Is Your Horse Fit Enough?

I entered by the old wood doors around back.  I had been to this barn many times and the familiar smell of hay and horses permeated the air.  Today I was called in for a routine checkup on a client’s dressage mare that was just coming back into work.

We had a long, tough winter.  Bitter cold.  Too much snow.  No one wanted to go outside into the bitter wind, not even the horses.  Some riders bundled up and braved the wrath of ole man winter but most of my adult amateur clients curled up on the couch instead.  Who can blame them?  It’s hard enough balancing work, family and riding but then add the weather difficulties too.  In fact there were many days I would have stayed inside… if I had the choice.

“She lost some fitness this winter” the client warns as she pulls off the blanket.  “But I wanted to make sure she felt okay now that we’ve started riding again.”

“Yeah, you can really see it in her top-line and hind-end muscles” I reply.  “What’s your plan for bringing her back into full work?” I ask.

“Not sure” the owners says.  “What do you recommend?”

I get asked this question often.  Sometimes because a horse has off a month or two due to unforeseen circumstances and sometimes because an injury has the horse laid up for longer.  Whether is rehabilitation or just getting fit, there are some guidelines to follow and some concepts to be aware of.

“Let me compile some information and email it to you”, I say.  “That way you have if for future reference”, I add.

I started thinking, I bet others are in this same predicament right now.  This would be a good time to share what I researched.  Basically, if you understand how the body reacts to exercise demands, you can develop a training program for your specific horse and discipline.  Of course, with injuries, always consult your vet for the best rehabilitation schedule.


Here’s what I sent her…


 The best scenario is to review the information below and then come up with your individual horse’s schedule based on discipline, age, health and future goals.  However, Dr. Lori Warren says, “as a rule of thumb, each additional month off beyond the first month of layup requires a month’s reconditioning”.  After prolonged layup, it’s important to work on general fitness first, paying attention to building muscle and cardiac fitness. Strength work and work in a particular discipline come later. Once work in a particular discipline is part of the horse’s routine, make sure only about 50% or 3 out of 6 rides in actually in the discipline. The other workouts can be in general fitness or cross training.

When first starting a horse, the most important aspect of fitness is the 2-12 months spent on long, slow, distance training.  The rule is to progress slowly and give alternating days of rest.  This is true for the horse who has had the winter off and the horse who is coming back from an injury.  The goal is to prepare the horse for 45-60 minutes of easy exercise at walk, trot, canter.  Once this stage is reached, then you can increase the objective according to the discipline.

The Big Question

When bringing a horse back after some winter time off, the question is how much fitness is lost and how fast will it build back up?

Fairly quickly the body adapts to the training and fitness increases.  After 10 days the horse will plateau in his fitness unless challenged more.  Dr. David Marlin suggest that a change of intensity in the training occur around every 2-3 weeks.  They key is to balance fitness versus risk of injury.  If you increase the intensity too quickly, you risk injury. On the other hand if you increase too slowly, you risk wear and tear type injuries.  However, the worst type of training for preventing injury is intensive three days a week back to back and then 3 days off.  No weekend warriors here.  Not if you want your horse to be sound.  Dr. Lori Warren also warns that large oscillations in fitness are detrimental to long term soundness.  “In older horses, it is particularly important to maintain fitness in the off-season because reconditioning takes longer as the horse ages.”  So as hard as it may be, you have to come out after work, rain or shine and keep the horse fit during the week and during the winter.


Not all horses respond the same to training.  Older horses lose fitness more quickly and gain it back much more slowly.  Past injuries and health issues will also slow the process.  Of course, genetics and confirmation play a role too.  If the horse finds the work easy, it may be too easy and actually delay fitness.  Of course, you will have less risk of injury if they find the work too easy. On the other hand, if the work is very hard for the horse, proceed at a slower pace and keep the duration short.

Other variables that influence your fitness schedule include intensity (how hard the work is), duration (how long) and frequency (how often).  High intensity for a long time on a frequent basis is a recipe for disaster.  Good practice is to change one variable at a time but not the others.  Increase the frequency every 2-3 weeks but not the duration or intensity.  Or increase the intensity but not the frequency or duration.

The body doesn’t gain fitness linearly. Some tissues and systems gain fitness more quickly and other take months to gain strength.  Let’s talk about these systems.

Types of Fitness

One way to measure a horse’s cardiac fitness is with a heart rate monitor.  With increased fitness, you will notice that not only is the heart rate slower during exercise but also recovers more quickly when you stop exercising.  To record this, your horse has to be wearing a heart rate monitor during exercise.  Other factors that will influence your horse’s heart rate include pain, heat, dehydration, excitement and heart problems. A change in your horse’s cardiac fitness will happen in as little as 1-2 weeks of starting training.

