Condition Your Horse Like a Pro

How to help endurance horses, eventers, 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.

The Endurance Horse

This athlete is conditioned to perform over long distances—usually 50 or 100 miles across tricky terrain—for extended periods. Horses participating in American Endurance Ride Conference events must complete 50-mile rides within 12 hours and 100-mile rides within 24 hours.

These horses undergo physiological changes at specific heart rates to develop condition. For this reason, endurance riders use onboard heart rate monitors to track their horses’ work output and evaluate how they’re handling exercise demands, allowing them to maximize their training effort.

It takes years to develop an endurance horse to peak fitness. Riders must follow a steady training program that includes at least two to three months of LSD, followed by strength and speed training.

A safe approach involves asking a horse for incremental increases in distance or difficulty every five days. This gives his body time to adjust to the new intensity before advancing to the next level of effort. Owners should monitor their horses for signs of stress during this process, including limb swelling or soreness, a lapse in appetite, or a change in attitude.

Strength training over six to 12 months should double a horse’s muscular strength. Hill work for horses is similar to weight-lifting, which has been shown to reduce the risk of musculoskeletal injuries  in people by more than 50%. Muscles push against greater resistance as a horse moves his mass (plus the rider’s weight and tack) up a hill. Other drills for developing muscular strength include dressage work, cavalettis, jumping gymnastics, or work in deep footing such as sand. Strength-training exercises two to three times a week develop muscle strength as well as cardiovascular ­condition.

After at least five or six months or a solid first season of LSD conditioning and strength training, many riders add IT to their repertoire. This teaches the body to deal with the byproducts of anaerobic metabolism. The horse must work at a high enough intensity to drive his heart rate over 165-180 bpm. You can accomplish this with flat gallops or trot and canter sets up hills. These stress periods only need to last two to three minutes for the tissues to gain some training effect in the anaerobic mode. Then bring the horse back to a working heart rate of less than 150-160 bpm for tissue recovery.

Heart rate recovery is an important measure of how well a horse is coping with exercise demands. You want a horse to recover to a heart rate of 60-64 bpm as quickly as possible when exercise stops. Fit horses ridden to their level of ability generally reach this level within two to three minutes, and at least within 10 minutes. Any time beyond that recovery period suggests that:

  • The horse is being asked to go too fast for his level of conditioning and/or the trail and weather conditions;  
  • The horse is developing metabolic issues; and/or
  • The horse is experiencing musculoskeletal pain. 

Another way you can determine whether an endurance horse is “fit to continue” is by measuring his cardiac recovery index (CRI). Record the heart rate (count the heartbeats for 15 seconds, then multiply by four) and then time the horse as he trots 250 feet. Exactly one minute after recording the heart rate, measure it again. The heart rate should return to the resting rate or below (as for example, 64/64 and 64/60) following that trot-out. If the rate is higher, evaluate the horse’s vital signs and metabolic parameters as a veterinarian would at a ride vet check: mucous membrane color, capillary refill time (how long it takes for the horse’s gums to refill with blood after you push on them—ideally, one to two seconds), skin turgor (elasticity when pulled, an indicator of hydration), jugular pulse, intestinal sounds, muscle tone, anal sphincter tone (the tightness of the muscle around the anus), and attitude and impulsion.

Throughout the conditioning and competition process, assess all these parameters, as well as soundness, so you can detect and deal with any subtle problems immediately. And, of course, work with your veterinarian to keep these athletes in peak condition, health, and soundness.

The Event Horse

The Event Horse

The event horse is unique in that it must possess the finesse to complete gymnastic moves in dressage tests, the endurance and skill to perform long-distance gallops over cross-country obstacles, and the dexterity to negotiate show jumps in an arena. These horses are multitalented and must integrate both aerobic and anaerobic energy pathways to fuel their muscles.

Erin K. Contino, MS, DVM, Dipl. ACVSMR, assistant professor of Equine Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation at Colorado State University’s (CSU) Equine Orthopaedic Research Center, in Fort Collins, has a passion for eventing. She says LSD is also the cornerstone of an event horse’s conditioning program.

