Indoor Exercise In Winter

Training programs often are affected by cold, rainy weather or deep snow during the winter, but the primary concern when planning a wintertime workout is the footing that your horse will encounter. Although winter weather brings the environmental challenges of wind, cold rain, and cold temperatures, it is not these conditions that often prevent a scheduled workout, but the frozen or icy surface on which you must ride.

The use of a covered arena, a high-speed treadmill, or a horse exerciser offers an opportunity to control the exercise environment to some extent and to gain control over the footing, no matter what Mother Nature dishes out.

Treadmill exercise

Treadmill training offers an effective means of exercise and an efficient means of monitoring a training program.

The Covered Arena

Those who are fortunate enough to have a covered arena to protect them from winter weather still have concerns about footing. Sand can be quite dusty and needs to be raked and watered regularly. If wet spots are created from too much water, areas can be slick. Midway College, Midway, Ky., has two indoor arenas, one with shredded rubber footing and one with a new surface of lake sand. The instructors there have observed that the resilient nature of the shredded rubber makes a very good surface for older horses, especially those with navicular disease. It can get dusty, though, and should be watered regularly. However, riders should use caution right after the surface has been watered as it can be a bit slick. A new rubber and fiber mix is available that does not get as dusty.

The lake sand surface is easy to maintain and provides good cushioning. It is not as dusty as the sand/shavings/dirt combination often found in indoor arenas.

Bennie Sargent of High Point Equestrian Center in Georgetown, Ky., likes his sand and wood shavings surface. He says the wood chips help keep the dust down and hold water so the footing can be watered less often than a sand arena. He suggests putting down three inches of wood chips, then watering and rolling that surface. Next put two inches of sand on top of the wood chips before watering and rolling the surface again. The key to having a surface that is not dusty or slick and yet provides a cushion is to keep it consistently damp.

Sargent has had the experience of training in an insulated and an un-insulated arena and has the following advice. An arena with wall and roof insulation will maintain a more even indoor temperature and will not sweat. Condensation forms on the walls and ceiling of an un-insulated building as the sun comes up and the temperature within the building changes. As the morning progresses, large drops of water fall from the ceiling, making training difficult. Another advantage of an insulated building is reduced noise level within the building.

The personnel at Midway College caution that a horse needs time to get used to an indoor arena and to a new surface. A large arena can be intimidating to a green horse, and shadows can startle him until he has had time to get used to the indoor environment. Echoes or noise and commotion can frighten an inexperienced horse in an enclosed arena.

A large arena can be a scary place, but a small arena can pose a hazard to the joints and muscles. Some arenas are too small for the horse and rider to canter comfortably through the turns. Such an arena should not be considered a suitable place for winter training.

All horses need time to acclimate to the space of an arena and to the footing. A week or so of relaxed hacking usually is all that is needed to make the horse feel secure with the surroundings and to acclimate his joints and muscles to the surface. When a horse goes on the shredded rubber surface for the first time, he is apt to pick his feet up higher and feel unsure going around a turn. Give the horse time to get used to the springy surface before jumping or doing speed work.

Mental Stimulation

A long cold winter indoors can get anybody down, so one should plan the exercise program with mental stimulation in mind. At Midway College, the routine is broken up by working on the flat two days of the week, jumping two days, and having a day of show team practice, dressage practice, or gymnastics. The jumping days are varied by jumping parts of the course some days and the full course on other days. Gymnastics could involve the use of cavalletti, obstacle courses, or games.

Shredded rubber and fiber make up the surface of an indoor arena on a Thoroughbred farm in the Lexington area, where stallions are exercised daily throughout the year. The stallions are kept interested in their workout by varying the exercise routine with figure eights and changes in speed and direction. They are asked to stop and to back up in order to maintain communication between rider and horse.

The High-Speed Treadmill

The introduction of the high-speed treadmill provides an alternative training tool for equine exercise as well as a research aid. Before the introduction of the high-speed treadmill, swimming and lunging had been the only alternatives to exercising under tack indoors. Because swimming delivers only aerobic work, it is not an appropriate training modality for athletic endeavors requiring speed. Lunging places considerable torque on the limbs and has limited sports-specific benefits. Working under tack requires an indoor arena of suitable size.

