Back to Work: Transitioning Horses into an Exercise Program Safely

How to transition a sedentary horse into an exercise program safely

Let’s say you spend a lot of time at your desk, like many in the U.S. workforce. Would you take off from your busy office schedule without any conditioning and attempt to summit a 14,000-foot mountain?

Can it be done? Yes … but without preparation, the risks are many and chances of success low. The same situation applies with horses. Can you take an idle horse from pasture and enter him in a 50-mile endurance race the next week? Can you take your dressage horse out of retirement and expect him to earn high scores?

Consider an inactive horse that hangs out in the pasture all day or has been on stall rest laying up from an injury. How do you bring that individual back to a fit state properly and safely?

Starting Principles

Five basic tenets apply to all equine athletes, says Wally Liberman, DVM, owner of Panorama Equine Medical and Surgical Center, in Redding, California. To perform to the best of their ability, no matter their condition or activity level, these athletes must:

  1. Have good genetics and conformation;
  2. Have good nutritional management;
  3. Have the ability to exercise at will during turnout or with regular training;
  4. Receive good hoof care; and
  5. Be trained using techniques compatible with the horse’s ability and mindset.

“Many behavioral and performance issues could be alleviated if these basic management principles are addressed,” says Liberman.

To bring a sedentary horse back to performance level, you must adhere to the smallest of details in his management program. “Horses are true in their expression of pain, so watch for it while enacting these measures,” he says.

Hoof care after a horse has been inactive for a while is critical, says Liberman. A sedentary horse is often left barefoot. This can lead to hoof distortions that need to be addressed. Hooves might have weakened, for example, due to excess moisture on pasture. They might also have suffered from simple inattention to proper trim balance.

“The trim process should account for hoof distortions and basic hoof ­conformational-induced abnormalities,” says Liberman. “Survey radiographs (X rays) help to distinguish asymmetry between the coffin bone and the hoof capsule.”

Using these radiographs, the horse’s veterinarian and farrier can collaborate to come up with a trimming and shoeing plan that will restore his hoof shape and structure.

Nutrition is also critical. “It is likely that transitioning a horse from a sedentary to active lifestyle will involve an overhaul of his diet,” says Liberman. This is particularly important if the idle horse is carrying too much weight on his frame and needs to lose some pounds. Overweight horses benefit from a balanced diet that is low in starch and sugar.

Another factor to consider is whether the sedentary horse has been confined to a stall or has been turned out part- or full-time. Liberman says an idle horse that has had regular turnout is less likely to experience fatigue issues than one that has been confined for long periods and then put back into work. A horse’s ability to exercise at will helps him maintain muscle tone and hoof strength and fine-tunes neuromuscular coordination and strength.

“Confinement is unnatural and makes the task of returning a horse to work much more challenging,” he says.

Back to Work: Transitioning Horses Into an Exercise Program Safely

Conditioning and Physical Therapy

Taking a horse from a sedentary state to active working fitness can be a form of rehabilitation. However, there’s no one-size-fits-all program for it, says Sherry Johnson, DVM, co-founder of Equine Core Inc. (eCore), a company in North Texas that helps develop at-home rehabilitation and conditioning programs for equine athletes.

“The entire program ultimately relies on a horse’s current level of fitness, the presence (or absence) of previous injuries, and the general goal of the rider,” she says. “Is this horse being conditioned to return to competition, or is he just beginning a fitness program?”

Horses can lose fitness very quickly, particularly if stall-bound for two or more weeks. Riders need to expect to spend at least 60 days of five-days-a-week exercise increasing a horse’s cardiovascular strength and stamina. Besides standard hand-walking and ponying, Johnson recommends physiotherapeutic exercises to help build core strength and stability and prepare a horse to go back to ridden work. One piece of therapy equipment she likes to use is a weighted surcingle. She generally recommends starting a horse with light weight in the surcingle and increasing that little by little over time as the horse progresses.

