In the horse world, there have long been misconceptions about the proper timing for starting a young horse into steady exercise. The tendency is to over-coddle them when they are very young, and then over-face them with exercise demands when they are only just a bit older yet appear physically mature. One mistake often made is that of confining a young horse where he doesn’t have a chance to run, play, and kick up his heels. The impact of a little bit of sprint exercise is what builds the strongest bone, as well as improving neuromuscular agility. 

Another mistake is the tendency to take a relatively idle young horse and then send him to a trainer where he is asked to perform rigorous exercise every day for a few months to “break” him to saddle. This potentially fatigues unprepared muscles and tendons and ligaments, and bruises tender feet. Then, there is the likelihood that the horse will develop soreness, discomfort, and may develop associated behavioral problems.    

The question about the timing to start training isn’t so much about the when as the how.  “Training” should begin very early on. In the early months following birth, the musculoskeletal tissues experience a dynamic development phase related to growth during which they are extremely adaptive and changeable. This is especially true of joint cartilage, tendon, and bone.  Exercise impacts the health of these tissues and their resistance to injury, with these effects lasting into a horse’s later years.        

Growth Plates

Historically, people have measured a horse’s skeletal maturity by evaluating the time of closure of the growth plates. However, this technique has only slight relevance to a racehorse that is started in intense racing as a two-year old, with little correlation to the plans you have for your young pleasure or performance horse. The growth plates of the knees and hocks are well closed by 1 ½ years of age, two years at the latest, and so this becomes a moot issue in considering when to start your young horse in simple training.  

One feature of growth plates that remains relevant relates to any conformational crookedness of the limbs, known as angular limb deformities. If a horse is toed-in or toed-out from the fetlock, surgical correction must be accomplished before he is two months old. For angular rotations based around the knees or hocks, surgical correction should be implemented no later than 5 –6 months to achieve reasonable success. So, you can see that growth plates finish their development at very early ages, long before you’d consider that your horse is mature enough to be ridden under saddle. A horse with a conformational imperfection, such as a crooked leg, will need more time and diligence in developing his musculoskeletal system with training.  The objective is to strengthen the support structures in his legs to minimize rotational and twisting forces on a crooked limb.         

Conditioning strategies have evolved through scientific application and understanding of exercise physiology that has taken great strides in recent decades. We now know that basing maturity on growth plate closure is inappropriate to determine how to train a horse for athletic longevity.  

Adaptive Changes in Response to Exercise

Loading of the limbs through exercise (dynamic loading) stimulates adaptive responses in long bones and in joint cartilage; these responses are critical to protecting the joints from incurring too much impact stress under reasonable athletic conditions. Confinement of a young horse leads to varying degrees of disuse atrophy in all portions of the body, but especially reduces the thickness of joint cartilage. Thinned cartilage is more at risk of injury. The largest adaptations of joint tissues to limb loading occur within the first five months of life. These young, developmental adaptations continue through at least 18 months of age, whereupon the tissues, particularly the joints and tendons, behave more like that of a mature horse, with less malleable adaptations to exercise. Similar adaptive changes occur in exercised tendon and ligament tissue, which respond favorably to mild to moderate daily exercise. These soft tissues maintain their elasticity and rebound abilities when loaded, and also improve in fiber alignment and orientation to impart tissue strength. Withholding exercise in the first months and years will most certainly predispose a horse to a myriad of joint or tendon issues later in his athletic life.

The early years during which a young horse learns how to use his body in pasture turn out provides him with the experience and agility that is later transferred to future athletic activities, while also stimulating adaptive protective responses in all his musculoskeletal tissues.  

Gait Development

Once a young horse figures out how to move efficiently through trial and error and tissue conditioning during pasture turnout, then training helps to improve his abilities even further. In most cases, a carefree, horse left to his own devices tends to use his front limbs as a passive strut, shifting at least 60 percent of his weight onto his forehand. He runs in a relaxed, carefree way in contrast to a horse that is in training for specialized equitation moves, like dressage or reining. A trained horse tends to travel “in flight” for longer durations, with less time spent in the stance phase where there is contact with the ground. 

