In movies it is not unusual to see a cowboy ride his horse forever, through all types of weather and terrain; in reality, horses are equine athletes that must be properly conditioned to perform as needed.

"The general design of an equine conditioning program–especially for horses that have been relatively idle for several months–is similar to those designed for people," said Dave Freeman, PhD, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension equine specialist. "Start with backgrounding and work toward more and more skill-specific activities."

Backgrounding uses low-intensity exercise, ideally multiple sessions in a day rather than one extensive session. Low intensity lets a horse manager more easily monitor how conditioned the animal is aerobically while guarding against fatigue of tendons, ligaments, bones, joints, and muscle.

"Keeping session length down guards against bone injuries caused by mis-striding from muscle and tendon fatigue," Freeman said. "Also proper shoeing and exercising on surfaces with cushion will help a previously idle horse guard against excessive stress on bone, tendons, and ligaments."

One of the desired effects of physical conditioning is in building aerobic stamina of the cardiovascular system. By doing so, the horse becomes more efficient at delivery, use, and release of body chemicals and compounds integrated with exercise.

"The result is an increased ability to perform moderate work for a longer period of time, as well as an improved ability to decrease stress from performing a specific level of work," said Tommy Puffinbarger, Alfalfa County