Conditioning Horses on Different Surfaces

Varying the surfaces on which you exercise your horse can help produce a strong, well-rounded equine athlete. Learn more in this article from the Summer 2023 issue of The Horse.
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horse and rider trotting in field up hill
Hillwork provides great strength training to develop the haunches, back, and core abdominal muscles. | Photo: iStock

Varying the surfaces on which you exercise your horse can help produce a strong, well-rounded equine athlete

When training your horse, you likely put in a lot of work developing his skill set for a chosen athletic endeavor. Yet, similarly important is the degree of conditioning your horse achieves over time. Conditioning offers multiple benefits, including building the musculoskeletal tissues of the limbs, core, topline, and neck. It also improves the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, nervous system, proprioception (awareness of position and placement of limbs and body), and balance; provides mental stimulation; and builds a horse’s confidence.

Varying the surfaces on which you exercise a horse can bring additional benefits that develop the physical strength of a well-rounded equine athlete mentally engaged in his work.

Conditioning to Prevent Injury

Brianne Henderson, DVM, Dipl. ACVSMR, specializes in sport horse medicine and injury rehabilitation at Rivendell Equine Services, in Ontario, Canada, and says she believes most of the injuries veterinarians see in horses are due to repetitive strain and an accumulation of microdamage. “Even the majority of ‘acute’ injuries have, in fact, been developing for a time. If we examine how we work and train horses with this in mind, then the use of various surfaces allows for varying strains to be distributed across various musculoskeletal tissues—bone, ligament, tendon—thereby minimizing repetitive stress.”

She notes that young horses’ bones and soft tissues are highly adaptable and strengthen in response to exercise on varying surfaces. For older athletes, use of different surfaces minimizes the amount of daily microdamage to musculoskeletal structures while allowing time for injury repair.

Introducing horses to new riding surfaces gradually is important. “Early in the show season, we commonly see horses that are acutely sore after their first multiday show,” says Henderson. “Often this is because they are worked on one type of footing at home—sand, for example—and are then asked to compete and school on a completely different type of footing, such as fiber.”

With initial exercise on a new surface ridden at reduced intensity, such as flatwork and comparatively easy exercises, a horse adapts gradually to new footing.

“As a rule, it is best to expose a horse to the same surface as the competition surface twice weekly for at least six weeks to give muscles and other soft tissues time to adapt,” says Judith Koenig, Mag Vet Med, Dr Med Vet, DVSc, Dipl. AECVS, ACVSMR, associate professor at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary

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We at The Horse work to provide you with the latest and most reliable news and information on equine health, care, management, and welfare through our magazine and TheHorse.com. Our explanatory journalism provides an understandable resource on important and sometimes complex health issues. Your subscription will help The Horse continue to offer this vital resource to horse owners of all breeds, disciplines, and experience levels.

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Written by:

Nancy S. Loving, DVM, owns Loving Equine Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, and has a special interest in managing the care of sport horses. Her book, All Horse Systems Go, is a comprehensive veterinary care and conditioning resource in full color that covers all facets of horse care. She has also authored the books Go the Distance as a resource for endurance horse owners, Conformation and Performance, and First Aid for Horse and Rider in addition to many veterinary articles for both horse owner and professional audiences.

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