But, in the early stages of starting a young horse under saddle, it is obvious that his steps are shortened relative to how he moves at free will. His normally fluid movement stiffens and becomes abbreviated as he adjusts to carrying a rider and tack on his back.  Over time and with development of musculoskeletal strength, limb extension will improve. All steps in the gait improve with age as he grows in both stature and experience. As training progresses, increasingly advanced skill levels usually require more shifting of weight onto the hindquarters and off the natural forehand tendency. Training continues for the life of the horse, with improvements in character and quality of gait dependent on strength, flexibility and suppleness, training skill level, and confidence of the horse to ambulate with reasonable ease or over challenging terrain. 

Training Programs

Training is an on-going, controlled process of steady increases in demand that elicit progressive adaptations of the musculoskeletal system.  The safest way to start any horse, especially a young horse, is to apply low-intensity training to stimulate a horse’s different musculoskeletal systems to respond and adapt to incrementally increasing levels of exercise stress. This type of exercise relies on walk-trot at slowly lengthened durations, eventually reaching a steady program of long, slow-distance training, or LSD. The distance or time you ask the horse to exercise is increased while the intensity remains moderate, no faster than a working trot to start. In this way, a young horse’s bones, joints, tendons, ligaments, and hooves receive relatively low impact, but the cardiovascular system develops to improve endurance and stamina. At the same time, the neuromuscular system improves in agility and skill level to enable the horse to pursue your intended athletic discipline. All the while, a young horse’s confidence steadily improves, particularly if he is not over-faced early on by exercise demand or intensity.

When implementing a training strategy, expose your young horse to various stimuli to improve every musculoskeletal component. This may be a combination of exercises including arena or round pen work at walk, trot, and canter, or hill work, or cavalletti poles, or running free in pasture turn out. While training the various musculoskeletal tissues, one must not lose sight of the horse’s body as a whole working unit. Regardless of the athletic discipline to be pursued, there are basic starting points upon which to build a strong foundation.

Protecting Bones and Joints

For a young horse, age 2 – 5 years of age, LSD work may continue for months or seasons before he is asked to proceed at more rapid paces. Yet, one adaptable system that needs consideration for development is the “organ” of bone, and another is that of the joints. Data indicates that unrestricted turnout exercise for 24 x7 results in better bone density and reduced developmental orthopedic disease (DOD). A young horse confined to a stall does not develop the bone density of a youngster that is given the opportunity to exercise. Restriction of exercise retards normal development of the joints, creating a longer opportunity and greater risk to incur DOD.

A concept known as enhanced cyclic loading stimulates improved structural stability of joint cartilage and bone. This is achieved with moderate exercise, and is important to a young horse to develop joints and other musculoskeletal structures with optimal longevity. An excess of exercise demand damages the tissues, whereas too little exercise does not promote adaptation and conditioning that enable a horse to perform well in later years.

Studies have demonstrated that a very short duration of sprint activity is advantageous to stimulate mineral deposition for optimal bone density and strength, and to elicit protective remodeling of the joint tissues. Short periods of impact loading, as with trot on a hard surface, are able to stimulate improved bone condition with an increase in mass and density, particularly in the long bones of the skeleton. For most performance and pleasure pursuits, a horse’s skeleton can be adapted by the work of trotting on a firm surface for short periods, or with sprint gallops in turnout.

A gallop for less than ¼ mile (400 meters) is all that is needed to stimulate such an adaptive response for a racehorse, but for most pleasure and performance horses, this is usually accomplished in a large pasture turnout where a young horse can play. If pasture is not available, then the young horse should be exercised or ponied off a reliable older horse while encouraged to move at a vigorous trot on a firm surface, but he need not travel more than ¼ mile. The speed demanded for this task should be increased slowly over a period of time. In order to avoid soft tissue or joint injury, the young horse is only urged to faster speed after he has been conditioned with LSD work for a couple of months.  