“This technique is more gradual, safer, and more easily brings a horse back to work, compared to throwing a 30-pound saddle and 150-pound rider up on the horse’s back all of a sudden,” she says. “Ponying a horse is better than asking for repetitive longeing. A horse on a longe line often can get wild and out of control; ponying behind another steady horse tends to lessen the frequency of unpredictable episodes.”

Because physical therapy programs are intended to build a horse up gradually, they typically don’t stress the cardiovascular system much. However, when training a horse back to progressive work demands, you can monitor his heart rate to gauge his immediate response to exercise.

Place a heart rate monitor on your horse before he works. Look for a target heart rate of 130-150 beats per minute (bpm) to achieve aerobic conditioning (long, slow distance work) during the session. Also use the monitor to track how quickly your horse recovers to an expected heart rate of 60-64 bpm post-exercise. It shouldn’t take longer than 10 minutes—preferably only two or three—to reach your target recovery heart rate.

You might also perform in-hand hill work at the beginning of your horse’s conditioning program. Johnson recommends starting with an initial grade that isn’t too strenuous, then adding increasing gradations of difficulty over time.

Warmup and cool-down sessions are hugely beneficial for a horse’s mental and physical well-being, says Johnson. Tissues begin to warm up, stretch, and become more elastic at the walk and slow trot. She says she includes five sets of core-strengthening exercises during both warmup and cool-down. Do these slowly and in a controlled manner.

Back to Work: Transitioning Horses Into an Exercise Program Safely

Muscle Exercises

Most human physiotherapy work has been done on several aspects of core strengthening, including the multifidus muscles along the spine, which help stabilize the vertebral column. In humans, improved multifidus strength has been shown to reduce the risk of osteoarthritis or sports-specific injuries. Physiotherapy for horses can also focus on aspects of core strength, including the propulsive hind-limb muscles, forelimb strength/­stability, and core abdominal ­engagement.

Johnson says these muscle exercises are like Pilates for horses and can be performed in-hand. “We’ve seen good success using these exercises to augment regular veterinary therapeutics,” she says. “Of 20 different exercises, some of the most common we use include sternal lifts, lumbosacral tucks, and caudal and lateral tail pulls to improve hind-end stability. Abdominal lifts help to strengthen the topline and encourage core abdominal strength.” (You can learn how to perform these at TheHorse.com/149672.)

Other physiotherapeutic exercises focus on improving neck and back flexibility and strength, as well as joint range of motion.

A piece of equipment Johnson says she finds extremely effective for strengthening the hindquarters is an elastic resistance band system. She says using this band elicits a change in the kinematics of the horse’s body (how it moves) and increases his proprioception (awareness of where his limbs are in space). The elastic band provides passive restraint on trailing limbs and helps the horse engage his hindquarters and stay in a “frame.” She finds that this is especially helpful for horses recovering from stifle injuries, particularly of the menisci (the cartilaginous discs that facilitate frictionless movement of the stifle joint). This is because meniscal injuries tend to occur when the stifle is in full extension; the band helps limit the extended position during which meniscal injuries can occur. 

Back to Work: Transitioning Horses Into an Exercise Program Safely

If available, an underwater treadmill can help strengthen horses’ muscle timing and motor control when they’re worked at a controlled walk, says Johnson, adding that this is an especially useful strategy for horses recovering from limb injuries. Horses can also gain cardiovascular conditioning through underwater treadmill work without stressing healing musculoskeletal tissues.

It’s important to condition and address all muscle types, including cardiac muscle. “The heart is often overlooked, as it is difficult to assess,” says Liberman. “Cardiac auscultation (listening with a stethoscope) at rest, at recovery, and after exercise may identify abnormalities of heart rhythm and recovery rate. Abnormalities should be noted and pursued with advanced diagnostic tools, such as EKG (electrocardiogram) and cardiac ultrasound.”

While a heart rate monitor is a useful tool for measuring working heart rates and recovery, it does not provide information about cardiac output or electrical conductivity (impulses from the heart muscle that cause it to beat).

