How to bring a horse back to exercise safely after injury *H&H Plus*

  • Many horses will have had a season out of work due to the cancellation of the majority of competitions. Laura Fitzharris MRCVS advises on how we can bring them back to their job safely

    The best way to return a horse to exercise after a period of rest is an age-old topic. With the recent lockdown situation many horses have had a prolonged holiday, but with the competition season back up and running there are factors we must consider when returning them to work. The principles discussed are similar for horses that have had a holiday over the winter period or are returning to training following treatment for an injury.

    The first thing to consider is what effect a period of rest has on a horse’s body. In all cases, a reduction in exercise level will result in a loss of muscle mass which can occur after even a few weeks of reduced activity.

    The amount of muscle loss is often horse-dependent and will vary based on age, body condition before the rest period and what activity the horse has been undertaking during the rest period, such as field turnout or strict box rest.

    Rebuilding the muscle relies on the correct exercise and conditioning programme combined with an appropriate diet.

    Monitoring fitness

    Many riders go by feel, knowledge and experience to monitor fitness levels. Heart-rate response to exercise is one of the primary measures used by veterinary surgeons, traditionally measured using an electrocardiogram (ECG). The recent increase in availability of equine heart-rate monitors has made this method widely accessible.

    Generally, as a horse’s fitness level increases, the heart-rate response to the same level of exercise should decrease. An additional tool is the measurement of blood lactate level, which increases in response to strenuous exercise.

    Basic training

    Generally, in terms of basic training, a minimum of two weeks should be undertaken before the intensity level is stepped up. For example, two weeks of walking should be performed before introducing trot, with two weeks of trotting undertaken before introducing canter for two weeks.

    The duration of exercise should also be monitored. In most cases, basic fitness work is done while out hacking and interspersed with light schooling work. After this initial six-week programme of basic fitness, more specific training can be gradually introduced, such as lateral work or jumping exercises.

    How to prevent injuries

    There are four basic principles. Firstly, at least 15 minutes of walking should be undertaken before starting any faster exercise. This time is crucial to allow the soft tissue structures time to warm up and reduce the likelihood of a strain injury. It is particularly important when having a lesson or schooling, as the temptation is to start trotting quite quickly. A short hack or putting the horse on the walker before the lesson will help to prevent soft tissue injuries.

    A second consideration is how quickly the exercise level is increased each week. As a rule, the increase in exercise duration should not be by more than 10% each week. This will allow the muscles, tendons and ligaments to adapt to the training stimulus. An increase of about five minutes per day each week is generally sufficient. If a horse is pushed too hard too soon, then overload injuries can occur.

    Thirdly, training the horse for the job it is asked to do is key. The gradual introduction of jumping exercises before going out to showjumping competitions will allow the horse’s body to adapt and prevent overload injuries.

    The final consideration is rest and recovery days. Any human athlete will tell you that good recovery is an important part of training. Traditionally, horses are not given many rest days. However, studies have shown that the muscle recovery time and the replenishment of glycogen (energy) stores is actually twice as long in horses compared to humans. As such, it is really important to schedule some recovery time into your horse’s training plan. This can be in the form of a day off, or a lighter exercise load such as hacking or horse-walker exercise, and will allow the horse’s body to adapt to the training stimulus.

    Specific training

    When reintroducing more specific training, factoring in a warm-up and a cool-down period is key. Working the horse in a long and low outline is advised to warm up, stretch and loosen the horse, before trying more collected exercise.

    The addition of breaks during the schooling session itself, where the horse is returned to a long and low outline for a few minutes, can be beneficial. Finally, an active recovery period at the end of the session is recommended.

    A further consideration is the surface on which the horse is exercised. Where possible, quality surface with good footing (not too firm or too deep) is ideal for training and competition. A hard surface may predispose to bony injuries, whereas a soft surface may cause soft tissue injuries.

    Complementary exercises

    All horses can benefit from complementary athletic exercises to increase muscle strength and improve range of motion. Traditional exercises include hill training and raised pole exercises. The use of training aids such as the Equiband or Pessoa can help the horse to work through from behind and build up the topline. These training aids should be gradually introduced by an experienced user to allow the horse to adapt.

    Recently, the use of water treadmills has gained in popularity. Preliminary research has shown an increase in the flexion (bending) of the legs during the swing (flight) phase of the stride and increased range of motion of the back during water treadmill exercise. However, further research is required.

    Finally, horse “yoga” in the form of carrot stretching exercises on the ground has the effect of increasing the size and strength of the topline and epaxial muscles in the back, in particular the multifidus muscle.


    Some types of horses, such as natives, may gain weight during a rest period while others, such as thoroughbreds, may lose it. For the majority of horses, a diet composed mainly of roughage (grass and hay or haylage) along with a feed balancer is appropriate for maintaining condition during a period of rest and light exercise.

    When more intense exercise is re-introduced, the diet needs to be adjusted accordingly. In most cases this means the addition of concentrate feed. It is important that the feeding is in line with the exercise being undertaken and the body condition of the horse.

    Speaking to your vet or consulting with a nutritionist can help you develop an individual feeding plan.

    Take-home messages

    • Ensure the horse does at least 15 minutes’ walking before increased speed to allow the soft tissues to warm up.
    • Gradually increase exercise duration each week.
    • Use complementary athletic exercises such as carrot stretches and raised poles to improve strength.
    • Train the horse for the job it is asked to do.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 12 November 2020