Horse Care Riding Tips

Get Pumped! Horse Conditioning Just Got Easier

woman longing bay arabian horse at a walk
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Written by Natalie Gasper

How to Safely Get Your Horse Back in Shape

We have more in common with horses than you may think, especially when it comes to getting in shape. A well-structured fitness program is key to getting your horse back in top shape after some time off. 

Conditioning is all about how your horse’s body adapts to exercise. Whether your horse has had time off due to weather, vacation, or injury, he’ll need time to get his fitness back. It’s important to increase his workload slowly, starting with lots of walking.

There are several factors to consider when starting your horse in an exercise program (including age, length of time off, and body condition score).

Vary the types of exercise you do (trail riding, hills, intervals, etc.) to ensure your horse remains balanced.

Conditioning: What Does it Mean?

Conditioning is all about the body adapting to exercise. The goal is to improve your ability to perform a task over time. This means being able to work longer, harder, and faster.

Breaks, Layoffs, Vacations, and More

There are several reasons why your horse may end up out of shape. Maybe you gave him a break during winter, or you took a few weeks for a vacation. If your horse gets injured, he’ll be laid up for a bit.

It’s almost always possible to get your horse back in shape—or, at least, back into better shape.

Factors to Consider

There are several things to consider when you’re preparing to get your horse back in shape. Each of these factors will affect how long the process takes and how you should structure your horse’s exercise.

Length of time out of work

My trainer once told me that time out of work should equal the time it takes to get back to work (i.e., if your horse is off for two months, it will take at least two months to get back in shape).

Age

Older horses may take longer to get back in shape. Younger horses can take a while, too, depending on how far along they were before the break.

Body condition score

Underweight horses shouldn’t be ridden until their body condition improves (an easy, walking-only lunge routine is fine), and overweight horses will struggle more (especially with cardiovascular fitness).

Previous injuries

If your horse was out due to injury (a broken bone, a soft tissue injury, surgery, etc.), plan for at least 6 months of conditioning to avoid re-injuring the area.

Degenerative conditions (like arthritis)

Arthritis can cause stiffness, making workouts appear harder at first. Gentle exercise, however, is actually great for arthritic horses (their joints will benefit from regular movement).

Turnout/boarding schedule (pasture board vs stall board)

A stall-boarded horse will take much longer to get in shape than a pasture-boarded horse. Whenever possible, maximize your horse’s turnout (the more, the better).

horse legs cantering

Source: Canva

Building a Schedule

While developing your schedule, it’s important to increase your horse’s workload slowly and vary the types of exercises you do so all muscle groups get worked (keeping your horse balanced).

Slow & Steady = Success

Slow and steady wins the conditioning race, so don’t underestimate the importance of walking. It’s low-impact and a fantastic way to help your horse build muscle, improve balance, increase cardiovascular health, and strengthen bones.

Don’t Forget About Tack Fit

If your horse hasn’t been ridden for a while, his saddle may not fit the way it used to. As your horse rebuilds muscle, the shape of his back will change, and he may need a different saddle. Adjusting your saddle pad, or adding/subtracting riser pads can also help ensure tack fits properly.

Rest Days

Just like humans need days off between lifting weights or running a long race, horses need rest days to recover and rebuild muscle tissue. Horses develop cardiovascular strength more quickly than muscle and bone strength, which gives the appearance of being more fit than they are.

Don’t let your horse not being out of breath fool you into thinking he’s fine to work six days a week.

Mix It Up

If you want a fit, well-balanced horse, it’s important to include a range of fitness activities. Alternate lunging with light riding, ask your horse to work on different surfaces (sand, grass, gravel, etc.), walk up and down hills, and do some intervals.

two people riding horses in the ocean

Source: Canva

Bonus Tip: Stretching can be a fantastic way to improve your horse’s fitness. Include 5-10 minutes of stretching after every workout.

How to Improve Your Horse’s Fitness

Your horse’s fitness journey can be broken down into three basic steps.

