Get Fit: 8 Tips for Conditioning Your Horse

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Get Fit: 8 Tips for Conditioning Your Horse

Before you saddle up for an event, make sure your horse is at his optimal fitness level for the required work. Here’s our top tips for conditioning horses.

With summer upon us, the show and trail riding season are about to be in full swing. Before you take your horse to a strenuous competition or saddle up for an all-day trail ride, make sure your horse is at his optimal fitness level for the work you would like him to do. Below, we’ve gathered our best 8 tips for conditioning for horses! 

1) Match Your Horse’s Fitness to the Event 

Unless your horse is retired to a pasture, you’ll probably be asking him to exercise as part of the activities you do together. Make sure your horse is in shape to be able to do that particular exercise, and if you have a strenuous competition or ride planned, your horse needs to have enough time building up his body’s endurance and strength before the event to get to that level of fitness. 

This is the goal of physical conditioning, and why you need a horse conditioning program.

Your horse’s body will need to adapt to the exercise task you ask of him, before you ask more of him—whether it is speed or duration, or both. As your horse’s capacity to exercise increases, the likelihood of him sustaining injuries during his work will decrease.

2) Exercise Affects Your Horse’s Entire Body

Conditioning addresses your horse’s adaptive ability through multiple body systems, including:

  • Respiratory system
  • Cardiovascular system
  • Muscles
  • Tendons and ligaments
  • Skeletal system
  • Thermoregulation 

In addition to physical responses, good horse training and conditioning also prepares your horse’s psychological response, instilling confidence and an eagerness to perform the maneuvers.

3) Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Exercise Training

In order to get necessary energy to your horse’s body parts, some pathways require oxygen. These are known as aerobic. Pathways that do not need oxygen are anaerobic. Your horse performs exercises that are both aerobic and anaerobic.

When a horse is properly conditioned, it will lead to an increase in aerobic capacity—the level of ability his body can supply energy for exercise through oxygen-dependent pathways. Most exercise falls under the aerobic category, as long as the intensity or duration of that exercise doesn’t surpass your horse’s rate of aerobic metabolism. 

When your horse has to shift to anaerobic activity, it requires a greater amount of energy. Examples of aerobic exercise include walking and trotting, western pleasure, horsemanship and equitation. Examples of anaerobic exercise include jumping or pulling a heavy object. Disciplines like reining, stadium jumping and cutting intersperse bursts of anaerobic exercise with longer segments of aerobic exercise.

4) Know Your Types of Conditioning

Your goal in physical conditioning for your horse is to increase his ability to perform specific tasks.

You can work your horse in two general classes of conditioning to achieve fitness: slow speed, and high speed.

Slow-Speed Conditioning: Also known as endurance training, every exercise program for horses should start with this type of conditioning. This includes walking, trotting, and slowly loping for longer periods of time or distance. You’re aiming for aerobic exercise.

Most horses in an endurance training period will stick to slow work for at least 2-3 weeks. Racehorses may stay in endurance training for 4-5 weeks, while a horse in endurance racing could continue slow speed conditioning for up to nine months.

→Benefits: Better aerobic capacity, stronger legs, adapted skeletal muscle and more.

High-Speed Conditioning: If your horse will be performing strenuously in competition, such as barrel racing or reining, you’ll want to add speed work or “fast speed” training. This helps improve your horse’s anaerobic ability. Typically you’ll mix slow-speed, long-distance work with high-speed, shorter distance work.

High-speed conditioning can include moving at or near a peak rate of speed for short distances and increasing the distance, or keeping the distance the same and increasing speed over that distance.

No matter the format, the goal for high-speed conditioning is to improve your horse’s anaerobic capacity, while avoiding overtraining. You’ll want to stick to 75 or 80 percent of your horse’s maximum speed while working most of the time.

→Benefits: Increase in anaerobic capacity, increase in type II muscle fibers.

Interval training: Interval horse training can include multiple workouts on the same day, with rest periods in between. Interval training is sometimes used in place of a high-speed program. Be cautious about performing at a maximum speed of 95 to 100 percent of your horse’s ability—this can lead to overtraining and psychological issues with your horse.

→Benefits: Some studies have shown interval training can improve muscle fiber in ways that are different from high-speed training only.

Skills: If your horse is performing in a specific event, such as pole bending, reining, cow horse, barrel racing or roping, you’ll want to practice those maneuvers in training sessions, interspersed with conditioning your horse at slow and high speeds. 

5) Tailor Your Program to Your Horse

Your conditioning will be most effective when you tailor it to your horse and your performance goals.

You’ll want to incorporate movement that is specific to the type of exercise you’ll want them to do in competition or at the event. If you are training for jumping, your horse needs to practice jumping while conditioning. 

Your horse’s body has different types of muscle fibers that can do different types of movement based on anaerobic or aerobic energetic pathways, diameter of the fibers, and contraction speed. Some muscles are ideal for fast, strong contractions ideal for high intensity movement, such as sprinting or jumping. Other muscle fibers help with slower, long duration exercise. 

The distribution of these types of muscles is genetic in part, but can also be adapted due to conditioning.

6) Avoid Overtraining

Horses can’t perform at peak fitness indefinitely. Trying to keep your horse working at the highest intensity day after day will lead to psychological and physical breakdown—and it actually won’t improve your horse’s fitness, either. It will lead to overtraining, which causes a loss of performance ability.

Instead, you’ll want to time your horse’s arrival at peak fitness for specific events or competitions, with downtime to recover and build back up before the next event. You’ll want to evaluate your horse’s fitness and wellbeing and adjust as needed.

7) Reduce Injuries

Nothing derails a horse’s conditioning like an injury. That’s why a carefully planned program that gradually increases your horse’s workload is helpful. 

You also want to ensure your horse has access to fresh, clean water at all times, good quality hay, and the right plane of nutrition to meet his needs. It is a very wise idea to add a joint supplement such as 6666 Joint Health that includes ingredients that support healthy cartilage, synovial fluid and connective tissue, to protect your horse’s joints long-term. 

8) Understand What Happens in Detraining

If your horse is injured or gets a length of time off, they’ll lose physiological and physical fitness within a few weeks. 

So if your horse does get time off, you will want to build through conditioning, rather than ask the horse to perform at the level they were working prior to that break.

What are you conditioning your horse for this summer? Send us a note at; We would love to get to know you!

Read More:

Physical Conditioning of Horses

Basic Conditioning of the Equine Athlete

Photo by Bailey Alexander on Unsplash

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