An unfit horse is a tired horse, and a tired horse, sooner or later, becomes a lame one. This is why a structured, educated approach to building your horse’s fitness is crucial for his long-term success and comfort.
Over the winter months, many horses will have been exercised less and, as a result, will have lost fitness. Some may have been turned away for several weeks to unwind after a hectic competition season, while others will have only been ridden sporadically due to the limited daylight hours. Perhaps your horse has even had some time off due to an injury or illness. Either way, bringing an out-of-shape horse back to full fitness can be an overwhelming prospect if you haven’t done it before. However, with an understanding of the fundamentals and an outline of your end goals, the process is really quite simple.
Make a plan
Much as you wouldn’t expect to reach peak fitness after only a few aimless gym sessions, your horse won’t arrive at his first competition in optimal condition if you don’t implement a structured regime. Fitness isn’t black and white, so while you may feel you can increase his stamina simply by increasing his workload incrementally, you’ll do him a disservice by not taking into account how best his muscles, ligaments, tendons and respiratory system should be strengthened and improved during the process.
From field to fit
If your horse has been turned away, the basic timeline for rebuilding his fitness is as follows…
Weeks 1–2 These weeks are spent in walk, ideally on the roads to harden his legs.
Week 3 Incorporate trot, going slowly up hills on the roads and making use of long, straight paths, such as field perimeters or sandy tracks. Introduce some work in the arena.
Week 4 Begin popping over poles in the arena and small obstacles you come across when hacking out.
Weeks 5–6 Reintroduce canter, increasing the duration every four days in week 6.
Weeks 7–8 Continue hacking out and increase the intensity of school work. A naturally athletic horse with a lot of blood may reach lower-level competition fitness by the eighth week.
Weeks 9–10 Your horse should be ready to tackle his first competition of the season by week 10.
Top tip – If your horse spent his time off stabled, he’ll be less fit than a field-kept horse. Spend an extra week or two trotting before you do any schooling.
For more of Lucinda Green’s fitness plan tips, check out the Spring issue of Horse&Rider, on sale now!