Conditioning an Out of Shape Horse

Posted in: Ask A Pro, Featured, Horse Care, Horse Training

Ask A Pro Question:

“Our snow has finally melted and I’m anxious to get my horse competing again. What is the best way to get my horse back in shape?”

The answers you will get on conditioning an out of shape horse may vary depending upon who you ask. So, I’ll give you the 411 on what’s worked for me over the years!

From the “Dressage Rider’s Bible” if you will, is the idea that if your horse has been in a stall, he needs at least 10 minutes of walking before you get on him.  This helps to loosen the muscles throughout his neck and body and gets the synovial fluid (the fluid in his joints) moving around so that he’s adequately prepared for more complex work.

As a former runner, I find myself using many of the techniques that runners use, to condition my horses.  I do like to let them walk on a loose rein, and get them to tune into me. I’ll use our warm-up time to work on steering them with just my legs, or even slow down the walk with my body, and speed up the walk with my body.

Once they’re warmed up, and just getting back into condition for whatever the reason, I typically start with about 3 minutes of long trotting, followed by 1 minute of walking – this is similar to interval training for runners. I’ll do this to the left, then the right (if I’m in my barn), or if I’m able to go outside, I’ll do it going down the road (for a total of about 14 minutes). With the warm up and cool down (to normal breathing), this takes between 30-40 minutes.

I personally, like to let the horse catch his wind (just a bit) before asking him to go again, so if one minute rest doesn’t work, give him two.  Horses, however, tend to get their wind a lot faster than humans, so after about 2 days of this, I’ll up it to 4 minutes of trotting, with one minute in between. When I’ve completed the intervals, I will typically then walk my horse to cool him out.

By week two, I will up the trotting to 7 minutes at a stretch. I’ll trot for 7 minutes, walk for one minute, trot for 7, walk for one, and then lope for minute, walk for a minute, lope for a minute walk for a minute and then cool my horse out, or do slow work – such as getting them soft, stopping, turning around correctly and what not. Keep in mind that when I do slow my horse from the trot/lope to his walk, I still want him soft in his face, I want him to collect up (if I ask) and I want him to slow down correctly and quietly. I don’t want to have to drag him to a lower gear.

Trotting works more muscles in your horse than does loping, but in order to really get their wind they must do some loping and sprinting.  I have the good fortune of being able to trot/lope/run down the open stretches of pasture or next to our gravel road, so I can choose, based on where I know mile markers are, how fast and when to go, though, I don’t really keep track of miles. Basically I notice how my horse feels under me. If he’s ready to slow down to a jog-trot after a minute and a half, then I know a three minute trot is probably right on the money.

Once my horse is keeping his wind, I’ll lessen the trotting to 2-3 minutes, then we might roll right into a lope for a few minutes, back to the trot and then walk to cool them out.   When I feel like he’s in good condition, I like to work imaginary cows out of an imaginary rodear, so I’ll do a lot of stopping, rolling back, jump out into a lope, or jump out into a trot, stop, roll back, repeat. This helps the anaerobic process in your horse and is excellent for getting them and keeping them in shape. It’s perfectly fine to do this prior to your horse getting in his fighting shape, but I do think you can run the risk of injury to your horse, especially if they’re not kept turned out.

Conditioning an Out of Shape Horse

The important thing to note is that by design, horses, when left to live outside, are able to up and run at a moment’s notice. That’s how they’ve survived. They’re creatures of flight. We take some of that away from them if we keep them stalled up. I also think we contribute to soreness and arthritis by keeping them penned up because, as I said at the beginning they’re not able to keep their joints as fluid that way. I do realize that for many people, letting them live outside isn’t an option.  Also, some horses are over-fed, or have excellent metabolisms (they do well on little feed) and as a result the extra weight puts more strain on their joints — until which time they’re back in good body condition.

Regardless of how we house them, however, the best way to leg them up is to do it in increments, a little at at time, get them winded, let them catch their breath and ask them to go again.

Best of luck legging up your four-legged friends now that Spring is officially here!

Happy Trails!


Posted in: Ask A Pro, Featured, Horse Care, Horse Training

About Jenn Zeller

Jenn Zeller is the creative mind and boss lady behind The South Dakota Cowgirl. She is an aspiring horsewoman, photographer, brilliant social media strategist and lover of all things western. After a brief career in the investment world to support her horse habit (and satisfy her...

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