As a champion of the prestigious Land Rover Burghley CCI4*, two-time Pan American Games gold medalist, and Olympic and World Equestrian Games team rider - Stephen Bradley might know a thing or two about horse fitness. When Stephen offered a little knowledge about bringing our horses back into work after a quiet spring, we were all ears. Read on for a few tips on ramping up your horse’s fitness, safely!
One thing we all have to look forward to is getting back to riding our horses like normal once quarantine is over. When you are bringing your horse back into work after having time off, a lot depends on the amount of time they have had off and how much turnout they have had during that time.
Consider Time Spent in Turnout
The more your horse has been turned out, the more fit they will be as you start bringing them back into work. In turnout, horses are able to use their muscles and move, so you are at a big advantage. If your horse has only been going out for a couple hours, they’ve predominately been standing in the stall. If this is the case, they have lost a lot of strength and muscle tone, so you have to be very smart in bringing them back into work.
Know Your Horse
The important idea is that you know your horse better than anyone else. Make sure you know their legs. Before you start back into work, be able to run your hand down your horse’s legs and know exactly what to expect. This is something you should do daily before you ride. If you find any changes, such as swelling or heat, you need to investigate and make sure something isn’t coming up as a result of getting them fit again.
When tacking up, take the opportunity to run your hand down each of your horse's legs to check for swelling or heat.
Make a Tangible Plan
The horses that have had very little turnout need to do a lot of walking. They should do 5 to 7 days of just walking under tack to get their muscles under the saddle built up again. The second week of work they can start at 3 1-minute trots. Yes, 3 1-minute trots! Usually you can easily turn to 3 2-minute trots after 3 days, then do that for another 3 days. On the seventh day, give the horse a day off! They need rest just like we do. The next week you can start with 3 3-minute trots for 3 days then go to 3 4-minute trots for 3 days. Then another day off and so on.
The horses that are a little fitter and have been in turnout more can start 3 3-minute trots the first week, then go right to 3 4-minute trots. You might find the first week they need to do 3 3-minute trots all six days. Again, you know your horse. You need to listen to your horse (no headphones while riding!) to see how hard they are breathing after each trot and how long it takes them to come down. Maybe they need to walk for more than two minutes. I emphasize that you know your horse better than anyone else and you have to keep that in mind and gauge it on a day- to-day basis.
The more turnout your horse has had during his time off, the faster you can bring him back into work.
Get Out of the Ring
The best scenario is that you can do a day or two in the ring and get out of the ring otherwise. Horses need hills, grass, and terrain to get fit. It’s really hard to get a horse fit in the ring, so get out of the ring if it’s at all possible. Spend as little time time in the ring right now as possible. In the third week and beyond, you can start to spend more and more time in the ring.
I always I always say my horses have to be trotting between 20 and 30 minutes EASY before they ever start to jump. It’s simple, they have to have their muscles and stamina built up. You don’t want to get them tired by jumping too early because the ligaments start to take over when the muscles get tired. That’s when injuries start to happen - so take your time.
Hold off on jumping until your horse can easily trot for 20 to 30 minutes.
But Really… Know Your Horse
Mostly, the big thing is to just listen to your horse. You should know what they are eating. The more work they are in, the more calories they are going to burn. The feed might have to be built up a little bit as you bring the horse back into work. Know their legs inside out with your eyes closed. Run your hands down their legs and know how they are supposed to feel. If you feel something different, listen to it and check it out.
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