Patience and Long, Slow Distance Important for Conditioning Competition Horses

Horses on vacation since October or November, when the owner stopped riding, can't be expected to perform the way they did in the fall. It's important to get their cardiovascular systems as well as their bones, muscles and tendons back in shape before pushing them to their maximums.

Vacations are great for relaxing and recharging, but in just a little more than three weeks at rest, a horse can start to get out of shape. "You have to realize that your horse is not in the shape that he was in when he went on vacation," said Steve Jones, M.S., associate professor and equine specialist for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. "There's not going to be much change in three weeks, but after that you'll start having a fairly rapid decline if they're not doing anything."

Jones would prefer to ride his horses just about every day, and because of the year-round clinics Jones handles through his job, he does ride more often than many horse owners. But with daylight savings time and winter weather, he finds that it's usually dark in the morning when he feeds them before work and then it's dark in the afternoon when he gets home to feed them again--and that makes it hard to hit the trail.

"You'll be surprised how life can interfere," he said. "I haven't been on a horse in about three weeks now and I'm having withdrawal. Mine have been on vacation--which every once in a while they need--but I do I ride year-round and I keep them in pretty good shape. Still, I'd hate to know that I had to ride one all day right now because I don't think they're in that kind of shape."

Horses on vacation since October or November, when the owner stopped riding, can't be expected to perform the way they did in the fall. It's important to get their cardiovascular systems as well as their bones, muscles and tendons back in shape before pushing them to their maximums.

"Just like people how bad out of shape depends on how good of a shape they were in when you quit," said Jones. "If they were in peak shape, it probably won't be that hard to get them back in condition after three months off."

Spring training should get underway about 30 days before a horse is expected to perform. Most people have goals they would like their horses to meet shortly after Arkansas's weather breaks in March.

"In the cowboy vernacular, we're running late right now,'" said Jones. "I'm guilty, too."

He recommends that owners start with low-speed long-distance walking, either in an arena or on a fairly flat riding trail, for about 20 minutes total--10 minutes each way. Then repeat that schedule with long-trotting and finally with loping, reducing the time to 10 minutes total, or five minutes each way. After about two weeks, said Jones, those times and or distances can be increased without risk of injury. This will increase cardiovascular conditioning as well.

There really are no shortcuts to training.

"If there is something like a cheat in there, one of the things you can do if you have lots of inclement weather, you can put them on a lunge line or lead rope and spend 10 minutes a day, five minutes in each direction, trotting on the lead line. That can help speed up the process," said Jones.

Some level of fitness can be preserved for horses that spend most of their vacations in stalls, he added. The more those horses are let out to run on their own or for 15 or 20 minutes of forced exercise on a lunge line the better.

"That really helps maintain some conditioning that might otherwise be lost. It also kept the muscles and tendons stretched so you can get back into training quicker," said Jones. "Physiologically, it's just not a good idea to keep a horse stalled up all the time. If you want to keep him up, give him some turn out time."

Following this aerobic activity, training can be stepped up again for specificity of exercise, meaning that training for particular maneuvers can begin.

"When we do that we may have a competitive edge," said Jones. "At the very least, we'll get maximum performance out of our horses."

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