer, but still goes on long walk hacks at least 4 days a week during that time. This horse stays soundest when he stays moving and stays strong, so he gets ridden a lot… I’m just careful not do to too much physical or mental pounding.
I always walk for at least 10 minutes before we start any work, which I think is super important to warm up the soft tissue. I also walk for a while at the end, to let him cool down appropriately while he’s still moving. Sometimes on dressage days or polework days I’ll tack on a 10-15 minute hack at the beginning or end of the ride to get more saddle time logged too, if for some reason we’ve come up a bit short that week or if I’m trying to ramp things up. Expanding the fitness can be an everyday thing, it doesn’t just have to be limited to specific days.
We do a lot of hill repeats, and our fitness work all takes place in a hilly field. Sometimes I use my Seaver to monitor his heart rate (which was really helpful when I was first playing with it) and I’ve got my timing down to a science by now. When we do gallop I will vary the speed a bit, sometimes only 375-450mpm and other times more like 500-550mpm. It depends on the footing and what we’re doing. Learning to gauge your pace by feel is essential too, and something I think every eventer must learn early on, otherwise you’re always just taking a stab in the dark.
The gallop work is a lot like the walk and trot in that I don’t just sit up there and let him toodle along. We leg yield, we stretch, I’ll switch back and forth from sitting to 2 point to 3 point. I vary my rein length. I’ll move his haunches in or out. We lengthen and shorten in rapid succession, seeing how quickly I can bring him back or push him forward just from seat and leg alone. I’ll find specific shadows or blobs of grass that I want to ride over and pretend it’s a skinny, trying to get his feet to a very specific place. Part of it is to keep myself from getting bored, but mostly it’s because I always want to be working on his rideability. Just because he’s galloping doesn’t mean he gets to do it on his own terms. He MUST be rideable at speed in order to be a safe cross country horse, and he MUST do it from seat and leg, so we work on it All The Time.
Aftercare is another thing that I think can be pretty individual. I know some people that ice after anything remotely fitness-related, and other people that never ice. I personally feel like turnout is the most important factor for my horse, so I try not to do hard rides on days where I know they’ll be stuck in their stalls due to weather. Ours are out 22 hours a day when the weather is good, which is ideal to me. Movement is crucial for Henry. After a harder ride I usually cold hose his legs for a bit (which is where I take a good hard look at them to make sure there’s no filling or heat or anything out of the ordinary), do a liniment brace, and then turn him out. If the ground is hard I put some Magic Cushion in his feet. If he’s going to be stuck in his stall I’ll poultice. Everything depends on the conditions, really. There can be a lot of right answers, depending on your horse and your workload.
Since the plan right now is to run Prelim at Coconino in July (so – Prelim plus high altitude plus summer), we’ve spent the past few months ramping things up a bit. Right now he’s doing 45 minute long trots or 2 sets of 10 min trot then 4 sets of 4 minute canter with 1-2 minutes rest in between. Yesterday we did the latter and his vitals were back to normal by the time we got back to the barn (and he stood in the washrack snorting like a loon at the hose, clearly he was not tired), so I’m happy with where he’s at right now. Trainer thinks that’s plenty, and I do too, so hopefully we’re right. Soon it will be hot and we’ll switch to maintenance mode. He’s a thoroughbred so luckily he holds it pretty well.
The way I see it is, there are certain things I can control and certain things I can’t. I am very aware of the fact that every time we move up a level, the margin of error shrinks and the consequences of making a mistake get more serious. Let’s face it, I’m not always right on cross country, I don’t always make the correct split second decision. Mistakes will happen sooner or later – that’s a given. What I can control is preventing mistakes that happen because of a tired horse or tired rider. Or mistakes that happen because a horse isn’t rideable in the gallop. Those are 100% preventable if I do the work at home. I’m all about minimizing my risk wherever I can, considering that I certainly don’t bounce the way I used to.
Is anyone else as geeky about horse fitness as I am? What does your horse’s fitness routine look like?