Too much high-intensity impact can backfire, and instead of achieving adaptation, can instead lead to joint deterioration. Bone that overlies cartilage in the joint may adapt initially, but then with too much stimulus may overly increase its mass and stiffness, thereby losing some of its shock absorption ability. The, joint cartilage will incur more impact stress, and if damaged will later develop degenerative joint disease, or arthritis. A common sense approach of “less is more” enables you to implement short periods of impact exercise that stimulate a beneficial adaptive response in the joints and in long bones. As efforts are made to protect growing joints and bone, these same techniques will take care of tendons, ligaments, and muscles during their development.

Exercises to Avoid

Steady, moderate exercise at walk and trot first on level ground, then later adding in hill work, is the best way to develop a young horse’s physical and mental strength. Yet, for you to be safe in the saddle requires some amount of arena or round-pen work to teach the horse to yield, hook on, to move forward or to the side when asked, to stop when asked, and most of all to garner a young horse’s respect for you as the “lead” boss. Everyone has a different way of accomplishing this: Some use round pen work with natural horsemanship tools; others use arena work on the longe line. 

Since there are no set rules as to how long to exercise a young horse, the trick here is to think “moderation.” Short training periods (20 – 30 minutes) in the round pen or on a longe line can yield significant results without physical duress. Extended training periods (longer than 30 minutes) on the longe line or ridden round and round in circles have the potential to place excess torque on developing joints and bones. Sudden stops or turns or rollbacks also increase impact wear on the limbs. Similarly, too many consecutive training days adds cumulative stress load to the musculoskeletal system.

So common sense should prevail, using some general guidelines:

·        Allow for 5 – 10 minutes each of warm up and cool down
·        Limit circle work or repetitive exercises to less than 20 - 30 minutes each session
·        Moderate to intense training periods should not be offered more frequently than every other day or two to allow for tissue rest and recovery between training periods
·        Turn the horse out to pasture whenever possible for rest and recovery between training sessions

On the “off” days, other training techniques can be applied, like ponying the youngster behind an experienced horse for short mileage at a slow to moderate speed, or ground handling work, or accustoming the horse to equipment and tack. These days are also useful to teach the youngster about trailer loading, tying, grooming, and leg handling. Every opportunity should be taken to teach a young horse to respect one’s space and to be tractable to being led in any direction. The time taken to teach good ground breaking manners will yield dividends once you’re in the saddle.

Benefits of Pasture Turn Out  

A young horse out on pasture achieves many benefits.  He learns how to move his gangly frame, becoming agile and coordinated as he frolics in big, open spaces, particularly when he has other young buddies to run with.  

While young growing tissues are highly adaptive, mature tissues have very limited abilities to respond. There is a window of time that is optimal to condition and train musculoskeletal tissues to ensure the best potential to hold up to exercise stress. Within the first half year of a young horse’s life, he should not be constrained in a stall or paddock, but should be turned out to pasture for at least a portion of each day. Caution should be taken that the growing foal does not incur too much exercise stress on forming joints, bones, or soft tissues, as inappropriate or excessive exercise has an impact that may last into a horse’s mature years.

Studies have documented how a pastured horse improves in all portions of his gait, ultimately developing locomotion skills to cover ground with less joint motion along with better coordination between front and rear limbs. This improves a horse’s gait, rhythm, and cadence, giving him the tools to become a superb athlete within the limits of his genetic potential. Studies support the findings that young horses that are pastured full time develop musculoskeletal tissues that are more resistant to injury, whereas confined youngsters do not. Not everyone has the luxury of providing full-time turnout and so mare and foal are confined in a stall or paddock for part of the day, and then turned out for various periods of time. In these cases, studies demonstrate that associated short, but intense periods of exercise may interfere with a developing horse’s tissue resistance to injury. Nonetheless, it is better for a young, growing horse to have at least part-time turn out rather than none at all.   

The Early Years: Nutritional Concerns

Growth is a lengthy process in a young horse, taking a couple of years for the skeletal structures to lengthen and mineralize. During that time, attention should be paid to the details of a growing horse’s nutritional plane: Feed as little concentrate supplement as necessary to maintain good, but not obese, body condition and growth rates. Some breeds like Warmbloods, draft crosses and Morgans thrive on 70 – 80 percent of what might be necessary for “hotter” breeds like Thoroughbreds.  

