As spring approaches, visions of green grass, budding trees, and active wildlife might seem just around the corner for some. But for many of us, spring is but a dream, for we must endure a few more weeks of cold, snow, and ice-covered terrain. Still, regardless of geographic location, we all look forward to the stirrings of spring and a new season of pleasure riding or competing. However, the winter layoff might have taken a toll on your horse's fitness, and he could probably benefit from a little spring tune-up to ensure readiness for the rigors of regular trail riding or competition.

Some forethought and planning are needed to make sure your horse reaches the desired level of fitness (conditioning) within an appropriate time and, perhaps more importantly, to ensure that he stays healthy and sound. One of the biggest pitfalls in conditioning programs is asking too much, too soon; the end result is an injury that not only derails the training program, but also jeopardizes riding and competing for the entire season.

Spring Check-Up

Just as a rag-top car that has been sitting idle in the garage all winter needs a maintenance checkup before hitting the road, a critical first step in your horse's spring conditioning program should be a general health check. If good attention has been paid to hoof maintenance (trimming and shoeing), vaccinations, parasite control, and nutrition, the horse is probably ready and willing to "get in gear." If not, you need to get your horse back on a regular health maintenance program.

Perhaps it's time for a visit by your veterinarian. He or she can perform a complete physical examination, paying close attention to the horse's legs to make sure there are no swollen joints or lumps and bumps on tendons or ligaments. The horse's gait can also be evaluated--any subtle lameness problems should be identified and treated now, or those injuries could worsen during conditioning. A visit from your veterinarian is also a perfect opportunity to administer booster vaccines and discuss any other health concerns (i.e., the necessity of the West Nile vaccination in your area and mosquito eradication).

If there has been no hoof work done over the winter months, the next order of business is to schedule an appointment with your farrier. You know the old adages "no foot, no horse" and "90% of all lameness problems arise from foot problems." So, it goes without saying that healthy feet are critical prerequisites for any conditioning program. Hopefully, the "wheels" are in good shape and a quick trim and, in most situations, application of some new shoes are all that is needed to get the horse's hooves ready for the road.

Menu Planning

Your horse's diet is another area that needs some forethought and planning as you make the transition to a new season of activity. First evaluate his body condition score. A condition score of 4 to 5 is ideal for horses engaged in most forms of athletic activity. At that condition level, the horse's ribs are not visible, but you should be able to feel them easily. Is he somewhat overweight--a condition score of 7 or more? Or perhaps he is underweight--a condition score of less than 3 or 4. For more on body condition scoring, see the Maintaining/Changing Body Condition section.

This evaluation is important because it will dictate the level of work that should be targeted during the first few weeks of the conditioning program and the amount of feed offered to the horse. A horse which has been kept outdoors and fed only hay during the winter months can lose weight and condition. This horse will need some extra calories to boost his weight--bear in mind that an increase in activity will further increase his calorie needs. On the other hand, an increase in activity will help an overweight horse shed a few of those extra pounds (so long as you don't also increase his calorie intake). For more on this, see "Matching Diet to Activity Level" in the December 2001 issue of The Horse, article #3185 at www.TheHorse.com.

For horses which have been largely idle during the winter months, the first few weeks of spring conditioning should be fairly light. Therefore little, if any, change in feeding is needed during this period. However, with a gradual increase in the amount of daily or weekly conditioning work, feeding rates will need to be adjusted upward. These additional calories probably will be supplied by a grain concentrate feed. Some caution is needed to avoid colic problems when adjusting feeding rates or introducing a new feed.

Although long suspected, recent studies have proven that a change in grain or hay feeding (even a new batch of the same type of hay) can increase a horse's risk of colic. Therefore, gradual is the operative word in making changes in feeding. If at all possible, blend the new hay with some of the old batch, aiming to complete the switch over a 10-14 day period. Likewise, the introduction of grain concentrate feeds (or an increase in amount) needs to be done slowly.

The amount of hay and grain needed depends on the individual horse, and you might have a feel for this based on previous experience. Plan on monitoring body condition frequently (e.g., every two weeks) during conditioning, and use this information to guide changes in feeding rates. As the season progresses, feeding rates will stabilize simultaneously with a plateau in the amount of weekly conditioning, competing, and/or trail riding.

Guiding Principles

Keep in mind a few important principles of conditioning. The first is the progressive loading principle. For a physical training response to occur, the horse must be subjected to an exercise load. Exercising at a level higher than that normally performed will induce a number of specific adaptations that, in combination, enable the horse to function more efficiently during exercise. A given amount of exercise (e.g., 15 min. of trotting per day) will result in a certain level of fitness. However, without a further increase in training load (an increase in training duration, intensity, or both), there will be no further increase in fitness.

Therefore, training for a higher level of activity requires a progressive loading. Each new level of training is maintained until the body has adapted to the added stress, after which a further increase in training load can be applied. On the other hand, excessive overload or a rapid increase in the load over a short period of time will inevitably result in failure of one or more body systems. The worst-case scenario involves excessive overloading of the supporting structures of the limbs (bone, cartilage, ligament, and tendon). Overloading of these structures will manifest as injuries such as bone fractures and ligament or tendon strains.

Another principle is that of specificity. For any equine discipline, performance is most effectively improved by training the specific muscles and systems involved in that discipline. In other words, training must be focused on the specific demands of the exercise. The exception is the horse used mostly for trail riding. A solid base of cardiovascular fitness and musculoskeletal strength provided by regular conditioning sessions at the walk, trot, and canter will adequately prepare a horse for that task.