Step 1: Set Your Base Line

This step is all about establishing a basic level of fitness. Lots of walking. Start short with 10-15 minutes 4-5 days a week. Work up to 45-60 minutes over the course of a month (long enough to handle a trail ride). Include things like lateral work and circles (to improve flexibility).

Step 2: Add Variety

You’ll alternate between trail (or walk) days and short interval days. 5-minute warm-up, followed by 5 minutes of trotting, 5 minutes of walking (repeat 2 times), then a 10-minute cooldown. Work up to 15 minutes of trotting (still only 5 minutes of walking).

Step 3: Step It Up

By this step, your horse should be able to handle 45 minutes of moderate walk/trot workouts comfortably (no excessive sweating, breathing returns to normal in less than 5 minutes after trotting).

Now you can add in cantering, and slowly increase ride times (if desired). When you first add cantering, keep the workouts shorter (cantering is hard work), for no more than 3-5 minutes at a time (include at least 5 minutes of walking after each bout of cantering).

Pro Tip: At any step, if your horse is sweating profusely or struggling to catch his breath, you’re pushing too hard.

person cantering a horse through a field

Source: Canva

Don’t Forget About Nutrition

Nutrition is super important when it comes to physical fitness. Make sure your horse gets enough calories as you increase his workload (add quality hay, like alfalfa, first, before adding more grain). With feed, aim for something high in protein and fat.

When possible, look for low NSC options.

Fun Exercises to Get Your Horse Back in Shape

Conditioning may take several months, but it doesn’t have to be boring!

1. Try long-lining

Similar to lunging, long-lining is a great way to ride your horse from the ground. You use two lunge lines instead of one, and (with practice) can walk behind your horse and steer them through ground obstacles.

gray horse longing

Source: Canva

2. Circles and bending are your new BFFs

After a long break, horses don’t just lose fitness, they lose flexibility. One of my favorite exercises to make your horse a “loose goose” involves three circles.

Start with a 20m circle to the right at K. Ride the diagonal to X, then change directions and make a 20m circle to the left (between X and E), heading back across the diagonal towards H when you reach X again. Then, make a 20m circle to the right at H. Ride a straight line down the short side, then cut across the diagonal at M. Ride all the way to K and switch directions.

Repeat the pattern on the other side (20m left circle at F, 20m right circle at X, 20m left circle at M).

Do this exercise at the walk first. Work up to adding some trot (either on the circles or on the straight lines), then trotting the whole thing.

Eventually, you could even add in some cantering.

3. Have fun with ground poles

Setting up ground poles in various configurations can make conditioning at the walk a lot more fun. Start with a box shape (orange).

Use it to make circles, ride diagonals, go over poles, ride figure eights, etc. Then, add a fan (pink) for an extra challenge. You can also set up poles in a row (purple) to get your horse more coordinated and aware of his hooves.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How long does it take to get a horse back in shape?

It depends on why your horse is out of shape (lameness, time off in the winter, etc.) and for how long, but expect conditioning to take at least 6-8 weeks.

Q: How can I get my horse fit again?

You can’t go wrong with walking and slow, easy trail rides. Start with 20-30 minutes, 3-4 days a week, and work up from there.

Q: What exercises help horses get fit?

Once your horse has a basic level of fitness, you can add some fun exercises, like hill work, walking and trotting over ground poles, and intervals.

Q: How do you restart a horse that has not been ridden in years?

Slowly! Years of no riding means your horse is very out of shape. Even short walking rides may have him sweating and out of breath.

gray horse in hot walker

Source: Canva

Parting Thoughts

With time, patience, and a little creativity, you can have your horse safely back to work in no time. Don’t forget about the role nutrition plays in the process. And perhaps most importantly, have fun with it!

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Source

Physical Conditioning of Horses | Oklahoma State University (okstate.edu)

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About the author

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Natalie Gasper

Nancy loves retraining off the track Thoroughbreds and working with her dogs!

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