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cross-country jump requiring fitness for horse and rider

If You Love Your Horse, Put Fitness First

March 5, 2021

Hi there, human! If you’re reading this, I bet you love horses.

You probably take great care of every horse you work with. You groom them carefully and pick their hooves before you ride. You feed them a balanced diet and make sure their tack fits correctly. You learn their itchy spots, and feed them carrots, and you would never, EVER intentionally do them harm.

Unfortunately, many equestrians cause their horses stress, discomfort or even pain without knowing it.

That’s why if you love your horse, one of your top priorities should be fitness for horse and rider.

To understand why fitness is so important to your horse, you’ll need to see things from his perspective. Imagine this scenario:

You’re woken up early by a personal trainer, who tells you that you must go to the gym. You’re not allowed to refuse — if you do, you’re threatened with harm.

The funny thing is, you can’t remember hiring this trainer.

You usually spend your free time napping, snacking or hanging out with your friends. But the trainer controls your food supply now, so you figure you’d better go along with her plan.

backpack full of horsey books
You are the backpack!

When you arrive at the gym, she straps a heavy backpack onto your shoulders.

It doesn’t fit quite right, and the books inside the backpack sometimes shift unpredictably to one side, but the trainer says you aren’t allowed to take it off, so you try to ignore it as you get to work.

The trainer works you hard. First, there’s a lot of cardio work, where you learn to run crookedly so the bouncing backpack won’t hurt.

When you’re good and tired, the trainer starts putting you through core exercises and criticizing your posture.

Eventually, the trainer tells you to hold a plank for two minutes, then get up and jump as high as you can. It only takes thirty seconds of the plank for your muscles to start shaking.

By the second minute, you feel like your whole body is on fire and you ask the trainer if you can quit. “No!” she exclaims. “Maybe you need to wear this special harness to improve your form.” She attaches a piece of equipment to the backpack that prevents you from sitting up until the two minutes is over.

Don’t forget to jump — if you don’t jump high enough, you’ll have to do it again!

Now imagine this happens every day. How do you feel about this trainer? What will you do when you see her coming?

You might be thinking this sounds like a torture session! Sadly, this is what horses experience when riders jump into work without conditioning first.

 As your horse’s rider, you are both the physical trainer and the backpack.

Any horse that is asked to work above a walk should be considered an equine athlete

But unlike human athletes, we don’t know what your goals are, and we definitely don’t care about winning blue ribbons.

We also don’t understand concepts like “No pain, no gain.” All we know is that we get sore and tired every time you come for a “fun” ride, which makes it a lot less fun for us!

Remember, your horse can’t verbally tell you how he feels. If you pay close attention, though, you may notice signs that he’s being overworked:

Some signs of inadequate fitness are even harder to spot, and are usually labeled as training or performance problems:

Unfit horse with pinned ears and swishing tail
Pinned ears and swishing tail here — are you listening?

How much time does it take to get a horse fit?

horse and costumed rider
The greatest gift you can give your horse is time

There’s no simple answer to this common question.

It depends on your goals, your horse’s current condition, the amount of time you can spend with him, and how carefully you design his exercise program.

In general, plan on weeks to months to give a horse a good base of fitness or to train for a lower-level event. It can take months to years of consistent work for you to see big changes, or to prepare a horse for upper-level work.

Lifelong horseman Denny Emerson says that a horse is like a vending machine. You only get what you pay for.

The more you want your horse to do for you, the more time you need to put into conditioning.

So you want to get your horse fit, but you don’t know how to begin? Here are some tips:

1. Learn as much as you can!

The more you know about your horse’s anatomy and physiology, the more you can improve his strength, symmetry and soundness.

Clinician Jec Ballou is an excellent resource for learning about equine fitness. She has published several books, including a new 10-week Conditioning Program, along with a blog, YouTube channel, and online courses.

fit and healthy-looking horse
In shape and looking great at age 28!

2. Create a support team

This includes your instructor along all the equine professionals that help you keep your horse healthy: vet, farrier, dentist, bodyworker, saddle fitter, etc.

Don’t forget the people who make it possible for you to see your horse. This might be family members who drive you to the barn, financially support your equine activities, or make their own dinner so you can ride.

3. Make space in your schedule

Conditioning a horse takes time, no two ways about it. But “little and often” works much better than marathon sessions. You can be clever about it and practice efficient off-horse exercises during the busy part of your week, and save longer rides for days when you have more time.

Most horses need to be worked a minimum of three days a week to support their activities, with five to six being preferable. Keeping an activity log can help you see where your time is currently going and help you prioritize.

If you want to enjoy your horse by riding and showing on the weekends, but can’t seem to make time during the week, consider finding another rider for him or offering a partial lease.

4. Create an action plan

Spend some time plotting out your long-term and short-term goals for your horse, and create an exercise schedule that builds him up gradually before each activity.

Use a calendar and put your program in writing. You may have to adjust your plans as you go along, but putting your intentions in writing makes it much more likely that you will turn them into action!

Last but not least, take a look at your own fitness. Are you helping your horse in his athletic efforts, or hindering him?

As a lesson horse, I’ve put up with my fair share of unfit, unbalanced riders, so stay tuned for my next blog post on becoming an equestrian athlete!

See more of my wondrous words of wisdom in the ARCHIVES

More fabulous posts on the way...

It's All About Me

Heaven's Fire avatar

Fun facts about me: I’m a mounted games ambassador, part-time Dragon, and accomplished artist. Half Arabian, half Quarter Horse, with a whole lot of heart. I’ve never met a cookie I didn’t like.

And most importantly, I’m a veteran school pony – which means I have plenty of horsey wisdom to share with YOU.

I’ve been the star lesson horse at HorseSense Riding Academy for over a decade, beloved by many, even those who’ve tried and failed to catch me. I’m the kind of girl that prefers a little gallop and sass, so it took me a while to realize that teaching horsemanship is a special job. The way I figure it, if I can help even one student learn to think like a horse and become a good partner, I’ve made the world a better place for horses… and the humans who love them.

You can check out the video of me training my Girl on the archives page.