Although it may not feel like it at the moment, spring is approaching. This means your horses will soon be asked to give up their leisurely winter lifestyle and get back into work mode.
Before you put your trail or lesson horses back to work, it’s important to spend some time getting them back into optimum condition. Doing so will help your horses’ attitudes as well as their physical health.
The horse’s body, just like our own, has muscle memory and can easily return to a job after just a few months off with the right conditioning. When getting horses back into a work routine, it’s a good idea to build them up slowly.
“To allow your horse’s work to be as safe as possible, you’ll want to commit to a conditioning program,” says Nancy Loving, DVM, an equine veterinarian based in Boulder, Colo., and author of Go the Distance, published by Trafalgar Square. “The goal of conditioning your horses is to develop their structural and metabolic foundations to withstand the stresses of exercise with minimal injury. Horses that are brought along too quickly are destined to fail structurally.”
Dr. Loving points out that horses that are confined to a paddock or stall don’t have the advantage of keeping their musculoskeletal system tuned and toned.
“Therefore, more attention to detail is necessary to enable them to work without incurring injury,” she says. “Horses turned out daily on pasture have opportunities to run, buck and play, and this keeps their joints and muscular tissues tuned for bouts of exercise.”
Since a horse’s physical health affects his attitude, horses in better condition will also be more willing and amenable to the job they are being asked to perform. This ultimately translates to happier clients.
Before you pull your horses out of pasture to get them started on the road to working, think about how you’ll get them back into shape. According to Dr. Loving, the basis of a conditioning program for any age horse and for any athletic discipline is long, slow distance work.
“The objective during this phase of conditioning is to slowly stress the cardiovascular and structural tissues while building the horse’s capacity to tolerate aerobic exercise,” she says. “This is accomplished by exercising the horse at relatively slow speeds of walk and trot (or slow canter) for the initial months of the training program.”
Dr. Loving suggests using a heart rate monitor to maintain the horse’s work output within an aerobic heart rate of less than 150 beats per minute, and preferably between 120 to 140 bpm. (Heart rate monitors are electronic devices placed on the horse’s chest that measure the number of beats per minute.)
“Steadily build up the horse’s exercise program to work about an hour at least every other day. Then, add in some additional stress to his system by either increasing the duration of each work-out or the speed, but never both at the same time.”
A safe approach asks the horse for incremental increases in length or difficulty, adjusting these increases every five days, according to Dr. Loving. This gives the horse’s body time to accommodate each new intensity level before moving to the next level of effort. Continue to monitor the legs carefully for signs of stress. The horse’s appetite and attitude should remain normal, and he should cooperate enthusiastically when asked for more effort.