“Usually this is incorporated into the first season and forms the base for stepping up into interval training techniques,” she says. “The resurgence of using off-track Thoroughbreds means that some of these horses come into the eventing world with a strong fitness base, but LSD work helps them to mentally relax.”

Other riders seek out Warmblood and Warmblood crosses. These horses benefit from building a base level of fitness using LSD work.

Eventers employ many of the same conditioning techniques as endurance riders, but they focus more on interval training to help these horses accelerate over jumps and gallop a timed cross-country course, which can be upward of 4 miles at the CCI four-star level (the highest level of competition in the sport). Once a horse develops a strong LSD foundation, then you can incorporate interval training a couple of times a week. For example, you might add two 5-­minute trot sessions on top of the LSD work. Then increase interval work speed, time, and/or distance gradually or decrease the amount of rest time between sets.

Contino suggests riders pick a start point and denote varying (250, 300, 350, 400, and 500) meter points along a conditioning track. This helps the rider calculate the horse’s speed and prepare for competition. Conditioning speed, which is generally 75% of competition speed, says Contino, averages 450-500 meters/minute (mpm, ~16-18 mph) for CCI four-star levels that compete at 570 mpm (~21 mph) on courses that take 11-12 minutes to complete. Novice horses compete on courses at 350-400 mpm (~13-15 mph) and condition at slightly slower speeds.

Upper-level horses would be galloped every four to five days, while lower-level horses would do interval work less ­frequently.

“If you are expecting a lower-level cross-country course to be ridden in five minutes, then for interval sets, the horse should be galloped twice the time of what you are expected to do in competition,” says Contino. So, in this example, the horse might gallop three sets of approximately three minutes during training. The first set is at a slow canter (300 mpm or 11 mph) while the other two sets ask for more speed, such as 350 mpm, or 13 mph.

Many eventers limit jumping exercises to once or twice a week, Contino says. She suggests doing gymnastics (important for developing technique, ability, and foot placement, as well as confidence for both horse and rider) one day and focusing the second jump day each week on riding a course, including teaching the horse about adjustability (ability to alter the number of strides between obstacles). 

“Even with flat work, it helps to incorporate ground rails and cavalettis to improve a horse’s coordination, rhythm, and agility,” she adds. 

Cross-country schooling might be hard to come by for some riders, but ideally they need to do it a couple of times a month. Contino emphasizes the importance of exposing a horse to ditches, banks, and water obstacles to build confidence and instill safety. Once he’s comfortable with these “questions,” you can school him over larger obstacles and at higher speeds, the latter of which also improve with conditioning.

Contino stresses the benefits of incorporating hill work into an event horse’s conditioning program. Strength training riding up inclines improves fitness without the speed or musculoskeletal impact of flat gallops. “Hill work also increases the drive and strength of the hindquarters, which improves jumping ability,” she says. Contino recommends using a zigzag pattern to minimize stress on joints and soft tissues when going down hills.

Contino says she monitors a horse’s condition by checking to see if heart rate decreases by 50% 10 minutes post-exercise. While on course, she picks a couple of spots between fences to soften the aids, and then clucks to see if her horse responds by picking up the pace. She also recommends measuring respiratory rate periodically during training, particularly with heavier horses and those with breathing conditions. An inversion (respiratory rate faster than heart rate) might mean there is too much demand on the horse’s ability for the day.

The Racehorse

The Racehorse

Racehorses run flat out at speed, with aerobic and anaerobic metabolism driving muscle power. The beginning of a racehorse’s conditioning process, says Jeff Blea, DVM, depends on the individual horse’s mindset and how well he handles the breaking process as a yearling.

Blea, who is a racetrack practitioner in Southern California, says that depending on racehorses’ level of preparedness, they might jog for the first several weeks of training. He adds that jogging allows the musculoskeletal system to mature and adapt and is particularly useful if soreness develops.

“Bone is a dynamic organ and responds to stresses such as exercise,” he says. “Therefore, close monitoring of soundness is critical. Once ready to advance, the horse begins to gallop over longer distances, which helps to remodel their maturing skeleton and build stamina in muscle groups and lungs.

