Getting your horse back into condition this spring.

The sun is shining, birds are singing, flowers are blooming, and you might be feeling tempted to launch full-on into your horse-training endeavors.

Maybe you kept fit throughout the winter on the ski slopes or at the gym, but what about your horse? Unless you had access to an indoor arena or migrated south for a few months with your four-legged friend, chances are your horse's fitness level is not quite sufficient for competition or strenuous outings yet.

While there is no foolproof way to avoid injury altogether, there are precautions every horse owner can take to reduce the horse’s risk of getting hurt. As with any solid fitness program, the key to success is a logical progression and controlling variables such as footing, stable management, and horse health care.

Logical Progression

Many training programs have a pinnacle event in mind. If that’s true in your case, create a plan based on when you want your horse to reach peak fitness. The journey leading up to the main event can consist of weeks and months of conditioning, including a lead up with smaller events to ensure the horse is ready for the more strenuous task ahead. If you’re coming back from a winter of inactivity, it’s wise to start slow with 20 minutes of walking and to build from there. Increase the length of conditioning sessions before increasing intensity.

Increase the length of conditioning sessions before increasing intensity

It’s not realistic to keep a horse inpeak physical condition at all times. Good fitness programs don’t ask a horse for maximum exertion on an ongoing basis but, rather, allow for peaking and tapering, muscle building, and downtime for repair. Increasing cardiovascular fitness, strength training, and flexibility in a progressive way will increase fitness and make the horse stronger and more resilient when the time comes for a maximal performance.

A previously fit horse will return to fitness faster than one that’s never been fit before. Tailor each horse's training program to the individual and consider his or age, breed, conformation, discipline requirements, and previous injuries.

No Footing, No Horse

Back to that sunshine again. Oh boy, is it tempting to go ride outside now! Before you step out consider all footing factors. If you’re lucky enough to train in an indoor ring all winter, chances are your horse has enjoyed consistent, even, well-maintained footing. The outdoor options are different. Even if you’re simply moving to an outdoor arena (rather than a field or trails), expect changes in depth, surface material, drainage, etc.

While riding on different surfaces offers conditioning benefits, it takes time for horses to adapt, both to new surfaces and, possibly, tonew training intensity.

"Bone is always changing and responding to stress,” says Brianne Henderson, DVM, of Ferguson Equine Veterinary Services, in Ontario, Canada “‘Microdamage’ can occur within the bone as a consequence of repetitive strain. Overtraining causes this microdamage to occur at a faster rate than the body can fix it, and so the repair is never as strong as the original bone. A similar microdamage-repair cycle occurs within the tendons and ligaments."

The chance of repetitive strain injuries occurring can be significantly reduced with judicious training and the incorporation of lighter work days and rest days.

Training in deeper footing and muddy conditions can predispose horses to soft tissue injuries, such as sprains and strains. Those taking to the roads need to consider the impact of increased concussion on joints and bones when training on harder surfaces. Training on hills is a great workout for both balance and strength training but, again, logical progression of duration and intensity of workouts is important to avoid fatigue and lameness issues.

Be choosy about the footing you ride on. Not all surfaces are a good match for all disciplines. Jeff Thomason, MSc, PhD, of Ontario Veterinary College has performed intensive research studying surfaces and how the horse interacts with a variety of footing. More information on this research can be found on the Equine Guelph website in the archived news article "From the Ground Up."

Shape Shifting

Deworming and vaccination are important but no spring checklist is complete without due diligence on the stable management aspects of dental care and saddle fitting.

A painful mouth due to sharp points can manifest as reluctance to work under saddle. Many changes are constantly occurring in a horse’s mouth, and having a dental exam performed by a veterinarian once or twice a year is recommended for both digestive health and to avoid discomfort and training setbacks.

The saddle fitter is another important member of your horse’s care team. Horses change shape over time and at different stages of training. Ensuring proper fit is important not only for the horse's comfort but also his correct muscular development. It’s not uncommon for horse owners to schedule several appointments throughout a year, and spring is one of saddle fitters’ busiest times.

Know Your Horse Health

Knowing your horse’s normal heart rate, temperature, and breathing rate before you begin a training program is important. "A work-back plan falls into place once you have an understanding of your horses' current fitness level and set an end goal," says Gayle Ecker, Equine Guelph's director and former advisor for Canada's endurance team.

Know your starting point and what is normal for your horse is vital information for moving forward and monitoring your horse’s health through every stage of his training. Tracking how quickly vitals return to normal after exercise gives the horse owner a measurable indicator of fitness level. As a horse’s exercise routine ramps up, you’ll also need to adjust his nutrition and electrolyte balance accordingly.

Early Detection

Flexibility is a component of any equine training program. No matter how well we plan, setbacks can and will occur and it is of paramount importance to detect and address any health concerns immediately. Early detection of any problems, and prompt treatment, generally result in a more favorable prognosis.

University of Guelph

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