Too much consumed energy contributes to developmental orthopedic disease (DOD) problems that adversely impact athletic longevity.  Overfeeding of carbohydrate energy sources, such as grains, starches, or high fructans or sugar feed is a primary cause of DOD, particularly during certain phases of growth. These forms of feed, particularly in the face of mineral imbalances, lead to abnormal and improper mineralization of bone; then, legs are prone to develop defects. High protein is not the initiating problem, although a young, growing horse doesn’t need more than 12 – 14 % protein in the ration. A diet must be balanced to achieve musculoskeletal health, and malnutrition (either underfeeding or overfeeding) should be avoided. Underfeeding may stunt a growing horse and if minerals are lacking, can still cause DOD. Overfeeding, especially carbohydrate-rich grains and supplements that contribute excess calories, has the potential to create permanent limb damage along with metabolic and hormonal upset leading to DOD. 

The metabolism of a young horse is especially impacted by the tendency of horse owners to feed as a matter of convenience rather than focusing on evolutionary adaptations of the equine digestive tract. Wild horses evolved to eat small amounts frequently throughout the day, with seasonal periods of relatively poor nutritional availability. The current state of domesticity of the horse finds owners continually offering grain and high-carbohydrate feeds year round, coupled with exercise restriction and twice a day feeding. Studies document that horses left to their own devices do not voluntarily fast for more than 3 - 4 hours, even at night. Barn practices of feeding twice daily portions of restricted hay and copious grain mean that each meal is consumed within a couple of hours and then the horse goes for long periods of fasting before his next meal arrives. This results in huge peaks and valleys of insulin and other hormones that exacerbate the potential for development of DOD.  

Practical feeding to promote musculoskeletal health in a young horse includes:

·        Free choice grass hay
·        Feed appropriate calcium: phosphorus ratios designed for growth
·        Ensure micromineral (selenium, copper, zinc, and magnesium) balancing of the ration relevant to your specific geographic location
·        Minimize or eliminate carbohydrate-rich feeds like grains or similar supplements
·        Offer high fat foods (oil, rice bran) to substitute for needed calories
·        Refrain from overfeeding excess protein
·        Consult with your veterinarian to individualize an optimal diet tailored for your young horse relevant to his genetic tendencies and growth surges

Conditioning thr Equine Athlete

In the wild, a band of horses will travel far distances each day in search of forage and water. It is not uncommon for wild horse herds to range 10 - 20 miles in a day. But what happens when we take our normally sedentary, domesticated horses out of a small pasture or paddock confinement and attempt to put them to work in athletic sports? The situation becomes more complex than experienced by a free-ranging horse. For starters, a horse in athletic pursuits is usually asked to move out at a faster and more consistent pace than what he might select given his own options. Also, now a horse must carry your weight on his back during these exertions.

To make the journey as safe as possible for your horse, you'll want to commit to a conditioning program. The goal of conditioning is to develop your horse’s structural and metabolic foundation to withstand the stress of exercise with minimal injury. 

Two tenets to remember:

  • A horse that is brought along too quickly is destined to fail structurally.
  • An athletic horse doesn't just pop out of the pasture ready to compete.



A wise training program focuses on the need of different body tissues to adapt over time. The building of a prospect is a lengthy project, requiring years to peak to excellence. First, outline your personal goals, and then construct a conditioning strategy that considers several factors: a) your horse's starting point; b) how different organ systems respond differently to training; and c) the demands of your desired equine discipline. Taking the time to build a structural foundation will pay dividends in your horse's future performance.

Response of Different Organ Systems

A young horse entering his first athletic season responds well to conditioning as his tissues are still growing and developing. If you are converting a horse from another sport to your desired pursuit, then you start with an advantage: His athletic body has already been primed to respond to the conditioning process. The skill and demands of a new sport may be different, but the horse's metabolic and physical components have been "programmed" to some degree. On the other hand, a mature horse that has not participated in strenuous athletics in its lifetime may never fully develop its genetic potential. Those tissues may have lost some inherent ability to respond to conditioning, and the strategy used will be similar to that applied to a young, previously non-athletic horse. You can expect the process to take longer for an idle horse than for a young or already-working horse.  