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20 thoughts on “Henry’s Fitness Routine”
I’m curious what are your thoughts on fitness for the hunter/jumper horse? I still feel really new at this so I’m not always super confident in my decisions with regard to fitness. My show horse is 7yo and is 1/2 TB so she’s got some gas in the tank. For that reason I try to not to get her TOO fit bc I don’t want to ride a rocket in the hunter ring. She’s been spicier on day 2 of the horse shows than I’d prefer, so I wonder if that is just her or if she’s a bit too fit?! We haven’t shown much so it’s hard to know the answer to that yet.
Ironically my 5yo OTTB seems to be pretty lazy. He likes his gallop at the beginning of the foxhunt, but he’s pretty happy to stand around for the rest of the day. He’ll move out if/when I ask him when we need to whip hounds back, but he’ll still go right back to napping. LOL!
I think it’s tricky with the hunters, because IMO making a horse fat and also not particularly fit is a big recipe for injury, especially if they’re showing 4-5 days in a row and the soft tissues get fatigued. I’d still want to be doing some long slow work with them on varied terrain, to get the base strength and fitness without making them too sharp. Then again, I also hate that hunters have gotten so slow and dead-looking, I’d love to see a more forward pace again and not having horses penalized for happy little headtwists or things that make them look fresh. Fresh is a good thing IMO. That’s a whole nother ball of wax though lol. For showjumpers, their fitness routines can look a lot like ours but with more emphasis on strength building and less on the stamina.
I totally agree about the fatties and I’ll never have mine fat! There is no truly flat ground on my property, and I think that is GREAT for all my horses. My “arena” is mostly flat, but has a slight grade so I use my terrain to my advantage. It results in horses who know where they are putting their feet and are inherently a bit more fit because their turnout is hilly.
The good news a horse that kicked up a little in the Pin Oak International Derby made it to the handy and ended up in the top 5 (if I recall correctly). As an actual foxhunter and a show hunter, I’d LOVE to see the forward looking horses pin more in the show ring!
Oohh I love this post. I geek out on fitness stuff, too. (Evidenced by my small novel below 😂.) Bottom line though, my approach is super similar to your approach but with more emphasis on distance since I focus on endurance in addition to trying to get more into eventing.
I haven’t been as on point with fitness these past couple years due to my longer commute to the barn and juggling everything with my life changes, but I still keep a fitness log. I’ve done this pretty religiously since late 2012 and I love having my old ones to look back on and compare to what I’m doing now.
For Q, I’d ideally like to work her 3-4 days a week; Grif I like to keep on for 4-5 days; and, if Stan was in full work, he really needs 5-6 days to maintain quality fitness. Keeping all 3 horses in prime work isn’t easy by myself. I usually bring on friends to help get it done. As much as I love my husband, part of me misses my single days when I spent 3+ hours at the barn every day lol! Though I must say, having a setup (currently) where they’re on 24/7 turnout on 28 acres complete with hills, a creek, and uneven terrain does wonders for maintaining fitness.
LSD (long slow distance) is the foundation of everything we do. In inclement weather/footing, it looks like marching walks over terrain at 3-4 mph, especially up hills. In better weather, it looks like long (6-8 mile) walk/trot rides on the flat rail trail. As fitness builds, those rides become more trot than walk. Our average speed is somewhere in the 6-7mph range and includes a really lovely warm-up and cool-down, the latter of which almost always involves a 150-foot walk in the creek to facilitate drinking and allow some very pleasant cool water on their legs.
Beyond LSD, in a perfect world of time management etc., I like to fit in dressage days, ground pole/cavaletti days, jump schools, hill sprint HIIT sessions, and, for those in endurance training, a ride of 12 miles or longer at least twice a month, ideally over terrain and not on the flat rail trail. Like you, I separate the mentally hard and the physically hard days with easier days or rest. And for every 10 miles we do on a conditioning ride, I give them a day off. 1 day for 10 miles, 2 for 20, etc. Following endurance races where the horse puts in more effort than they do at home due to the environmental conditions of a race, I give more rest: 5-7 days off for distances less than 50 miles, 10-14 days off for a 50, and following our first 100, Q received a month off. This is possible due to their turnout situation and will be modified to include more active rest (long eeaasy walks) once they move home with me.
