The competition season is just around the corner (yup, honestly!) and yet it still feels like we’re stuck in winter. Short days and bad weather all conspire to reduce the amount of riding time you have, and keeping your horse or pony fit for the competing season ahead can be a tricky task. So, how can you tell if your horse is fit enough and what can you do to improve it?
Well the first thing is to consider the sort of competing you want to do. Clearly, eventing is going to require considerably more stamina and fitness than showing for example. The important thing is to make sure that your horse can cope with the task you have planned for him as a tired horse can’t perform to his full potential and this opens up the opportunity for accidents and injuries.
There’s no quick fix to fittening your horse, so be prepared to put the work in over a few weeks. Before you start, take into account his age – older horses and very young horses will take longer to get fit than those in their prime; breed – a thoroughbred will likely have more stamina than a cob; how fit he already is – if he’s had the winter off, it’s going to take much longer to build up his fitness from scratch; any injuries – consider anything that might influence the fitmness programme and try not to put too much pressure on that area by taking it slow. Finally, before you start, make sure your horse has had a general health once-over – vacs, worming, teeth etc so you know you are starting from a good place with him.
Remember, 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. Also, be aware that different tissues in the body vary in their rate of adaptation to exercise. The cardiovascular and muscular systems respond rapidly, with significant changes being produced in only a few weeks. But, supporting structures (bone, ligaments, tendons), adapt much more slowly over a period of many months. There are no short cuts as sudden increases in work can result in pulled or torn muscles, resulting in enforced time off work.
With this in mind, it is recommended that you break down your horse’s fitness programme into 3 stages:
Stage 1 – slow work to harden up bones and tendons
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 3 stages your horse will be fit to compete regularly in a variety of disciplines.
If you have been hacking your horse over the winter and intend to do local shows and lower-level affiliated competitions over the summer – this fitness programme should do the trick!
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 including some trot work on suitable ground (not tarmac)
Week 5 – Start introducing some gentle schooling in the menage (20-30mins max). You can now hack for 2hrs daily including some trotting up hills (not on roads) to get their hearts working
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 – this will help with cardio but won’t put undue stress on their limbs. 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.
Remember, your horse is an individual and will respond differently to the work . Keep a track of his progress and be prepared to flex the fitness training in response to his progress as you go along. Don’t forget, it’s important to let your horse at least one day off per week, with time turned out in the field to stretch and relax!