As you consider the rate at which you are able to prepare your horse toward total body fitness, keep in mind that tissues with the greatest blood supply respond most quickly to conditioning.  Skin, muscles, the lungs, and heart possess an excellent blood supply, responding to cardiovascular training within 3 to 6 months. Enzyme systems and blood circulation improve rapidly in muscles, while skin capillaries develop to assist in body cooling.  

Support tissues like ligaments, tendons, and joint capsules are relatively poorly supplied with blood, so preparation of these tissues requires at least 6 - 12 months. If you ask your horse for too much work or speed on under-developed support tissues, you may see signs of excess stress, such as filling along the tendons, swelling in the tendon sheaths or joints, and possibly lameness.

Bone requires the longest period of time to develop to full density and strength – conditioning of bone takes 1-2 years. To fully develop a young horse or an idle, mature horse, you may need as long as three years before your horse can be expected to be extremely competitive in rigorous or endurance athletic events. However, an already well-developed athletic horse may be safely entered into competition within 3 to 6 months, assuming the horse has suffered no previous injuries.

Starting a Conditioning Program

Before you start in with an exercise program, you'll want to attend to basic maintenance needs, fine-tuning where necessary. Make sure your horse’s hooves receive regular balanced trims and are correctly shod with adequate foot support. If you use hoof boots, make sure they fit well and that your horse is comfortable in them without suffering from any rub spots. Discuss dietary needs and routine parasite control and vaccination measures with your vet. Have your vet address dental needs, like floating. If wolf teeth are present on a young horse, have them pulled.  Check saddle fit to ensure the saddle won't create back soreness or tack galls. You'll get the best performance from your horse if he feels well in body, and has energy resources to draw from.

As you plan your riding strategy, your aim is to develop a solid foundation on your horse. Like building blocks, each organ system must be prepared before adding the next layer of stress. The surest way to minimize musculoskeletal injury is to allow time to be the main ingredient in your conditioning recipe.

The basis of a conditioning program for any age horse and for any athletic discipline is long slow distance work (LSD). The objective during this phase of conditioning is to slowly stress the cardiovascular and structural tissues while building your horse's capacity to tolerate aerobic exercise. To begin, work your horse at relatively slow speeds of walk and trot or slow canter for the first several months of your program. With the assistance of a heart rate monitor (see Sidebar), attempt to maintain your horse's working heart rate below 150 bpm (beats per minute), preferably 120 - 140 bpm.  

Initially, maintain your horse at this aerobic heart rate for about an hour at least every other day.  Your horse should be able to travel 4 to 6 miles in that hour on relatively level ground. Once your horse is comfortable at this pace, you'll want to further "stress" his tissues to gain conditioning improvements. Either increase the duration of the workout, or the speed, but never both at the same time. The best approach is to slowly increase the length of each training period at the same low-level intensity of exercise you have already been doing. "Slow" means adding another 10 - 15 minutes every 4 or 5 days.

Once your horse accepts longer rides of a couple hours duration and is still fresh and eager at the end of the ride, you can move to the next step: Gradually increase the work intensity by asking for a slightly faster speed, or by adding hills to the ride. A safe approach asks your horse for incremental increases in length or difficulty on roughly an every five-day cycle. This gives his body time to accommodate the new intensity before moving to the next level of effort. Continue to monitor his legs for signs of stress. Your horse's appetite and attitude should remain normal all the while you ask for more effort.

This recommendation may seem painfully slow to some, but as you follow this program, you'll gain a measure of confidence in the process. As you systematically develop your horse to accept more load, you’ll notice his enhanced energy and enthusiasm in his work will be a great pay-back for your effort.

Strength Training

Your horse's cardiovascular system improves its oxygen delivery systems during the preliminary three months of LSD training. As muscle tone improves, you'll enjoy the satisfaction of seeing muscle definition appear. With this foundation in place, you then begin diligent strengthening of your horse's muscles and support tissues. Steady training over the next 6 to 12 months should double your horse's muscular strength. In human athletes, strength training reduces the risk of musculoskeletal injuries by more than 50 percent. This, then, is an important element in promoting athletic longevity.

