Strategic Layoffs

Many equestrian sports are seasonal, with a competition season alternating with an off season. Even in sports that continue year-round, most trainers schedule a break from competition, which gives the horse a chance to recover mentally and physically from the stress of traveling and competing. Consequently, long-term conditioning plans are based on including this down time.

Benefits of Deconditioning

At the end of the competition season, the horse benefits from "active rest," which involves riding or driving for pleasure two or three times a week to preserve the strength and suppleness of musculoskeletal tissues, while allowing a slight reduction in cardiovascular fitness. If a baseline level of fitness is maintained with a reduced work schedule, reconditioning proceeds much more rapidly the following season. It is not recommended that horses be let down completely, except during recuperation from injury, because large oscillations in fitness are detrimental to long-term soundness. In older horses, it is very important to maintain fitness in the off season because reconditioning takes longer as the horse ages.

Definitions and Concepts

The conditioning process has three distinct but complementary areas--cardiovascular conditioning, strength training, and limbering exercises. Cardiovascular conditioning enhances the ability of the respiratory, cardiovascular, and muscular systems to produce energy by the appropriate metabolic pathways. Strength training increases the power or endurance of the muscle groups that are important for the specific sport. Limbering exercises increase the range of motion of the joints, which makes the horse more athletic, improves the aesthetics of his performance, and reduces the risk of injury.

What happens when your horse becomes less fit? When a horse ceases to perform conditioning exercises, he loses fitness. The rate at which cardiovascular fitness, musculoskeletal strength, and suppleness are lost determines the time required to recondition the horse following a layoff. This is an important consideration during rehabilitation. For example, when a horse is forced to rest completely due to injury, loss of cardiovascular fitness depends on the length of the layoff. After a month of stall rest, there is some loss of oxidative enzymes in the muscles, but this has little effect on performance. However, after six months of rest, horses have more difficulty completing a standard exercise test--they sweat more, indicating less effective thermoregulation; their breathing is more labored; and there is a marked increase in post-exercise blood lactate concentration due to reduced aerobic capacity.

How can you prevent loss of fitness? When a horse is let down after the competitive season, a baseline level of fitness should be maintained during the off season with cardiovascular workouts twice a week at a reduced intensity and duration. Layoff of a month or less causes minimal loss of cardiovascular fitness. However, work should be reintroduced gradually over several days when competition-level exercise resumes.

If the horse has been off work for over a month, it is reasonable to assume some loss of cardiovascular fitness, although this can be regained relatively rapidly. As a rule of thumb, after the first month, each additional month off requires a month's reconditioning. A more significant concern is the loss of musculoskeletal strength, which is regained more slowly. One workout each week usually is sufficient to preserve muscle strength. Other tissues (tendons and ligaments) probably adapt to changes in workload more slowly than muscle. These components of the musculoskeletal system lose strength more rapidly than they can rebuild it, which is a primary concern when laying horses off.

What other factors should you consider in deconditioning? As you enter active rest, consider the whole horse. Take about two weeks to come down from the current level of fitness by decreasing both exercise and diet gradually. Also, increase daily turnout time, removing blankets one at a time as the horse begins to grow a longer, thicker coat. Try to remove your horse's shoes for a couple of months each year to encourage a healthier foot to grow. Due to individual foot characteristics, this procedure might not benefit every horse.


You, your trainer, and your veterinarian know what is best for your horse and your equine competition goals. Work with these professionals to develop a strategic plan to bring your horse up from rest safely, as well as down from competition. This will increase your chances of having a healthier mount for a longer time.

About the Author

Hilary M. Clayton, BVMS, PhD

Hilary M. Clayton, BVMS, PhD, DACVSMR, MRCVS, is the Mary Anne McPhail Dressage Chair in Equine Sports Medicine at Michigan State University. Her research interests are in equine locomotion and biomechanics, conditioning sport horses and the interaction between rider and horse. She has published six books and hundreds of manuscripts and articles on these topics. Dr. Clayton has practical experience training and competing in many equestrian sports and currently shows her horses in dressage, in which she has earned USDF Bronze, Silver and Gold medals. She is a member of the USEF Dressage Committee.

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