Here are some tips for conditioning your horses! As I am emerging from my third post partum time and starting to ride my horse again, I realized she needs just as much conditioning as I do, and found these great notes from a seminar I went to several years ago by Jec Ballou at the Midwest Horse Fair about “Conditioning During Down Time.” I though it would be helpful to share with you for your program horses, since they need to be well conditioned to carry all types of riders, and might be coming off a break post-covid or post-winter, and a good review for me to type them out. If this is interesting to you, check out Jec’s blog training articles for more info and exercises. (Note: I’m not paid to recommend her, I just loved all her seminars!) Hope this helps!
Some interesting facts about down time for horses:
- If a horse is worked less than 4 times a week, they are considered inactive and don’t usually make gains from their work.
- Horses start to lose their fitness about 2 weeks after down time starts.
- By 12 weeks into a break the horse is “a complete couch potato”.
- Down time is good for re-educating the horse because he’s not using thee same bad habits every day.
- Use down time to incorporate therapies and light exercise that over the long run can change body memory and bad postural habits.
Some tips about conditioning:
- Brief frequent sessions are better than marathons twice a week, which will just make the horse sore.
- Be consistent, a few times a week is better than never! Just because it’s not a full on training program doesn’t mean nothing’s getting done. Especially with older horses, keeping their work consistent is important.
- Don’t just focus on cardio, which improves in horses very quickly. Do focus on muscle tone, soft tissue, bone density, postural habits, etc. which takes months to improve! The more fit you get these underlying structures, the more the horse will recruit them for movement in pasture.
- Make a plan, don’t just wing it – such as using her Equine Fitness book or 55 Corrective Exercises (I have found the first one really helpful and have yet to read the second).
- Rethink ways to bring movement to your horse’s day.
- Movement does not just happen in the arena (nor behavior training, for that matter). It’s to and from pasture. It’s while grooming. It’s the way the work surface affects the horse. It’s how the pasture is set up.
Work on Different Surfaces
- Work them on a variety of surfaces – sand, grass, dirt, etc. – especially if they are used to doing repetitive movements on soft arena dirt (like dressage or therapeutic riding lessons). It awakens their nervous system and causes little adaptations.
- Work the same exercise over different surfaces.
- (side note – after thinking about this I stopped letting my horse walk on the cushy grass on the way to the arena and asked her to walk on the gravel instead, just to give her body a different input)
- Simple stretches can easily be incorporate while leading them to and from pasture (for example, to get them in 3 times a day, 5 days a week).
- Do these 5 exercises daily: poll stretch, shoulder circles, back up 30-60 steps (uphill if you can), walking over ground poles, and pelvic tucks. (All explained in her book Equine Fitness.)
- Add walking or another movement between each stretch, or incorporate into lunging.
- Other stretches should be done after warm ups, as a part of normal exercise.
- Belly lifts
- Working obliquely over raised poles – raising their legs and stepping forward and sideways!
- Walking slowly over raised poles – they will naturally get better at this as they get more careful and practices
- Ground pole fan – see her blog post about it
- Ground pole box – can raise the corners. Ex) sidepass around it, circle the corners, step in and back out, etc.
- Raised poles
- Random poles – spread out around the arena, not in order like cavalettis
- Turn on forehand
- Do everything slowly for more effectiveness, especially for horses with stifle issues
- Once the horse becomes habituated to the exercise, adjust it to keep on getting the benefits – see her article here
Now, these are just notes and not full explanations. If you don’t know these exercises, get her book or find a similar resource. But I hope these ideas are inspiring for you!
I will end with a personal anecdote for added inspiration:
I will admit, having done stretches and exercises with my horse before, it can be a little boring and repetitive since it takes a long time to see the benefits because they are long-term benefits, not immediate. It’s hard to do them when you have limited time with your horse and might rather just ride. However, I have a renewed inspiration to incorporate these into my time with my horse due to my own recent experience. After my first two babies, my body was all out of strength and balance. I now see that was partly due to poor postural habits and exercise methods. After my second, I followed the Mutu Method to restore my core, which involves lots of little boring movements to reconnect to your core, but it helped a lot. While pregnant with my third, I did the One Strong Mama program which involves similar core connection movements but also a lot more mobility, and continued with my local gym trainer until the last few weeks. Interestingly, I was much more comfortable and baby was better positioned this time around (well, she was also smaller than the prior one), and my recovery (once I got over sleep deprivation) has been quicker and I’ve felt physically more connected and mobile as well. My point is, these programs are all about 15 minutes a day, with some 30 minute workouts that I am not consistent at doing at all. I am often interrupted in the middle and don’t finish them. BUT, even that small 10-15 minutes a day and postural changes had a huge impact on my body this time around. I’m actually surprised how much. In fact, I went back to my other recreation of choice besides horseback riding a few weeks ago – the flying trapeze – and was surprised I felt great. It makes me realize that instead of only going to the barn if I have a huge chunk of time, I should give my horse the same benefit of a little movement practice as often as I can, even if it’s only 10-15 minutes a day. I’ll end with this quote from another good article by Jec: “Studies show that 25 minutes of light exercise three times per week can help the horse make the adaptations listed above. In inclement weather this might include: hand-walking or stepping over poles on a longe line, two- to three-minute intervals of jogging interspersed with calisthenics like butt tucks and carrot stretches, a focused walk workout under saddle for 25 minutes. I have seen many students get creative to find their horse more movement. During limited daylight hours, a few of them have combined their own fitness needs with their horses, taking the horse with them on a brisk power walk in the hills before or after work. Why not go hiking with your horse? Others splurge during the winter and hire a trainer or friend to exercise their horse once or twice mid-week.” Maybe at your program, when you need a break from the office or work, you can take a horse out walking with you! I think any time you take a horse out of their stall to do something different than usual, it’s good for them mentally, keeps them guessing. But the mental aspect is a topic for another day. Have a great week!
Note: This is not professional advice, this is a blog. I am not liable for what you do with or how you use this information. The activities explained in this blog may not be fit for every rider, riding instructor, or riding center depending on their current condition and resources. Use your best personal judgement! If you would like to contribute an activity or article, please contact me here, I would love to hear from you!