Everyone has their tried and trusted ways of fittening horses, but how many of these methods stand up to scientific scrutiny? In preparation for the spring season, Dr David Marlin reveals the latest thinking in conditioning horses for competition

Many riders will by now have started their horses’ fitness training.

Fitness work lays important foundations for moving on to longer and faster training sessions, especially for horses that have had a lengthy break over winter. While different riders have personal preferences, some simple rules will maximise your horse’s fitness and minimise the risk of lameness.

Making sure that your horse’s tack fits him is a sensible first step, along with ensuring that his feet are in a suitable condition — whether shod or barefoot.

When you begin ridden exercise it is important not to rush. The ideal start is a minimum of three to four evenly spaced walking sessions per week, each of up to an hour, for two weeks. Then move on to an hour of walk and some short periods (five to 10 minutes) of trot for three to four sessions per week, for a further week or two.

Remember that it is not just the horse’s legs and the other major locomotory muscles that will be unaccustomed to exercise. His back muscles, in particular where the saddle sits, will be unused to being loaded.

Being ridden every day may not suit all horses. Several weeks of lungeing on large circles can be beneficial to those with a history of back problems, to build some baseline fitness and suppleness before starting ridden work.

Choosing the right surface

There is a widespread belief that roadwork hardens or strengthens tendons.

Tendon is primarily a non-living tissue — in effect, it is a large elastic band with a small number of living cells and a poor blood supply. As such it has limited capacity to adapt to training. Most tendon development takes place in the first few years of a horse’s life when he is not yet being ridden.

Roadwork has little, if any, benefit for tendons. Working on a hard surface will create some increase in bone strength, but this requires just a few minutes of exercise per day. Too much can lead to concussive damage to the joints and deterioration of cartilage.

My preference is to restrict roadwork to walking and perhaps five minutes of trotting.

The alternative may be soft ground. Here, concussive damage is likely to be considerably less, but the risk of soft tissue (tendon, ligament and muscle) injury will be greater.

One of the main problems with surfaces, as identified by Rachel Murray and her team at the Animal Health Trust, is unevenness. Choosing a consistent surface is crucial, which is one advantage of roads.

Some riders will have access to all-weather gallops, which, if constructed and maintained correctly, present a lower injury risk. If roads or very soft fields are your only options, using a combination of both is likely to be better than using one exclusively.

Schooling in an arena will help develop fitness, certainly in the early stages of bringing a horse back into work.

Take your horse’s history of injury into account when deciding where and how to exercise, using different surfaces to help spread the load between bone and joints, and tendons, ligaments and muscle.

Stepping it up

Fitness follows the law of diminishing returns, meaning that your horse’s fitness increases fastest when you start training and slows down further into the programme. After around two weeks of working at the same level, his fitness will begin to plateau. This is the time to move up to a higher workload.

Aim to increase distance or speed, but try to avoid changing both at the same time. Large workload increases are a risk for injury.

The main factors that determine levels of exertion are:
• speed
• going
• weight carried
• environmental temperature
• exercise pattern
• terrain.

Put simply, cantering uphill on a soft surface would usually be considered hard work — whereas walking or trotting downhill on a firm surface would be easier. Changing pace and direction, by making lots of turns, also increases workload.

The only accurate way to know how hard your horse is working is to use a heart rate monitor. It may then be apparent that trotting uphill on a soft surface may be harder work (producing a higher heart rate) than cantering on the flat on a firmer surface.

A heart rate monitor

A heart rate monitor

Rest and recovery

An alternative to simply increasing the workload every fortnight is to reduce training intensity for a week. These recovery weeks can be introduced after the first two to three weeks of resuming fitness work after a winter break, or at any stage in training. In such a week, ride for fewer days, and keep the workload between 50% and 75% of that of the previous week.

Most injuries are not the result of one-off freak accidents, but are caused through overuse — an accumulation of low-grade, long-term damage until the horse becomes lame. A recovery week not only allows this minor damage to repair itself, but can be mentally beneficial for some horses.

I would use a recovery week every two to three weeks, depending on the horse. Cut back any hard feed when work is reduced and begin with a few lighter days when you resume his exercise. Repeat a few days at the previous intensity before moving up to the next level.

If you can only ride at weekends, asking someone to lunge your horse several times during the week will be beneficial. Try not to fit too much into the weekend sessions as this will increase the risk of injury.

Weather warnings

Frost calls for extra caution. The risk of slipping is increased, so choose carefully where to ride. A horse will need longer to warm up physically on a cold day, so spend more time at walk and trot before introducing more intense exercise. Plus, frozen fields, verges and even all-weather surfaces can be almost as hard as roads.

Very cold weather also carries an increased risk of damage to the lungs. Exercise at canter and gallop when the air temperature is close to 0°C causes airway inflammation. It has also been shown to increase the severity of exercise-induced pulmonary haemorrhage (EIPH, or bleeding in the lungs).

If the weather does turn bad, don’t panic and imagine you are back to day one. A week of missed training has a measurable negative effect on human fitness, whereas it would take around four weeks to see a difference in a horse.

The majority of horses can be brought to competition fitness in 10-12 weeks, although this can be reduced after only a short break. The key is to ensure that your horse peaks at the right time and to work him as hard in training as you will in competition. If you only train in slow canter at home, your horse will not be ready to undertake a fast canter cross-country.

Ref: Horse & Hound; 28 January 2016