Between poor footing, unsavory temperatures, and minimal daylight hours, the Winter season means lots of down time and a low-key work load for many horses. However, with Spring fast approaching, these horses are getting ready to start back to a routine exercise program. SO… “How should I recondition my horse?”
#TheWellHorse’s Favorite Answer— It Depends on the horse.
Like people, each horse has a unique physical capacity, environment, and training goal, so it would be insufficient to recommend a general protocol. Instead, each owner should work with their trainer or a vet to develop a conditioning plan.
This being said, with any horse it’s important to have standards and fulcrum points to refer back to as we move forward in training and conditioning. Progressing through day to day training will be exciting and encouraging at times, yet slow and seemingly static during others. It’s easy to become disorganized and to lose perspective in our training program. By having a few bullet-points to lean on as we swim through the reconditioning process, we can gift our horses with consistency, fairness, and effective schooling, no matter the discipline.
Progression in training should be slow and steady. For the 7 year old thoroughbred coming back after his owner left for a month, slow and steady may mean two weeks of progressive endurance and flat work. For the 18 year old warmblood coming back after a winter in the pasture, this may mean 3 weeks of progressive walk hacking. In both situations, there will be moments of uncertainty and loss of focus.
“Could we go ahead and join our friends for a jump school? Can we make that schooling show if we leg up more this week? Would a little hand-gallop hurt on such a nice day?”
Keeping horses comfortable, loose, content, and sound in reconditioning requires focus and patience. It’s easy to want to hurry through the slow season in training when the horse is going well or when exciting things are closing in. However, keeping the horse’s safety and physical wellness above all else will pay off with a sound, well performing athlete.
Like people, a horse’s cardiovascular fitness doesn’t directly relate to skeletal muscle strength. This means that while a horse may be able to trot for a half hour on a long rein, lateral work and transitions may wear his muscles out in no time at all. Understanding that different forms of exercise are not directly transferable will help us to formulate a balanced training plan, and it will prevent us from over-facing a horse in a seemingly mellow schooling session.
Muscles take time to develop. Months to develop. Ergo, if a horse is starting from ground zero with poor topline and no history of a familiar training routine, it may take months for the horse to stretch over his topline to execute quality transitions. Physiology is what it is. Being respectful and patient with the horse relative to his experience and physical state will promote a sound, happy, well-performing athlete.
Diversity for the win. If a body builder spends every workout focused only on his arms, he will have strained arms, weak legs, and an overall poor performance. I would imagine he would also be quite bored and tired of the same exercise pattern. This is true for a horse.
Whether we’re pulling a dressage horse out of the ring to go hack, putting flatwork on a show jumper, or changing up the scenery for a pleasure horse, diverse work patterns keep a horse physically well-rounded and mentally content.
I have personally found diversifying a training routine to help me as a rider keep a clear, big picture perspective for my training as well. A change of workload and scenery keeps my innate impatience at bay and encourages peaceful process.
In order to develop a strong, supple horse who moves out well, we need to train for that movement. Optimizing our horses’ movement will make us more successful in competition, but more importantly it will promote a strong, sound horse.
Most disciplines require a horse to have a basis of suppleness and self carriage before they can develop skills specific to the sport. This suppleness comes from strengthening and fine tuning through targeted flatwork. Lateral work, transitions, different balances within gaits, and general strength/endurance work will help develop quality in the horse’s gaits and improve his ride-ability. So even if we have no dressage goals in our future, proper flatwork is important.
With conditioning, athletes often have sports medicine requirements. This is also true for equine athletes. As horse owners, we are so lucky to live in an age where equipment is designed for comfort and performance, and therapies are readily available to maintain our horses’ soundness and functionality. It is our job to educate ourselves and take advantage of the products, practices, and services available to maintain a conditioning horse.
Almost always, horses are honest and go out of their comfort zone to please us. So when the horse starts being ‘bad’, it’s best to conclude that something is awry. To manage these situations, find the pain, the weakness, or the fear. We have the tools available, all we need to do is utilize them to keep our horses at their best through the conditioning program.