How & Why I Rebuilt My Horse's Fitness
This past winter, I essentially started from scratch with Arli's conditioning and fitness, and I've gotten a lot of questions about it. How? Why? Well, I'm now here to answer all of the questions once and for all!
Throughout the summer and fall, I rode pretty consistently and kept Arli in good shape. We had a varied schedule that included jump schools, trail rides, flatwork, hills, and trot sets. It worked really well for us and I was happy with Arli's fitness level. Then, in November, my schedule got overtaken by lessons, training rides, IEA shows and practices, and school. My poor pony fell by the wayside. I consoled myself by keeping in mind that he had worked hard all year and could benefit from a break, but it killed me to see him standing in his pasture doing nothing. I determined that once my schedule settled down, I would devise a very specific conditioning regime and stick to it.
One super crucial thing that I really want this article to drive home is the importance of fitness and conditioning for horses. An unfit horse is destined to become an unsound horse if not managed properly. Just like going for a two mile run after sitting on your couch for six months is bound to make you sore (or even pull a muscle), throwing an unfit horse back into work is begging for an injury. Most horses are willing to do more than they should, and a lot of them won't tell you when they're hurting until it's too late. For this reason, I strongly advise working closely with your horse's veterinarian to ensure your fitness program is safe and effective!
And that's exactly what I did. Though I know quite a bit about conditioning, I opted to ask for some veterinary expertise to ensure I took all of the necessary precautions to keep my horse safe. After Arli had nearly all of November off and some of December, I shot a quick text to my vet asking for her help. I explained that he had been out of work for about one month and I wanted to get him back into shape safely and correctly. Of course, she was more than happy to devise a detailed conditioning schedule specifically for Arli. The schedule included very specific exercise guidelines for weeks one through four, and looser guidelines for weeks five through eight. By week eight, Arli would be at peak conditioning level. Now, this is important. The horse was out of work for one month. My vet's recommended fitness schedule would take twice that to return him to peak fitness. Muscles lose condition much faster than they gain it! If you think your horse is going to sit idle for two months and be back ready to go in a few weeks, think again!
The conditioning schedule, though specific in the amount of time we needed to spend in each gait, left some room for varying our routine. Doing the same thing everyday is boring and oftentimes leads to quitting the routine early or breaking the rules.
Walking, walking, and more walking. Though it sounds boring, walking is one of the absolute most important components of fitness. Like the gallop, the walk is a four-beat gait that helps strengthen all four legs evenly. However, it's obviously much lower impact than the gallop, making it safer for your horse's soft tissues. Every day of our schedule included at least 25 minutes of walking, and we continued with this much walking even once we were allowed to add some speed.
Hills make the booty work - and everything else! We're so fortunate to have lots of hills at our barn to work with, but even gradual slopes can be useful. Walking up and down hills is excellent for strengthening your horse's hindquarters, hocks, stifles, and even their topline! After just one week of walking for 25 minutes per day up and down hills of various grades, there was a marked difference in Arli's topline from his tail to his poll. Hills don't have to be done at fast gaits, either. They're actually most effective at the walk!
Get out of the ring! Walking for 30 minutes a day in the ring would have been excruciatingly boring. Arli and I did the first three weeks of his fitness routine outside the arena, walking around the farm and on trails. Not only was it a great way to stay engaged, but it was really good for us to spend the time on getting braver. Arli's a super spooky horse by nature, so working so much on trails was a wonderful way for him to increase his bravery.
You don't always have to be on them. Working Arli five to six days per week was absolutely crucial to the conditioning schedule. Sometimes I didn't have time to ride him or the weather didn't cooperate. In those instances, I turned to hand walking and lunging. Taking Arli for a hand walk around the property for 25 minutes was easy to do on rainy days and still got him out and moving up and down hills.
Lunging can be a stellar tool. Like I said above, lunging comes in handy when I can't ride for one reason or another. I also love it for teaching Arli to balance on his own and not rely on me to carry him - they learn to think for themselves! I lunge in a Pessoa rig, at the trot only, on a long lunge line. Luckily, Arli is fabulous to lunge and doesn't want to go fast (surprisingly). I typically work him in the rig at least once every other week, if not once a week, to help him improve his self carriage.
Take it easy when returning to jumping. Getting back to jumping was super exciting, but I was sure to take it slow. We started by adding some crossrails into our flatwork routine. Then, we started doing some small gymnastics. It takes a lot more stamina to jump courses than it does to do singles or grids, so it took a while for us to build back up to coursework. We were at week seven before we started coursing close to the height we were doing prior to the break.
Horses get heart fit before they get soft tissue fit. Cardiovascular strength (heart and lungs) builds faster than strength in the tendons, ligaments, and even bones. For this reason, your horse might feel like he's ready and willing to do more sooner, but you have to be his voice of reason! Taking the extra time to take things slow will pay off in the long run.
Stay accountable. Just like people tell you to find an accountability buddy for your own fitness goals, it's extremely important to stay accountable when it comes to getting your horse fit. That can come in a variety of forms:
Do the fitness schedule with a friend whose horse is at about the same level of fitness as yours.
Make a very specific calendar and keep it in your tack trunk.
Tell people what you're doing and why! Even posting about it on social media can be a good way to keep yourself in check.
Set goals! If you have a specific goal in mind that you want to be ready for, you'll work harder to stay on track. For me, I wanted Arli to be fit for a clinic on February 6th, so I worked hard to make sure we met that date!
Download an app like Equilab to keep track of your rides. Equilab tells you exactly how long you spent in each gait, how your turns (left and right) are distributed, your speed in each gait, and more.
The Pay Off
The pay off since rebuilding Arli's conditioning has been huge! I had no idea what a massive difference it would make. He is more balanced than he ever was prior to the break, and he's more focused. Giving him a little time off was good for his brain, and diligently rebuilding the fitness has allowed him to be better than ever before. He feels strong, balanced, lofty, and ready to work!
It may sound like I was a little dramatic in redoing Arli's conditioning from the ground up after only a month out of work. However, I would so much rather be safe than sorry! Arli works so hard for me and loves his job. He gives me his heart and soul, I owe it to him to keep him safe, healthy, and happy! It's the absolute least I can do to be careful and do it right.