Also, recognize that the beneficial effects of exercise training are reversible. If the conditioning program is interrupted by injury or illness, there might be some loss of fitness. A few days away from training won't make a difference, but a three- or four-week lay-up due to a lameness problem or illness--particularly when it occurs early in the program--can undo the effects of previous conditioning, forcing you to start over.

Two Phases

Top-level equine athletes are often in training year-round, and therefore maintain a high degree of fitness. Similarly, horses in the winterless South might be maintained in a year-round program of training and competition. These horses might require only a slight step-up in conditioning to be ready for the new season. For others, especially horses in the northern and western United States, the winter means a lot of paddock turnout and/or time in a stall. Inevitably, this decrease in activity level will result in a loss of fitness. And, there will be some inexperienced horses with little or no previous formal training. For both groups, a progressive increase in activity level is needed to build a solid fitness base. From there, the conditioning program can be fine-tuned to prepare the horse for his specific event.

You should divide your horse's conditioning program into two phases: The base or foundation phase and the specific preparation phase. The foundation phase builds a strong base of cardiovascular fitness. As well, there is a strengthening of bones, tendons, and ligaments, all of which help the horse to withstand the rigors associated with higher-intensity conditioning. The specific preparation phase involves schooling in the various tasks required in his designated event or discipline.

The golden rule is to start slowly and gently, with a gradual increase in the speed (intensity) and duration (distance) of exercise. Improvements in cardiovascular fitness can occur quite quickly. Research studies have shown substantial increases in maximum aerobic capacity (VO2max) after as little as seven to 10 days of daily conditioning. There will be further smaller increases in aerobic capacity as training progresses. This conditioning-induced increase in VO2max is important because, at any given running speed or work intensity, the horse's relative effort is lower when compared to the untrained state. In other words, a given exercise task will seem much easier to the horse.

This improvement in cardiovascular fitness will also improve endurance capacity--the horse will be able to exercise longer before fatiguing. Simultaneous changes in muscle metabolism mean that the use of energy stores also becomes more efficient after conditioning. During low- and moderate-intensity work (trotting and cantering), there is greater use of fat and less reliance on the less plentiful stores of carbohydrates (liver and muscle glycogen).

Unfortunately, beneficial adaptations in bone, tendon, and other supporting structures occur at a much slower rate. Practically speaking, the speed of adaptation of these supporting structures can be regarded as the rate-limiting step during conditioning. Recent research has shown that the tendons of mature horses have a limited ability to respond to training, and over time, repeated trauma to the tendon likely predisposes the horse to further injury.

This is a key point because injuries to the tendons of the lower limbs are very common, and an important reason for lay-up and even retirement from athletic competition. To avoid over-stressing these structures, all changes in activity level should be gradual, and you must closely monitor the lower limbs for signs of pain, heat, and swelling.

A Solid Foundation

Just where you begin your conditioning program will depend on the horse's training history, the length of lay-up over the winter months, and your goals for the season. For a completely naïve horse, or one which has had four or five months of rest, initial sessions should be light with plenty of recovery time between conditioning bouts. Three 10-15 minute sessions per week on the longe line or under saddle might be an appropriate place to begin. The length of these workouts can be increased over the next month.

As a general rule, do not increase the volume of training by more than 5% per week. You can do this by adding another weekly session or by increasing the intensity of the workouts--quicken the pace or use some gentle hills to increase the effort required. Even during this foundation phase of conditioning, some hill work is a great way to build strength and endurance. If possible, find a gentle hill and do one- to three-hill "repeats" at the walk or trot. Of course, a nice rolling course is an even better way to accomplish this task.

The first six to eight weeks of conditioning, for most horses, will provide a reasonably solid foundation of cardiovascular fitness. Continue to slowly increase the horse's training load. For example, you might choose to increase the intensity of hill workouts, including some canter runs or increasing the number of repetitions. For the competition horse, some event-specific schooling can begin during this second month. Also abide by the "hard-easy" principle--a hard workout should always be followed by an easy one, either a light exercise session or complete rest, to ensure adequate recovery.

Whether the ultimate goal of the conditioning program is trail riding or competition exercise, the horse will be required to work on a variety of underfoot conditions. Ideally, the horse should receive some conditioning on a variety of surfaces. This will help with the overall strengthening of the supporting tissues. Of course, common sense must prevail here; asking a poorly conditioned horse to work in deep sand would be asking for trouble.

Also be cautious as the weather starts to warm up. It is generally believed that unconditioned horses are less tolerant to exercise in hot weather. Heat tolerance will improve with increased fitness and the opportunity to acclimate to the warmer conditions as spring moves into summer. In the meantime, it is wise to limit exercise on very hot days. Either shorten the duration of work or reduce the intensity of exercise.

In hot weather, actively cool the horse after exercise by applying cold water over his neck and body. Also, allow him to drink after exercise to replace sweat fluid losses. For more information on cooling out a horse, see the Warmup/Cool Down category in the Sports Medicine section at www.TheHorse.com.

Monitoring Condition

A primary goal of any conditioning program is the avoidance of injury. It is therefore imperative that you closely monitor your horse during conditioning, looking for any telltale signs that you are overdoing it. Become very familiar with the appearance and feel of the horse's legs--note how his skin temperature changes with exercise and alterations in weather conditions. Each day, preferably before a workout, examine his limbs for abnormalities. Pay close attention to the tendons and ligaments for any focal heat, swelling, or pain response.

Detecting problems early can prevent a full-blown lameness problem that could derail the conditioning program. If in doubt, seek the advice of your veterinarian.

About the Author

Ray Geor, BVSc, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM

Ray Geor, BVSc, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, is professor and chairperson of Large Animal Clinical Sciences at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Michigan State University

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