CONDITIONING THE FIELD HUNTER
NOTE: As a general rule, cardiovascular fitness improves faster in Thoroughbreds than in other breeds. Light-boned horses usually have an easier time developing fitness than a big-boned warmblood.
By Dr. Lyda Denney, DVM
Among the animals we call “livestock”, horses are unique because they are the only ones we regard as athletes- horses are bred for athletic performance. The demands of the many different sports in which equine athletes participate vary, but one thing remains constant - they need to be fit in order to put in optimum performance and to stay sound while doing it.
Being fit means that a horse can perform his tasks with minimum effort and a low risk of injury. It also means he has stamina to continue until asked to stop.
Depending on the job a horse is doing, his fitness level might need to be low (a Western pleasure mount) or very high (racehorses, polo ponies). And different sorts of jobs require different sorts of fitness - some horses need to develop explosive speed, but don’t need endurance; while others require suppleness and strength, and speed is a rare requirement.
Many equine sports require a mix of talents. Foxhunting is an activity that probably demands stamina, speed, and flexibility in almost equal parts.
With increased understanding of how various systems within the body adapt to exercise stress, conditioning programs for horses have become more exact. But horses are still very individual, so responses will vary widely. It really takes some science and lots of instinct to customize your horse’s conditioning program.
You should be aiming to condition all of your horse’s body systems so that they can withstand increasing level of exercise, without causing any of them to fail - the amount of exercise stress should gradually be increased while allowing the body time to adapt.
A conditioning program has three parts:
Cardiovascular training to improve your horse’s respiratory, muscular and cardiovascular (heart & circulation) systems’ energy production.
Strength training to increase the power or endurance of the muscles he uses to foxhunt.
Suppling to increase his range of motion, make him more athletic and reduce his risk of injury.
Regardless of your horse’s current condition, start his cardiovascular conditioning with the low-intensity work known as Long Slow Distance (LSD). It’s crucial to concentrate first on slow work to condition the hard tissues and supporting structures (bones, ligaments, tendons and hooves) before moving on to more intense work since these structures adapt much slower, over a period of months. Whereas, the muscular and cardiovascular systems respond rapidly to increase exercise demands.
If this step is skipped, the result can be that your horse appears fit, but is still extremely susceptible to injury because these skeletal structures are not conditioned to take the exercise stress.
It often takes about three months to establish a fitness baseline for a horse, i.e. a young one or an older on that has been on pasture turnout for the past months. An older horse which previously has been fit, or who is partially fit through regular riding before the conditioning program begins, has a head start and might complete the LSD phase in one month, but it is best to be conservative.
The usual LSD routine is to begin with an exercise duration of about 15-20 minutes-all walking if your horse is “starting from scratch” (i.e. he has had only turnout for the last six months), and gradually increasing the length of the exercise duration up to a maximum of one and a half to two hours a day for five or six days each week over a period of 8-12 weeks, with fairly long periods of trotting and cantering. The amount of trotting and cantering, and at what point these gaits are introduced all depends on your horse’s initial fitness level.
For instance, after spending the first week walking for 15 minutes every day for 6 days, the second week you might first walk 5 minutes, then trot 5 minutes, and then walk 5 minutes. These 5 minute segments would be added to weekly with the introduction of 5 minutes of slow cantering intervals at an appropriate point (maybe week 3 or 4). By this point your horse should have developed enough cardiovascular fitness for any low-moderate intensity sport. From here on in he needs only to maintain his level of cardiovascular fitness by doing LSD work two or three times per week. However to take part fully in a typical hunt, your horse needs a little more workload than this: therefore, introduce some Interval Training (IT). This is one technique used for high performance horses. It involves a series of work periods (short bursts of hand gallops) separated by rest intervals or some low-intensity exercise (working trot or walking).
For example, by week 6-8 incorporate one day of IT into your five or six day per week riding program and by week 12 include a second day. Canter/gallop for two minutes, then trot for two to four-repeat these segments according to the level of fitness your horse is at. Each work period is relatively short, but the total amount of work performed in an interval training workout is usually greater than in a single high-speed gallop because IT conditions your horse by allowing partial recovery of his heart and respiratory rates. Once the hunt season begins, hunting days count as IT days!
Strength training can easily be overdone - strength is necessary, but too much muscle is counterproductive. Large muscle masses produce heat so the ability to regulate temperature is impaired, and weight which causes the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal to have to overwork. Strength training sessions can be carried out in an Interval Training format (work periods followed by rest periods). Schedule brief intense workouts not more than two times per week, each one lasting no more than twenty minutes. As training progresses, reduce frequency to once weekly.
