Condition Your Horse Like a Pro

Endurance riders do months of long, slow distance work before focusing on strength and speed training.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

How to help endurance horses, venters, racehorses, or Western performance horses reach peak fitness

That competitive edge. It might look different for different disciplines, but this intangible has its roots in the same concept: conditioning. In short, conditioning develops the musculoskeletal, neurologic, and cardiovascular systems so they can perform athletic endeavors with the greatest efficiency and the least stress on the body.

In this article we’ll learn how riders from different disciplines condition their horses. While there is no magic recipe fit for all equestrian sports, the basic principles of conditioning remain the same across the board.

The Basics

To get fit for competition, your horse needs to be “legged up,” which entails preparing the musculoskeletal system to withstand a certain amount of impact, speed, and duration of work. Then you build upon this foundation in a stepwise fashion, first increasing distance at the walk and trot and then increasing intensity to include canter/lope and gallop and/or incline work. The initial exercise demand (completed at the walk, trot, slow canter) is generally known as long, slow distance (LSD) training, and it develops the cardiovascular system and aerobic energy pathways to fuel the muscles.  

Aerobic metabolism occurs when muscle cells use energy sources in the presence of oxygen. Higher intensity exercise, such as sprints, gallops, difficult hill climbs, or jumping efforts, requires rapid muscle metabolism that taps into other energy sources in the absence of oxygen. 

Use a heart rate monitor to assess your horse’s progress in real time; heart rates between 130 and 150 beats per minute (bpm) indicate a range that will improve fitness.

Building on this LSD foundation, many riders integrate strength-training exercises (such as hill work) and interval training (IT) speed work into their conditioning program to stimulate anaerobic efforts. Interval training involves sprints over a defined distance and/or time. To reach a training effect that taps into anaerobic fuel sources, the horse’s heart rate must exceed 165 bpm for at least two minutes. 

As a horse develops a more robust respiratory and cardiovascular system and stronger muscles, soft tissues, and bone, he’ll probably seem more confident and eager to perform his work. Efforts that once raised his heart rate dramatically and caused him to breathe hard and sweat a lot will come more easily. The stronger he becomes, the lower his risk for getting injured and the less soreness he’ll experience. 

Sport-specific training is essential to getting the best results in your particular competition arena. Let’s now look at how conditioning strategies differ between equine sports. 

For an in-depth look at endurance, event, race, and western performance horse conditioning programs, continue reading this article in the April 2017 issue of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care. Subscribe now and get an immediate download of this issue.

About the Author

Nancy S. Loving, DVM

Nancy S. Loving, DVM, owns Loving Equine Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, and has a special interest in managing the care of sport horses. Her book, All Horse Systems Go, is a comprehensive veterinary care and conditioning resource in full color that covers all facets of horse care. She has also authored the books Go the Distance as a resource for endurance horse owners, Conformation and Performance, and First Aid for Horse and Rider in addition to many veterinary articles for both horse owner and professional audiences.

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