VO2 is the oxygen consumption by the muscles during exercise.  An important part of the cardiovascular system is to deliver oxygen to the working muscles.  Vo2max is a measure of the cardiac, respiratory and muscular systems’ ability to work at capacity.  The most substantial increase in VO2max happens in the first couple weeks of training. In addition, in the first couple months the body increases the red blood cells, hemoglobin and plasma volume to better carry oxygen to the muscles.  After about 4-6 months of training, the number of mitochondria which make ATP (energy the muscle cell can use from glucose) increases.

Fit horses sweat more easily and are better at dissipating heat before it overloads this system.  Thermoregulation is another system that reacts fairly quickly to increases in training. However, a minimum of 2 weeks is needed for the horse to acclimatize if moved to a climate with higher heat and humidity.



Time Course

Increase in VO2MAX

1 – 2 weeks

Increase in plasma volume

1 – 2 weeks

Improved sweating response

1 – 2 weeks

Increase in red blood cells & haemoglobin

2 – 4 months

Increase in muscle capillaries

3 – 6 months

Increase in muscle mitochondria

4 – 6 months

Increase in muscle aerobic enzymes

4 – 6 months

Increase in bone density*

4 – 6 months

Strengthening of tendons and ligaments*

4 – 6 months

*Available research on training adaptations of supporting structures is limited.


However, the most important take home message from this chart is that it takes 4-6 months for the bones, tendons and ligaments to strengthen.  The slow adaptation limits the entire fitness program and time must be given for these important supporting structures to adapt.  Even consider the ligaments of the back and neck, not just the legs.  It is these supporting structures that adapt more slowly and are susceptible to overloading injuries. 

Remember when rehabilitating an injured tendon or ligament to consult your veterinarian for the proper training schedule to ensure complete recovery.

So, for those you gave your horse the winter totally off because of the bad weather, you can’t expect them to come back into full work, collection and carrying capacity in 1-2 months.  It’s more like 6 months.  It’s an important reminder when we look outside at the dreary weather and decide to stay inside.  We may be okay giving our horse time off but we must realize that our plans for showing early in the season or moving up a level will have to be delayed.

What are we training for?

When getting your horse fit, it’s important to remember what you are training them for. Will they need power or stamina? Speed or distance? What happens when you change disciplines? Is the horse fit for galloping but you want to teach it collection? Giving the horse’s body time to adjust to the demands of a new discipline are equally as important as getting them fit in the first place. In addition, you may have the horse fit for what you can do but is the horse fit enough to go to the trainers where the demands will be higher? These are all important questions to ask oneself if you want your horse to stay sound both now and in the future.

Sprinters need large, powerful muscles with few capillaries and mitochondria that carry them quickly for a short distance and work primarily anaerobically.  In contrast, an endurance horse has thin muscles, packed with mitochondria and capillaries and work primarily aerobically.  Although much of this is determined genetically, you can train a horse to be good at one or the other but not both.

Dressage Horses

According to Dr. David Marlin, dressage horses in competition work at heart rates around 120-150 beats per minute.  To improve their aerobic capacity, they should be trained at around 150-180 bpm for around 10 minutes several times per week.  This kind of training can only be accomplished by fitting your horse with a heart monitor but usually a fit horse has to be at a hand gallop to reach a heart rate of 150-180 bpm.

While cardiac fitness is important in dressage horses, so is strength. After general fitness is achieved and you start working on discipline specific movements then muscle strength is important. When building muscle for specific movements, it’s best to begin with performing the movement for 20-30 seconds with rest in between.

While we know that dressage is primarily a aerobic exercise, it’s realistic to think that during intense strength training (ie piaffe) anaerobic (without oxygen) pathways are being used when the muscles are engaged and working hard.  Working anaerobically should only be asked from the horse once it has a fair amount of fitness. Otherwise, you will only be breaking the horse down.  Think of a race horse.  First they must be able to gallop a moderate distance before you can ask them to run all out a short distance.  This takes us back to the concept of intensity, duration and frequency.  In dressage, in intense exercises which require large powerful muscles to carry the horse (ie piaffe, passage, pirouettes), it’s best to first be able to increase intensity. The horse must slowly learn to increase the carrying capacity of it’s hind legs. As the hind legs gain the power, you can increase the duration. Only then can you ask for a few ½ steps or a few steps of ultra collected canter. Then over the course of months, you can only increase the intensity of that movement OR the duration (ie more piaffe) OR the frequency. It is still important to remember that it takes 4-6 months for the tendons and ligaments to respond to the increase in workload and also that working in a particular discipline should only take up about 50% of your training time.


Remember our goal should always be to increase skill, performance and resistance to injury. Training too hard too quickly sets the horse up for lameness. On the other hand, if you never challenge the horse by increasing either duration, intensity or frequency, your horse will never be fit enough to handle the demands of the sport.


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