Hills and slopes are the foundation of strength training. Working uphill develops powerful hindquarters. Walk up and walk down, for each minute of walking rest one minute. Canter up and walk down: for each minute cantering, walk 5 or 6 minutes.
Be careful to not overdue strength-training. Injuries from too strenuous or too frequent workouts (known as “overloading”) will occur if time isn’t allowed for the tissues to repair from previous workouts. A fatigued horse is at risk of breakdown, because tired muscles can’t protect the bones, ligaments, and tendons; and overloading the muscular system can cause muscle strains and tears (mild or severe). In most cases, an interval of two or more days between strenuous workouts should be allowed.
Suppling is so important to your horse’s well-being that it should be a daily part of his routine. Suppling shoulders, hips and the back results in a long term increase in range of motion in all directions. Over fences, increased flexibility will allow him to snap his knees and fold the lower legs. A large range of motion also increases his shock-absorbing capability and lowers the chance of injury. And if he is loose and supple, muscle soreness will be reduced. Suppling tends to progress naturally as you train your horse daily. Suppling exercises include bending, turning, lateral work, cavaletti and gymnastics you normally do when schooling. Over time ask for a greater degree of stretching and bending.
MEASURING YOUR HORSE'S FITNESS
One of the most difficult parts of a conditioning program is to evaluate the response you are achieving from the hard tissues (bones, hooves, tendons and ligaments).
First, lay the palm of your hand around your horse’s hoof - unusual heat may be a sign of inflammation.
Next, feel for the pulse on both the inside and outside of the back of the pastern (known as the digital pulse) - the pulse is normally quite difficult to feel at rest, as a “throbbing” pulse indicates trouble in the hoof.
Now run your hands down the front of the cannon bones, using your thumb and fingers to feel the grooves between the cannon bones and splint bones - heat, swelling or pain means trouble.
Finally, use your thumb and forefinger to feel the superficial and deep flexor tendons and his suspensory ligaments - they should be cool and free of swelling or pain. Ask your veterinarian to help you locate these important structures if you are unsure!
You’ll also need to start paying attention to another fitness indicator: your horses’ heart rate. The heart rate (or pulse) is the single best indicator of exercise response. As your horse becomes more fit, two things will happen: a decrease of the heart rate (both at rest and when exercising), and a faster return to the resting heart rate after exercise stops.
Measuring the heart rate is not difficult, but does require some practice. There are several sites where a pulse can be taken, the most convenient spots are at the facial artery and at the digital artery. Once again, ask you veterinarian for help if you’re having difficulty locating these points! In a healthy horse, the heartr ate should return to resting level (about 28-40 beats min.) within 20 minutes after trotting exercise, 40 minutes after slow galloping, and 60 minutes after fast galloping (depending on heat and humidity). The more quickly the heart rate returns to the resting level, the more fit your horse is
Another fitness indicator is respiration. The normal resting respiratory rate of an adult horse is about 12-20 breaths per minute, but that can increase up to 180 breather per minute with heavily exercise!
When cantering and galloping, breathing is linked directly to the number of strides. When exercise ceases, the horse usually will take a few deep breaths, then allow his respiratory rate to settle in the range or 60-100 breaths per minute until his oxygen loss has been recovered.
Respiratory sounds are also a general indicator of recovery. Flared nostrils and rapid, heavy breathing immediately after exercise should return to normal breathing as the heart rate drops. Any unusual sound or discharge can be a sign of trouble. Respiratory rate alone is not a good indicator of recovery, so observe both the rate and depth of respirations.
THE DAILY WORKOUT
Begin every daily workout with a 15-30 minute warm-up. Warming up eases your horse into physical and mental relaxation. Blood flows into the working muscles; his temperature rises which increases power and makes the muscles, tendons and ligaments pliable and less prone to injury by fiber tearing. Oxygen being carried to the muscles increases which allows the muscles to do more sustained work.
Begin by walking on a long rein-2 to 3 minutes may be enough if he’s been out to pasture: been in the stall, then allow 5 to 10 minutes.
Then gradually move into an active trot and some cantering for 5 to 10 minutes. After this introduce some suppling exercises - wide turns and circles. After 15 to 30 minutes merge the warm-up into your conditioning program for that day.
End every workout with a warm-down. This will redistribute blood away from the muscles and return it to his internal organs, release muscular tension and reduce post-exercise soreness.
Begin by picking up a trot or easy canter, add some circles, turns and serpentines as you let your horse stretch forward and down towards the bit for 5 to 10 minute. Finish with 2 to 5 minute of relaxed but energetic walking on a loose rein.
In cold weather, cover his back end with a cooler to prevent cramping.
As the workload for your horse increases, he might need to receive more calories in his diet - reduce slightly the proportion of fiber and increase the amount of carbohydrates (grains) or you could add some vegetable fat daily.