The high-speed treadmill furnishes a consistent surface, which eliminates injury from uneven footing. The indoor space required for a treadmill is much less than that required for other forms of indoor exercise. High-speed treadmills cost around $55,000 to install. The high-speed treadmill can go from 0 to 50 miles per hour, so the horse can be exercised at any speed. A hydraulic lift provides an incline of up to 10 degrees to increase the exercise intensity.

Because the trainer can control the speed, distance, and work intensity, training can be consistent. High-speed treadmills provide the opportunity to monitor heart rate, hematocrits, respiratory rate, oxygen consumption, lactate production, and other physiological functions at any speed.1

The high-speed treadmill at Stratton Farm in Lexington, Ky., is used by veterinarians to monitor airway disturbances at various speeds by using an endoscope while the horse is galloping on the treadmill. A study published in 1996 showed that Thoroughbred horses can be trained effectively for racing using a high-speed treadmill as part of the conditioning program.2

In that study, 107 Thoroughbred horses were trained using a high-speed treadmill for at least 50% of their exercise program and at least 60 days prior to racing. The training parameters were not controlled in this study and there was variability in the training programs, including time per training session, speed of training, use of the incline on the treadmill, and percentage of use of the treadmill. Analysis of the data revealed that the treadmill-trained horses had a higher rate of success in racing than control horses, which were not treadmill trained. One of the treadmill-trained horses was twice awarded "Horse of the Year" honors.

Although the authors of this study stated that track exercise is still an important component of any race training program, treadmill training offers an effective means of exercise and an efficient means of monitoring the training program.

Using The High-Speed Treadmill

The goal for the first few sessions on the treadmill should be simply to accustom the horse to the machine. The horse is led through the machine, stopping in the area where he will exercise, allowed to look around, and led off the machine. When the horse is ready to be exercised on the treadmill, a handler should be used for several days rather than tying the horse. Once the horse is comfortable with the machine's starting and stopping at the walk, jogging can begin at one-half to one mile in six to seven minutes.

Treadmill workouts usually last around 15 minutes. A weight saddle is used at Stratton Farm as an equivalent to the rider's weight, so exercise conditions on the treadmill are as close to racetrack training as possible. Trainer Leonie Ommundson plans each treadmill session according to a specific goal, whether it is to increase the oxidative capacity of fast twitch muscle fibers through speed work or to provide progressive loading for bone and muscle strength. Repetition is broken up by intermingled hill climbing (raising the incline) and by short speed work. As Ommundson points out, by controlling the incline and the belt speed, the trainer can keep the horse's heart rate where it needs to be for aerobic or anaerobic conditioning.

Another advantage to the high-speed treadmill is that it provides an opportunity to observe hoof balance and how shoeing or trimming affects the gait. Using a video camera to record foot strike and flight, and watching the video in slow motion with your veterinarian and farrier, can help you find ways to make your horse move more efficiently.

Winter often is the time when a horse can have his training reduced and recuperate from the rigors of competition. A treadmill provides an opportunity to observe the horse in motion and assess the degree of lameness. Because the speed of exercise can be controlled completely, the horse can exercise within his tolerance level. De-conditioning from complete stall rest is avoided, as are the dangers of turnout on rain-slick or frozen ground.

The Horse Exerciser

The horse exerciser offers an advantage over earlier versions of this type of device, the hot walking machine. The older style of hot walker required the horse to be tied to an arm of the walker. If a horse pulled back or balked on one of these walkers, he could receive a neck injury. The machines were designed to go at one speed only, the walk, so they were not suitable for sport conditioning.

The new horse exerciser allows the horse to exercise untethered between moving gates, so he can move in a more natural manner, with his head free. A carousel rotates the six gates that provide individual compartments for six horses to exercise untethered. There is a distance of 34 feet between each gate, so the horse has plenty of room. When allowed to manage his own speed, a horse will go a little slower at times and a little faster at times. The exerciser allows for this natural regulation of energy expenditure, resulting in a more comfortable exercise session.

The Stratton Horse Exerciser can go from 0 to 20 meters per minute, allowing the horse to exercise at all speeds, including the walk, trot, jog, and gallop in both directions. The cost of the horse exerciser is $15,650. The horse moves between outer and inner fences that are set in concentric circles. The outside fence forms a 68-foot diameter circle and the inner fence forms a circle with a diameter of 60 feet. As the horse travels the circle, the footing banks against the outside fence. The faster he goes, the more the surface banks, so limb loading remains even. This is in contrast to lunging in an arena, where the surface is flat, the circle is small, and considerable torquing force is placed on the limbs. The centrifugal forces are more like those on a racetrack and help the racehorse adapt to that strain. The Exerciser offers an advantage over the high-speed treadmill in that it provides the opportunity to train around a curve, rather than continuously going in a straight line. This might help in the adaptation of the cannon bones to the compressive forces of running around the turn on a track-like surface in a way that is impossible to achieve on a treadmill.