Learning how to condition May has been a total adventure. Reading the Jumping Percheron’s blog has been really helpful, since she deals with similar issues. I don’t think there is a “too fit” for May. When we were running BN back in NJ, she finished with LOADS of gas in the tank, and in my opinion, that is a necessity for this horse. A tired, heavy type horse is just so prone to injury.
My new barn has a couple of options for fitness. The lightly hilly field on the property, the BIG, SUPER hilly field next door, and some rolling hills of trails. I try to mix it up like I would a HIIT class for myself. Long walk warm up, always marching. Trot set with minimal hills to get the heart rate up, easy walk break, walk up and down some hills, easy walk break, another trot set etc etc etc. This past weekend, it was about an hour of work, with at least half of that just easy walking. I did let her gallop a bit on some flat grass as a reward before we cooled. She thought that was awesome.
When it is too muddy, we do longer trot and canter sets in the ring. Typically, I will do a long walk break, a flat school (~20 min), and then 10-15 min of cardio work. Then another long walk.
Fitness for May is an every ride kind of thing. A jump lesson is a fitness thing for us, a Dressage lesson will end with some fitness, a hack will have a fitness component etc etc. To me, the best form of after care is a long walk until her heart-rate and breathing fully recover and as much turnout as possible. Cold hosing and liniment typically happen, but to me, they are totally secondary to walking and turnout.
Making the conditioning plan was my favorite part of endurance. I loved how it changed depending on where we were at in the season, the time of year and how long we had been doing it. As time went on Gem required less dedicated conditioning work to maintain though she was also a beast when it came to fitness. Half insane, but easy to maintain fitness wise. H’Appy is a blob and breathes hard/sweats when we walk for more than 10 minutes so I’m in the early stages of figuring him out and what he needs. I’d love to start using the hills at home to work him in trot sets however the last time I tried that he lawn darted me, so my confidence is a bit shaken there. Hoping to return to it now that we are on better terms together and the weather is starting to dry out a bit.
When you pack his feet do you turn him out with the packing in his feet?
Yep! It stays in quite well when the footing is dry. I pack a handful of fine shavings on top of the magic cushion and then just turn him out.
Perfect! Thank you!
P has always been incredibly easy to get fit and he really keeps his condition easily. Despite being on stall rest for multiple months, he completed all his rehab rides with ease and with plenty left over. When I rode S, he was in rougher shape, and when I stopped riding him, he lost all his muscle and conditioning very quickly. Both are TBs but they’re so different.
I love conditioning rides the most, as I get arena sour pretty quickly, so doing the rehab rides for 6 months were harder for me mentally than I think they were for P! The horse who is likely coming to hang with me for a few months is older and has been basically just turned out for the last 3 years, so we’ll be spending lots and lots of time marching around fields.
I do need to get better about incorporating pole work on days when we’re stuck in the arena, though. I tend to forget to set anything before I get on and then get lazy about getting off to do so.
I’ve never competed an event or endurance horse that needed super specific conditioning… However, even riding western, I completely 100% agree that LSD and a regular schedule of varied work contribute to a better show horse. I was shocked at one boarding stable when the owner came out and asked me why I was riding my horse. I sat there, kind of stunned. I asked what she meant. She said “he’s broke” so why ride him and screw him up? She went on to tell me they don’t ride their show horses at home because they don’t want to undo the training!!! I almost fell off my horse.
Imagine expecting a horse to show over multiple days in multiple classes with it’s head down in a western lope with no conditioning! They never did well at shows, no big surprise there. It was kind of sad to watch, actually.
There’s no such thing as a too-fit Frankie. No but literally, even when he was in a 6x/week program with multiple 2x/day workouts and getting 12-14 hours of hilly turnout, he was only what I would call *moderately* fit. Certainly much more fit than he is today but nothing to write home about, and he lost it almost immediately when we moved to a 4x/week schedule. He clearly didn’t inherit that gene from his TB mother.
