By Robyn Brown, EST

Many of us have our horses schedules relax during the cold months, making maintaining physical fitness and reaching goals a challenge. During this time it is along_lineimportant to remember the key facts in maintaining and gaining condition without causing injury or sickness. Starting a fitness program after an extended holiday needs to be done with a few things in mind.

The basics of a conditioning program should be centered around your goals as a rider and be specific to your horse.  There are many factors to remember when designing your program and many professionals available that can help you with this.  The extent of your training specifics should alter with your horse’s age, sex, breed, discipline, competition schedule, terrain and weather conditions.

It becomes especially important in the colder months that our program is catered to the weather.  Including a proper structure to work for each day allows your horse to remain healthy. Regardless of the type of exercise that will be performed, the daily workout starts with a warm up, progresses to schooling or conditioning exercises, and ends with an active warm down followed by a cooling out period. The warm up is an important part of every exercise session; it is the gradual increase of exercise that facilitates the body from rest to work. An effective warm up will decrease the chance of injury and help enhance performance whilst delaying the onset of fatigue due to the increase of oxygen delivery to the muscles. This results in less lactic acid production during the workout.

aClaytonLactic acid is a waste product of energy production that is removed by the blood stream.  During high intensity work outs lactic acid is produced much quicker than it can be removed.  Being an acid, the lactate reduces the pH of the muscles fibers, resulting in slower chemical reactions causing fatigue. Heat is another by-product of energy production and during a typical warm up the muscles will increase in temperature by 1 degree. This is beneficial to our work because warm muscles contract more powerfully, reducing the chances of tearing fibers and causing injury. The longevity of the warm up should be adapted to the individual horse and their current level of fitness.  Horses that are stabled or aged require more walking in their warm up. The temperature of the riding area also comes into effect in the warm up as when the weather is colder it takes considerably longer for the muscles to reach optimum working temperature. An exercise blanket or quarter sheet may become very helpful when you are faced with a colder exercise area, to be used for warm up and be removed once the horse is ready. Another option is heating lamps, such as a solarium, to help the muscles adapt quicker to working.        

aserpentineYour exercises should become progressively more strenuous leading to the specific type of work that is to follow. Your basic suppling exercises should be includedaquarter_sheet after the first 5-10 minutes of forward movement and shouldn’t progress into difficult movements until fully warm. Including simple exercises like ovals, serpentines, and figure eights make up an effective warm up. Quite often we find ourselves performing smaller circles and difficult lateral movements in the initial stages of the ride.  In doing so, you are risking over stretching injuries in the muscles, tendons and ligaments.

All the excess heat production also becomes an issue since your horse has grown a winter coat, especially in the areas that cannot loose heat by radiation like under your tack and between the hind legs.  When this becomes a problem many riders decide to remove the long winter hair as it acts as an insulating layer. We must use caution when we decide to do so as you are compromising your horse’s ability to conserve heat as well.  In this circumstance you can apply a breathable blanket to help with this if your horse lives outside.

aneckAfter the schooling or conditioning has taken place, the most important part of the ride begins. The object is to return your horse’s body to rest so the blood flow is gradually redistributed away from the skeletal muscles to the other organs of the body. In doing so you are not only allowing the redistribution, but enhancing lactate removal from the muscles. Missing this portion of the session drastically increases the time required for lactate removal of up to 3 hrs. With the addition of simple suppling exercises, such as turns, circles, and leg yielding, you are able to release any accumulated muscular tension and reduce and post-exercise soreness. Your horse should be encouraged to stretch all parts of their body including their neck and poll, which can be places of tension during a ride.  Once your horse has returned to rest and the breathing rate is normal, the cooling out can begin. This is the phase that is very dependent upon the weather. The object is to put the horse away cool and dry, but not cold.  Returning to the stable promptly to place a blanket on the horse will limit drastic heat loss.  Your horse should be returned outside once they are dry, as turn out to a wet horse can cause serious illness. By applying techniques such as clipping, as mentioned previously, you can drastically reduce your cool out time.  Also, by using coolers and hair dryers if clipping is not an option is a great alternative. 

Allowing time for the additional cooling out required can prove to be an issue in the cold.  Ensure that you are not rushed in this phase of your program as it can cause serious side effects to your horse if you are not prepared. Remember that there are other options for training in the icy Alberta months that can be used when time becomes an issue. Lunging or long-lining and even treadmill work are great ways to keep your horse fit in colder months. Ensuring your horses health should be your number one concern in your conditioning program, and if any issues or concerns arise, consult a professional trainer or veterinarian.