“The horse steadily progresses to ¼-mile breezes with increases of 18 mile, determined by their fitness, soundness, and mental capabilities,” he continues. “Depending on a trainer’s style and the individual horse, the horse may breeze his first 18 mile in a bit more than an open gallop. This teaches acceleration for a short period when asked. As fitness develops, breezes are longer and faster, once every six to seven days. They often walk the day after a breeze, jog a day or two, gallop two or three days, and then breeze again. A racehorse is often breezed approximately 10 days from their previous race, depending on the individual and the agenda of the horse’s racing program.”

Riders ask racehorses to breeze at 75-80% speed to achieve or maintain respiratory and musculoskeletal fitness without overburdening these organ systems. Blea notes that running 18 mile in 12 seconds is a good general rule, depending on the trainer and his or her intentions for the horse.

Knowing when to ask for the next level of effort is part of the art of training. “Much is based on how easily the horse accomplishes the previous task and how winded he appears,” Blea says. “Is he eating and healthy in all other aspects of horse husbandry? Are there any soundness issues that need to be dealt with?”

Blea continues: “There are many chefs who can potentially create the same appetizing meal using different methods, and this applies to racehorse training. Each horse is an individual, not only mentally and physically but also based on pedigree, all of which need to be considered when beginning their training career. Some horses are more precocious so can begin at 2 years of age, while others are not yet ready. Some horses take several years to develop and be developed.”

Team Roping

The Western Performance Horse

Western events—cutting, reining, roping, barrel racing—demand speed and agility. Jerry Black, DVM, director of equine sciences at CSU, is a longtime equine veterinarian experienced with Western performance horses. He says trainers in these disciplines have developed an informal training and conditioning system. Most horses are started with ground work as 2-year-olds, first in a small round pen working on bending and flexion exercises. As the horse graduates to a larger round pen, he’ll also get ridden out on acreage at the walk, trot, and canter/lope. After a thorough warmup, you might work him slowly (e.g., at heart rates less than 150 bpm) to develop aerobic conditioning. As the horse gets fitter, you might notice musculoskeletal system development within 90 days, says Black.

Once a trainer has developed the horse’s fitness foundation, he or she uses interval-training techniques specific to the desired sport. In this next phase, the trainer steps up the effort, often using cattle, so the horse learns to move, stop, and turn with the cow. These skill exercises are never-ending, honed for the horse’s entire career. Black says trainers don’t ask for much hard work in the 2-year-old year; the objective at this stage is to build bone density, aerobic capacity, and musculoskeletal development. Anaerobic work (used most in disciplines that involve sprinting, such as barrel racing, roping, and cutting) only comes into play in the mid- to later 3-year-old year, and only following 1½ to two years of under saddle training. The horse’s musculoskeletal system must acclimate to the job, which takes time.

Black says it’s important to engage a veterinarian in the conditioning process. Knowledgeable trainers request radiographs during a prepurchase exam or within the first three months of training to establish a baseline on skeletal structures and to identify the presence (or absence) of developmental orthopedic disease. They also assess body condition regularly and might have their veterinarian monitor the horse’s progress during the first 1½- to 2-year training period using ultrasound. Black says wellness exams help trainers stay ahead of the curve; these include physical assessment and gait observation, palpation of the limbs, neck, and back, and flexion exams. If there is any hint of a problem, then the owner should pursue radiographs and/or ultrasound.

As a Western performance horse ages, he requires less monitoring because his musculoskeletal system matures to the level of work. Still, owners might order a full evaluation prior to competition and throughout the year, says Black.

Competition is a test of a Western performance horse’s level of conditioning: “The best athletes achieve the fastest speeds when they are at peak aerobic conditioning because the horse isn’t exercising long enough for anaerobic metabolism to kick in,” says Black. Many timed events, such as team roping, take less than 10 seconds, so this aerobic fitness is vital to success.

Take-Home Message

Developing a prospect is a lengthy project, often requiring years to reach the horse’s performance peak. It is important to outline your goals and construct a conditioning strategy around your horse’s starting point. Learn how different organ systems respond to training as well as the demands of your desired discipline. Taking the time to build a structural foundation will pay dividends in a horse’s future performance.

In all these efforts, working with a veterinarian knowledgeable about your sport is instrumental to keeping a horse healthy, sound, and fit. Basic husbandry practices, nutrition, and preventive medicine all contribute to these athletes’ success.