Train Smarter to Build Fitness and Reach Performance Goals
Whether you are competing at the Olympic level or getting your horse in shape for a 20-mile trail ride, it is important to train for, and then maintain, a level of fitness that allows your horse to perform with minimal risk of injury. While some athletes train year-round, many people have their horses’ training regimens interrupted throughout the course of a year, due to weather, the end of the competitive season, or injuries.
Training regimens should be specific to each horse and based upon:
- the age of your horse
- your horse’s current level of activity
- the fitness goals you have set for your horse
- the specific discipline of your horse so the correct muscles and response to psychological demands are being developed (dressage vs 3-day eventing)
Like people, horses vary in individual response to training. What works for one horse will not necessarily work for another and not only will they reach fitness goals at different times but some will also lose their fitness much faster than others. Things like age, genetic factors (mental state/character) and normal activity levels all play into the way a horse will respond to training.
When building fitness, it is important to go slow and introduce your horse to increased workout intensity over time. This will allow the cardiovascular, muscular and skeletal systems to develop and adapt appropriately. Remember, a tired horse is more prone to missteps or over exertion, both of which can lead to injury. The skeletal system will be the slowest to adjust to new levels of fitness, so a slow ramp up will ensure bones and ligaments aren’t overtaxed or injured. Check your horse’s body and limbs daily for signs of inflammation and pain that could be a result of overtraining.
Depending upon the fitness goals you have set for your horse, a variety of methods can be employed. Proper conditioning helps prevent injuries that can stem from a horse being pushed too hard too quickly. Successful conditioning is the horse’s ability to adapt to training or the stress of exercise.
- Low Intensity Training: Walking, trotting, cantering, arena and trail work. Used to build stamina and attain better cardiovascular and muscular efficiency. Teaches horse to train at low or moderate intensity for longer. Low intensity training is also important when a horse is coming back from injury or has been a long time away from training.
- Progressive Loading or Step Training: Increased training with set periods for adjustment. Each training session will stress the body less until your horse has fully adapted. At that point, the workload is increased.
- Aerobic Conditioning: Build endurance through gradually increasing duration or intensity of training sessions
- Anaerobic Conditioning: Threshold training that builds stamina and speed with faster increases to the intensity level of the training sessions and/or an increase in the repetitions of high-intensity training
Horses that are used for pleasure riding or low intensity sports (lower level dressage, hunter competitions) can maintain their fitness level with low intensity workouts 2 times a week. For endurance sports (endurance racing, competitive trail riding, higher level dressage) the horse will need to move from low intensity training to an aerobic program that builds to a longer training duration. For power and speed sports (racing, roping, jumping) horses can train with shorter duration but require more intense sessions of speed. Success in a few disciplines demands horses to train in both power and endurance (eventing, combined driving, reining, cutting).
How often you train your horse depends upon your fitness goals. To increase cardiovascular fitness, it is important to train 2 or 3 times a week at a more intense level (depending upon discipline). Alternate intensity days to allow time for adaptation and recovery and to rebuild muscle tissue. To maintain cardiovascular fitness, training sessions 2 times a week is sufficient. Importantly, training less than 1 time a week can lead to a loss of overall fitness.
During the off season, maintain the fitness level of your horse with workouts 2 times a week. Low intensity training will make reconditioning easier than if your horse stops all form of exercise. Continued training is also important for injury prevention as large swings in overall fitness can harm the long-term physical health of your horse. Use Hylofit to monitor your horse’s heart rate during training and track increases and decreases in overall fitness.