Fitness for Horses
Tuesdays with Tony
Fitness. By far, not my favorite topic to discuss. My idea of fitness is moving from inside the clinic to outside, and maybe jumping up on the bench to sleep. This is acceptable for me since I’m a cat, rather than a horse who has a human imposing work expectations upon them. I would never bow to external pressures to do something like work. Those external pressures are important to understand if you’re asking your horse to do a job. The number one place injuries happen is at the point of fatigue. This week, let’s talk about how you know you’ve got your horse fit enough.
This is a statement I can really get behind. If the fitness journey is just beginning, or if you are trying to assess where your horse is on the fitness scale, going slow is never the wrong answer. Slow can mean two things.
First: literally slow. Add walking to your horse’s schedule. Thirty minutes of walking builds fitness without pounding on tendons, ligaments, and joints. Now, when I say walking, I mean walking like me heading to the food bowl, not me heading to my spot under the bush in front of the clinic to take a siesta. There’s a difference between ambling and walking with a purpose.
Second: add things slowly. There’s two ways to add stuff. You can add time, and you can add skills. Always add one at a time. For example, add a 3-minute trot set for two weeks before saying, “Ya know, starting piaffe this week sounds great.”
How Do I Know It’s Going Okay?
As the saying goes with you humans, that’s the $64,000 question. Though with adjustment to current pricing from 1955 levels, it’s a $686,576.72 question. That is an appropriate use of Google, by the way. Way better than asking Google what you should do with your colicky horse.
The answer is, there are several ways to know your fitness program is progressing. First, how does your horse feel when doing their job, and at the end of doing their job? For example, you had noticed Spot was really tired at the end of a weekend showing Dressage. That last day took all you had to get impulsion, relaxation, and all those other things Dressage judges go on about. With your new fitness program, how is that last day feeling? This is the ultimate test of a fitness program. Does your horse feel good doing what you wanted? If not, back to the drawing board to increase the work.
A great way to determine fitness level is heart rate. This can be done with all sorts of fancy gadgets these days. However, it can also be done with a cheap stethoscope! Ask your horse to do the job you’re asking. If you’re a show jumper, ask them to jump an entire course, maybe even add in a fake jump-off. Don’t skimp. Do the level you are looking for! Immediately upon finishing, take a heart rate. Now wait 2 minutes and take the heart rate again. The heart rate should have dropped below 100 beats per minute (bpm), and should be below 60 bpm after 10 minutes.
Temperature. This isn’t a straight-up indicator of fitness, but it can be important. There are lots of factors that go into a horse’s temperature. Fitness and the ability of the cardiovascular system to get rid of heat are a component. However, the temperature outside is also a really important factor. The important thing about temperature is to monitor it. It should go down, but it may take a while. For most horses, it should be back down to the 101F range by an hour after intense work. Racehorses may take longer, and I thought this was an interesting horse thing, their temperature may go up after they are done racing. Weird.
If you want to get super scientific, measuring blood lactate is a really, really great way to measure fitness. Lactate meters are very easy to use, and only a small amount of blood is needed to test. It’s kind of like my glucose measuring device for my diabetes. If you want to get super into fitness, talk with my Docs about lactate monitoring.
Every discipline with horses asks different fitness questions. It’s incredibly important to modify your horse’s fitness routine to answer those questions. If your reiner needs to collect, and extend, and hold their shape in a stop, then you’ve got to work on that. Dressage horses, especially at the upper levels, need so much core strength. You better work on that! Not to mention all that collection puts stresses on tendons and ligaments. They need to be ready for that stress, and not just thrown into it. This is where great trainers, riders, and veterinarians can help you. Having them help you identify sport-specific tasks and exercises to build strength and endurance is vital!
Don’t Forget the Human
Remember, you have to be fit to do the job, too! An unbalanced rider asking a horse to stop, turn, collect, jump, or any of the other things you ask puts that horse at a huge injury risk. Horses try hard to be good to you humans. Trying to lay down a slide while you’re hanging off the side puts extra stress on all the parts involved. Do your part. Work on your fitness, too!
Fitness is hard. It’s designed that way. Need help evaluating your horse’s fitness? Want help designing a fitness plan? Call my Docs. From heart rate monitoring to lactate levels to soundness and competition readiness, they’re here to help you and your horse.
Until next week,
P.S. My docs have some great fitness exercises over on our YouTube Channel. If you aren’t subscribed to that, you are missing out on some excellent video content! New videos come out all the time, so make sure you’re plugged in.
Tuesdays with Tony is the official blog of Tony the Clinic Cat at Springhill Equine Veterinary Clinic in Newberry, Florida. If you liked this blog, please subscribe below, and share it with your friends on social media! For more information, please call us at (352) 472-1620, visit our website at SpringhillEquine.com, or follow us on Facebook!