How to form a fitness plan for your horse

Following prime minister Boris Johnson’s announcement on 10 May and the new guidance issued by the British Equestrian (BEF) for the sector as a result, we are now permitted to exercise our own horses, or those in our care, as they require — this also includes hacking. The chances are that your horse has either been on a reduced workload, or has not been ridden at all since lockdown was announced, so it is critical your horse is fit for the level of work he will be doing over the forthcoming weeks and months to help minimise the likelihood of any injuries.

Fitness should be worked on gradually over a period of weeks to enable the horse’s body to adjust to the changes in exercise level. There are no short cuts as sudden increases in work can result in pulled or torn muscles, resulting in enforced time off work.

A horse’s general health needs to be checked before any fitness work begins, if you are starting from scratch, so make sure your horse is ready to start work by organising any vaccinations, dentistry checks, shoeing and worming as necessary. You still need to ensure your horse is healthy after a short break or slight reduction in workload too.

While most riders follow a similar plan to the one outlined below, each horse is an individual and the period of time required to get a horse fit will be influenced by:

  • the horse’s age — veteran horses and very young horses will take longer to get fit than those in their prime
  • how fit the horse is now — a horse which has been kept ticking over will be fitter than one which has had a field holiday with no exercise
  • any injuries — a horse is coming back into work following time off with an injury will need many weeks of slow work to ensure too much pressure is not applied to the injured part
  • how fit the horse has been — a horse which is used to being let down over the winter and brought back up in the spring, for example, will be fitter quicker than a horse being got fit for the first time

Most fitness programmes can be broken down into three stages:

  • stage 1 – slow work to prepare the body’s muscles, tendon and ligaments
  • stage 2 – work to improve strength and stamina and basic fitness
  • stage 3 – faster work to prepare the horse for cross-county type events.

By completing all three stages your horse will be fit to compete regularly in a variety of disciplines when they restart.

A fitness programme for your horse

The fitness programme set out below caters for a horse which has been kept ticking over with occasional light hacks and whose rider intends to compete regularly in lower-level affiliated competitions. The horse should have one day off per week, with time turned out in the field to stretch and relax.

Week 1 – Around 20mins roadwork in walk each day

Week 2 – Increase roadwork to 30-40mins per day

Week 3 – Increase roadwork to 60mins per day, including some hills

Week 4 – Extend hacking time to up to 90mins per day (can be in two separate rides) including some trot work on suitable ground

Week 5 – Start introducing some gentle schooling in the manège (20-30mins max). Exercise can be increased to 2hrs daily including some trotting up hills (not on roads)

Week 6 – Gradually increase time spent schooling and introduce some cantering on suitable ground out hacking

Week 7 – Build up the period of time in canter, including some cantering up hills. Continue with schooling in the menage, start to introduce jumping

Week 8-9 – Continue with the current work and introduce some faster work (strong canter, controlled gallop) in either a continuous training or interval training format.

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While it may prove difficult for those working full-time to fit in up to 2hrs riding, work on your horse’s fitness will not go to waste (hopefully!), so asking a competent friend or employing a professional to help with some of exercise sessions could be a worthwhile investment in the long term, while adhering to the current social distancing rules and regulations surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

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