The LSD training initiates development of your horse's muscular endurance (the ability to sustain work for prolonged periods), but to improve muscular strength, you need to increase the intensity of the workouts, or the number of repetitions of a particular drill. Incorporate steeper hill climbs, or accelerate your horse's speed up a moderate ascent as reliable methods to increase the exercise intensity while improving muscular strength. Hill work for horses is similar to what humans accomplish when performing weight-lifting exercises. Muscles must push against a greater resistance as your horse moves his mass up a hill along with the combined weight of you and your tack. Other drills that are useful to develop muscular strength include dressage work, cavalletis, jumping gymnastics, or accustoming your horse to work in deeper footing, like sand.

Include strength-training exercises 2 to 3 times a week, or every other day. Remember that as your horse develops muscle strength, his cardiovascular condition continues to improve.

Speed Play and Interval Training

By four to five months into your program, your horse should have a solid foundation of long slow distance work and a good start on strength-training preparation. Now, you can begin to ask for some faster work. Fartleks are brief sprints that teach a horse's muscles and metabolism to bump against the anaerobic threshold. (This is the point where the muscles contract using metabolism that is not entirely fueled with oxygen.) Bring your horse to a working heart rate of 160 - 170 bpm by speeding up his trot, or cantering or galloping slowly; then quickly slow back to aerobic work for rapid recovery.

These moments of speed play, which are exciting for your horse and for you as the rider, bring different muscle groups into use. Yet, your horse is not over-exerted for too long, thereby preventing unnecessary wear-and-tear on the musculoskeletal tissues. 
After at least 5 or 6 months of LSD conditioning, or after a solid first season, you can introduce interval training to teach your horse's tissues to tolerate longer periods of anaerobic exercise.  You need to work your horse at a high enough intensity of exercise to drive the heart rate over 180 bpm.  This is easily accomplished with flat gallops or trot and canters up a hill.

You only need to introduce these stress periods for 2 to 3 minutes duration for the tissues to gain some training effect in the anaerobic mode. The objective is to expose the tissues to working in the absence of oxygen for a few minutes. Then quickly bring your horse back to a working heart rate less than 150 - 160 bpm to allow tissue recovery. Before asking for the next speed interval, allow the length of the aerobic recovery period to be 3 to 4 times as long as what you took to perform the fast interval. During these less difficult periods, heat and lactic acid are flushed from the muscles, and oxygen is re-circulated to the muscle cells. Meanwhile, the intense "work" intervals challenge muscle cells to adapt to a low oxygen environment.

Measure of Fitness

Remember that the cardiovascular system is the first "organ" system to respond to exercise stress. You may notice that your horse's heart rate recovers quite rapidly to metabolic stress, but don't forget that the tendons, ligaments, joints, hooves, and bone must be equally durable in the face of protracted work. If you press too quickly and ask for too much, your horse may suffer a soundness problem, or develop a metabolic mishap.

By the end of your first season of conditioning, you should have your horse moving out at about 8 to 10 mph over fairly level terrain 3 or 4 days a week. Heart rate should be maintained between 110 - 150 bpm. Resist the impulse to ride every day or for too many miles or training sessions even though your horse feels great as he works. He needs days off to rest and heal from each day’s previous work.

As your horse "seasons" over the years, he'll be able to maintain longer and longer periods of extended trot, canter, and gallop and will experience minimal fatigue while jumping higher jumps or climbing steeper hills or executing more elaborate dressage, reining, or cutting movements. Ultimately, your horse's locomotor efficiency will improve such that his heart rate remains within the aerobic state at far faster speeds than when you started a conditioning program. And, his heart rate recoveries will be more rapid. 

For those of you who are fitness buffs yourselves, you understand how much more easily you can execute an effort after half a year of training compared to the muscular burn you felt at the start of your exercise program.  The same holds true for your horse.  It is a gratifying process to watch your horse's condition develop, and to watch his physique change to sleek and fit as the months go on.


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