Even at his peak conditioning I always knew that my Sunday Horse was going to be a very different ride from my Friday Horse. At this point we’re keeping the jumps lower since I don’t have the time to maintain the fitness he needs for the bigger sticks. But then I don’t have to tell you about changing our expectations to match our input, that’s just preaching to the choir haha
I love this post. I think fitness is easily overlooked by many at the lower levels (T and below), but truthfully, I think it’s critical to teach a horse to be fit and sound at the lower levels first to better prepare them for the challenges they’ll face once they get to a higher level. Creating and maintaining a baseline of fitness leads to a sounder horse who is better prepared for things out of our control like maybe a super hot and humid day that we hadn’t anticipated, or a hillier, tough going xc course. When I got Scout I knew I’d have my work cut out for me in terms of getting him fit. He was super big, and quite skinny and racing fit… he needed the usual = feet, nutrition, and let down… but he also needed TIME. Once he was ready to handle it, I started walking him, a LOT. And to this day I still do, especially before and after rides (I think it’s good for his mental fitness too), I but I’ve learned to use the walk as a real tool of fitness training because there’s SO much you can work on while walking. I’m like you in that I make my horse WORK when we are walking or even going for trots, etc. It definitely helps MY boredom, hahaha! I really want to learn the old format training system, and I’m lucky to be in an area and surrounded by riders who still train this way. Because Scout is so big, I’ve always believed that if I could get him to a certain fitness level, he’d be better set up for success in terms of fitness. He’s prone to little dings and things, and of course the 1-2 a year bouts of cellulitis so I try really hard to keep him in a fitness program anytime we can cobble together a few months in a row without issues impeding us. He just completed his first Novice, which had a lot of terrain and he finished with plenty of gas in the tack and hardly puffing. I can’t wait to really get him fit this summer!
Love this post. For my own education, when you mention 45 min long trot sets, are you breaking at all or is it 45 min straight? I like that you mention long walks. I play polo and show jump. I use walking as an important part of both sports. Recently, we purchased a European walker, and have incorporated that into their routines too. The polo ponies need to be quite fit and during polo season, they work 2 x day 6 days a week. I like to do 2 a days with my jumpers sometimes as well. I do a walk session in the morning and a flat ride in the afternoon.
Usually I go straight through, just one long trot, unless there’s a reason to break it up into sets.
My horse’s fitness needs are quite different for dressage. There’s a lot more focus on muscle building than endurance. That said, it’s a bit of an endurance game to maintain collection for long periods of time, so we do a lot of cantering and trotting within stages of collection/bend to build that ability. All my horses have needed plenty of mental breaks, and I find long walks/some trot on the trail essential for this. I also believe a good gallop can help a dressage horse loosen the back muscles tightened in collection. We do a LOT of schooling on different surfaces in and out of the ring. Hard, shallow, deep or soft footing, I don’t care. I’ve seen too many dressage horses fall victim to soft tissue injuries that could have been avoided by conditioning on varied terrain.
This was so great to read. I ride a lesson horse currently, but I love learning about this stuff – equine exercise physiology was always my favorite stuff in college. Totally agree that long & slow and thorough preparation are KEY and turnout is the best thing possible. My current barn doesn’t do a lot of turnout (I think they get 4-6 hours a day maybe?), and the pastures pretty flat, so that doesn’t do a whole lot. However, there’s a European horse walker that every hose gets at least an hour of walk/trot in every day, and it’s on a creek so some of the property does have some grade and hills. I need to go exploring on foot!
Thank you for the resources – I’m definitely the type of person who likes to have a Program and who uses that and my Fitbit HR monitor in my own training, so I’d totally nerd out about it if I had a horse. Now I can start taking notes.
So fascinating how organized you are with everything!!!
Do you pack his feet while he has shoes on? How do you do this? I have had some trouble in the past. Thanks!
He always has shoes on so yes. Magic cushion is very easy to pack, you just spread it in the foot and then cover it with a handful of shavings. The shoes hold it in place and the shavings prevent it from sticking to the ground and getting pulled out. As long as the ground is pretty dry (and you don’t have rocks), it will stay in for several days like this. They have a video of how to use it on both bare feet and shod feet. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=avY7HGFL6G8