Cold and Heat Therapy

Horses starting back into work might benefit from cryotherapy to reduce inflammation. Johnson prefers to immerse the limbs in a slurry mixture of ice and water to lower tissue temperature post-work. Cold water hosing or commercial ice boots are useful, as well, she says. Start by applying cold therapy for 20 to 30 minutes once or twice a day in the initial days of bringing a horse back to work. Commercial icing blankets are also available for the axial skeleton (the vertebrae, skull, ribs, and sternum), or you can ice the back manually, Johnson says.

Heat therapy is useful for managing chronic pain and injury by relieving discomfort and improving soft tissue extensibility. Johnson says riders can apply microwaveable hot packs, heating pads, or warm water to an area of chronic injury before being ridden. For horses with foot pain, she likes to apply heat to the distal (lower) brachiocephalicus muscles around the chest and shoulders before performing stretching exercises.

“Many horses with foot pain or distal forelimb pain also experience secondary pain within the distal brachiocephalicus muscle, which is the main muscle responsible for advancing the forelimb,” she says. “Muscles that compensate for lower limb pain often benefit from stretching exercises to facilitate improvement.”

Sometimes she employs therapeutic ultrasound, as well, which she says can elevate tissue temperatures by 4 degrees Celsius (39 Fahrenheit) to literally warm the horse up.

Being Mindful of Injuries

For an older horse coming back into work, lameness issues are the primary concern. Johnson suggests riders be particularly sensitive to a horse’s resistance to perform certain movements or activities.

“The best advice is to collaborate with your veterinarian before you begin bringing a horse back to work,” she says.

A thorough physical examination can help you identify issues and develop an appropriate rehab plan around them. “While imaging modalities such as radiographs, ultrasound, etc. often provide helpful insight into a musculoskeletal issue, abnormal imaging findings don’t always correlate with the problem,” says Johnson. “Work with your equine veterinarian to achieve an accurate diagnosis and develop a therapeutic plan.

“It’s important not to fixate on only one injury; instead we look for global improvement by treating all secondary issues that stem from a primary injury,” she adds.

Positive Progress

To track your horse’s progress and muscle development, it might be helpful to take regular photos from the right, left, and rear. Position the horse the same in all photo sessions for the best comparisons. Other objective muscle measurements include placing a pliable wire over the horse’s rump as a baseline, then repeating with a new wire every three to four weeks for comparisons. You can also use pliable wire to take girth measurements and joint range-of-motion measurements.

When to Slow Down

Even if you adhere to a very thoughtful and consistent training regimen, not every horse can accommodate the demands. It might be time to pump the brakes if you recognize:

  • Resistance to exercise;
  • Attitude changes;
  • Subtle or overt lameness;
  • Signs of fatigue, which are often subtle;
  • Respiratory or cardiovascular issues, as indicated by an elevated heart rate or respiratory rate and/or delayed heart rate recovery; or
  • Muscle issues, such as overt muscle discomfort or tying-up.

After years of layoff, a senior horse might not return to a successful athletic career. Once the horse has been let down from routine exercise, particularly if in his latter teens or beyond, Liberman says it’s difficult to bring him back to peak performance. This isn’t to say the horse can’t be rehabilitated to perform light exercise, such as trail rides, or even perform at amateur levels. Take it slowly, he says, and monitor the aged horse carefully.

Take-Home Message

Tailor any conditioning program, regardless of discipline or fitness level, to the individual. Each horse’s needs and response to conditioning differ. Approach it slowly, have realistic expectations, and make progressive demands that your horse can accept and accomplish safely.

“The important philosophy to follow when bringing a sedentary horse back to work,” says Liberman, “is to keep expectations low and realistic and accept the horse’s ability without exceeding his limits. It is important to separate the horse and his capacity from what an owner or rider wants for their equestrian goals; they may not be the same. Above all, remember to have a good time.”