Customizing Horse Training Programs to Improve Performance  

Create a systematic training program to help you and your horse reach goals while minimizing your horse’s risk of injury and mental burnout.

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Consider your horse’s current abilities and your future goals for him when creating his training program. | Alexandra Beckstett/The Horse

Successful horse training programs designed with intention consider the horse’s current fitness and future training and competition goals. A high-quality training program must systematically target the nervous, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems, as well as the horse’s bones, tendons, ligaments, fascia, and muscle, said Tim Worden, PhD, an equestrian sports performance consultant in Toronto, Canada, during his presentation at the 2024 American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Symposium, held April 11-13, in Naples, Florida. “A training program should utilize the principle of progressive overload to strengthen (these structures).” 

Qualities of a Successful Horse Training Program 

Worden said riders and trainers should consider these principles when creating a training program: 

  • What training schedule will have the horse peaking for major competitions? 
  • What does the horse need to be able to do in a competition? 
  • How can I build on the horse’s strengths and address his weaknesses? 

“In a training program, there are four things you can change: volume, density (work-to-rest ratio), intensity, and exercises,” said Worden. Then, to create an individualized training plan, divide these exercises into categories meaningful to the trainer. One method groups exercises based on the target biomotor ability. He explained that the five biomotor abilities are strength, speed, endurance, flexibility, and coordination, and recommended following these general rules: 

  • Don’t perform exercises focused on the same biomotor ability two days in a row. 
  • Incorporate exercises targeting each biomotor ability into the horse’s program at least once a week. 
  • For sports such as show jumping or dressage, train some biomotor abilities (e.g., coordination) when a horse is focused and fresh, while targeting others (e.g. endurance) toward the end of a workout. 

“Many training programs do not include enough variation,” said Worden. Ensuring variety in a horse’s training program can have positive impacts on both his physical and mental well-being during training. For example, an elite show jumper’s week likely includes training over fences, but it can also include high-quality dressage-based flatwork, galloping, hill work, trail riding, and longeing, he said. Riders and trainers should also include enough time for rest in their horses’ weekly schedules to ensure the horses’ bodies can repair and regenerate following work and to reduce their risk of injury and mental burnout.  

Potential Risks of Training Equine Athletes 

To accomplish these goals, riders and trainers should evaluate their horses’ potential for risk or failure. Every athlete experiences some risk of injury, said Worden, but some factors, including poor movement mechanics, inadequate nutrition, incorrect conformation, psychological barriers, or inappropriate equipment use, can increase an equine athlete’s risk of injury. 

“Overtraining is a chronic imbalance between training stress and recovery,” said Worden. Monotony in the training program or not allocating enough time to recovery can cause this imbalance. Overtraining in the short-term is overreaching, which means pushing a horse beyond his current physical capability and might or might not be functional. “Functional is purposeful and planned (training) to provide a strong stimulus to the body that will result in a targeted adaptation, while nonfunctional is a mistake in the training plan and puts the horse in a compromised position,” said Worden. 

When horses are consistently overtrained, they can develop overtraining syndrome, which is often characterized by poor performance, reluctance to work, depression, loss of appetite, weight loss, sleep disturbance, illness, and injury, he added. 

Trainers and riders should understand that certain points in the training process might put their horses at a higher risk of overreaching or overtraining and injury, said Worden. These times include: 

  • Moving from one training phase to the next (i.e. moving up a level). 
  • Changing the amount of work the horse performs. 
  • Changing the work intensity. 
  • Completing personal bests (the athlete has expended more neuromuscular effort than normal, and the trainer doesn’t know how the body will respond). 
  • Recovering from an injury. 
  • Using poor-fitting equipment. 
  • Moving with poor technique.  

Take-Home Message 

Creating a systematic training program for a horse is an important part of his progression as an athlete. Trainers and riders should consistently monitor their horses (to ensure they tolerate their workloads as expected), work to minimize known risk factors for injury, and objectively assess whether each horse is moving towards the established goal. “Progress is rarely linear,” said Worden, but the horse should be trending in a positive direction over time.  


Written by:

Haylie Kerstetter, Digital Editor, holds a degree in equine studies with a concentration in communications and a minor in social media marketing. She is a Pennsylvania native and, as a horse owner herself, has a passion for helping owners provide the best care for their horses. When she is not writing or in the barn, she is spending time with her dog, Clementine.

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