Horse exercisers can be built with or without a roof, but the roof provides protection from bad weather. Whether the exerciser has a roof or not, the surface is a primary concern so that footing remains good and injuries from bad footing are avoided.

A variety of surfaces has been tried, and some have proven better than others. Ommundson has kept a database on the success or failure of the various surfaces that have been used. She has observed that sand will compact and become too hard. Sand also freezes and does not break up easily. Frozen footprints in sand create a choppy surface. Wood chips placed on top of sand do not create a satisfactory surface. Shredded rubber provides a resilient surface, but is unsatisfactory when placed over sand.

For a durable and safe surface that provides consistently good footing, Ommundson recommends using Geo Cloth to separate each layer of footing material. Geo Cloth is a non-porous, woven polypropylene erosion control fabric. It is non-biodegradable and is used in racetrack construction. After testing surfaces and observing the experience of others, she recommends the following procedure to establish a quality surface for exercise.

A clay base is put down and graded for drainage to a slope of one degree for every eight feet of distance. This gentle slope is necessary to prevent the base from getting soggy. A plastic Geo Cloth is spread over this and topped with six inches of number 57 crushed rock, compacted to form a French drain. Drain lines can be installed in this layer if necessary. A felt Geo Cloth is placed over this and topped with 12 inches of finished surface that is then rolled for smoothness. Suggested materials for the finished surface include Fibar or shredded tires. Fibar consists of hardwood chips cut with the grain to make them more durable.

Using The Horse Exerciser

Planning your use of the horse exerciser will follow the same guidelines that you would use for any new equipment or training technique. The first time your horse goes in the exerciser, the goal is to acclimate him to the equipment. Walk the horse until he is comfortable, usually 15 to 20 minutes. Ommundson says that 95% of the horses she has observed take to the exerciser with no problem during the first session. The technique is to put the horse in, release him, then turn on the exerciser at walking speed. On the first day of using the exerciser with your horse, do not walk him until he is tired.

The goal of the first few sessions is simply to give him an opportunity to be comfortable in the exerciser. Horsemanship is still needed to use this equipment to the benefit of the horse. Observation and attention to task are necessary just as these skills are in any other training program.

Once the horse has become accustomed to walking in the exerciser, plan a gradually increasing program that is based on the fitness goals for each individual horse. Is your goal to maintain the fitness level reached during the summer? Is it to rehabilitate from an injury during the competitive off-season? Is it to increase the horse's knowledge of new tasks and environments? Plan your training bouts to increase in duration and intensity gradually. Do not try to accomplish all your fitness goals at once.

Using What's At Hand

You don't have an indoor exercise facility, you say? You still should be concerned about the surface on which you train when weather leaves footing unsafe, choppy, or frozen. If a training path around your paddock is the route you follow, the minimum investment would be to improve the drainage by grading it to a one degree slope under a surface such as those mentioned above--one that will break up easily when the temperature is below freezing. Do not turn horses loose in the training paddock as they will dig holes in your surface and destroy it.

A safe surface is essential for any training program in the winter so the horse will not lose muscle and cardiovascular conditioning. Injuries to both horse and rider can occur on a slick surface. A surface that is frozen and will not break up promotes sore feet and injuries to joints.

Training for any equine sport requires rapid changes of direction, increases in speed, or negotiating jumps and concussion of the foot on the ground. A surface that provides adequate traction and cushion for your particular equine sport is the ideal surface.


Valberg, Stephanie. Aerobic Workouts. Backstretch. Sept/Oct. 1988:29-30.

Kobluk, Calvin, et al. A case control study of racing Thoroughbred conditioned on a high-speed treadmill. J Eq Vet Sci. 16:511-513. 1996.

About the Author

Mimi Porter

Mimi Porter lives in Lexington, Ky., where she has practiced equine therapy since 1982. Prior to that, she spent 10 years as an athletic trainer at the University of Kentucky. Porter authored The New Equine Sports Therapy, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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