In many equestrian sports, the riders competing with the fittest mount can win the blue ribbon or even an opportunity to stand atop the Olympic medal podium. For this reason, horsemen often look to a technique called "interval training" to help provide a winning edge in equine performance.
Equine veterinarian and treasurer of the United States Para-Equestrian Association, Dr. Tomlinson notes the use of interval training by top trainers in the country.
© C. Mike Tomlinson, DVM 2011
Believed to have been developed in ancient times to condition chariot horses, today "interval training" (or IT) is best known in the eventing and endurance worlds where great stamina is required for success. But IT can be tailored to better prepare horses for excellence in almost any sport, including driving, jumping, racing, and western disciplines, since all share the same basic goal: to improve an equine athlete's performance.
"All of the best trainers use some form of interval training," notes renowned FEI veterinarian C. Mike Tomlinson, DVM MBA. "This type of fitness program can be effectively adapted to the niche of the discipline in which they compete, and also to the individual horses that they train."
Keep your horse's heart rate up
The basic premise of IT is to enable the horse to experience more intense work over several short periods of activity than would be possible if the work was carried out in one long duration. A successful IT program produces a faster, fitter, more athletic horse by challenging the cardiovascular system with periods of speed activity, interspaced with slower recovery periods to allow the horse's heart rate to return to slightly above normal before beginning the next active phase.
Depending upon the fitness goals for an equestrian discipline, these alternating speed and rest periods can be as simple as walk/trot/walk/trot combinations, or as strenuous as repeated gallop sets. In time, the horse should be able to travel faster for longer periods, perform event-specific work without the risk of fatigue and resulting injury, and make the sustained effort required in competition.
Interval training is ideal for conditioning a poly pony, or other horse sport participant where bursts of high speed activity are required.New window. 
Perhaps the most important parts of IT training are the "incomplete" recovery periods. While walking or trotting between speed sets and allowing the horse to catch his breath, one should be careful not to allow for a "full recovery" and inadvertent return to resting heart rate. The incomplete recovery method means that subsequent speed bouts become progressively harder, challenging the body to strengthen the heart, lungs, and muscles, helping them adapt to stress and making them better able to cope with exercise the next time it occurs.
As the horse's fitness level improves and he becomes accustomed to the routine, the intensity and number of speed repetitions can be increased, and the length of the partial recoveries shortened. Over time, IT will improve the capacity of the horse's respiratory and circulatory systems, allowing the heart to become stronger and pump more oxygen-rich blood around the body, nourishing working tissues and delaying the onset of the anaerobic phase of exercise when lactic acid accumulates in muscles, resulting in fatigue.
Starting out slowly protects the horse
Have a plan
Having a plan is critical to success with interval training. Before starting, the rider must map out the distance and speed of intervals, the number of repeats, and the duration of recovery periods. An example of a day's workout may be to warm up the horse, then perform three 4-minute canters interspersed with 3-minute walk periods. Start conservatively and slowly build up the number and length of intervals of speed work, and/or shorten rest periods. Ask your trainer/coach or an experienced professional to help work out the best interval training structure for your discipline and level of competition.
Before starting an intense IT program with their mounts, horsemen should build a foundation of what is commonly called "long slow distance," which is a gradual introduction to greater amounts of physical exertion. The objective is to work the horse slowly over a gradually increasing period of time, such as during basic ring work or long trail rides. This initial stage of conditioning prepares the horse's body for the future challenges of interval training and competition.
Once the IT phase of conditioning begins, riders must resist the temptation to overtax their mounts as a horse's heart rate can spike dangerously if too much work is asked for too soon. In addition, a horse's skeleton and supporting structures (such as tendons and ligaments) are much slower to adapt to the rigors of training compared to the heart and muscles and may be susceptible to injury.
Read the horse's vital signs
IT can be designed to bring a horse to peak fitness and readiness for competition, but riders must be prepared to devote a greater amount of time to training. In order to be successful, IT is part of a long-term fitness program over many weeks and even months, requiring a significant commitment to time in the saddle, patience, and observation to monitor the horse's health.
Monitoring a horse's heart rate during active exercise can now be done while mounted. These monitors cost $150 to $250 USD.
One important horsemanship skill can be very helpful in optimizing fitness results: knowing how to take a horse's heart rate. Reading a horse's pulse and noting his length of time for recovery will help judge his fitness level, allowing conditioning adjustments to be made as necessary. As a mount becomes fitter, his heart rate will remain lower during stress and recover more quickly during rest periods. To optimize tracking of results, many riders incorporate heart rate monitors to better evaluate their horse's fitness progress.
Keep your equine partner happy
Mental preparation of your equine partner for the demands of interval training is just as important as physical fitness, and the mood or attitude of your horse can be an effective gauge to how he is handling the demands of his workouts. Behavioral changes such as pinning of ears, wringing of tail, or reluctance to perform can be some of the indicators of physical discomfort, soreness, or too much stress.
Don't forget the warm-up
An important part of any type of conditioning program is the warm-up period preceding each workout. This time is crucial to raise the horse's body temperature, increase blood flow to working muscles, and minimize chances for exercise-related injuries.
Interval training is part of a winning combination of horsemanship combined with science to produce competitive success. But since every horse is an individual who reacts differently to the pressures of work and competition, horsemen must be sensitive to their mounts and design workouts to best suit different levels of physical capabilities and personalities. While the challenges of interval training can effectively prepare an equine athlete to excel, only horses who are strong in both body and mind will be able to perform to the best of their abilities.
Interval training is a strenuous workout for your horse and is not meant to be used every day. Instead, incorporate IT for two days out of a six-day work week, alternating with lighter workouts.
Learn more about using a heart rate monitor to condition your horse in How to Measure Your Horse's Fitness with a Heart Rate Monitor .
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The best tool to measure and monitor your horse's fitness is a heart rate monitor. You can view your horse's heart rate while you are riding, allowing you to maintain whatever heart rate you desire for either aerobic or anaerobic conditioning. This heart rate monitor  from Polar Industries comes with a sensor that you place between your girth/cinch. The sensor wirelessly transmits the heartrate info to the wrist watch.
Dr. Claytons book, Conditioning Sport Horses  is currently out of print, but can be picked up in new or used conditions from online resellers. This book takes an academic approach and does not cover basic training details and techniques.
If you are looking for a rider oriented book that will help you learn how to condition your own horse, we recommend Equine Fitness: A Program of Exercises and Routines for Your Horse . This book is wonderfully illustrated and will help you build your own conditioning program based on the needs of you and your horse.
About the author
Originally from upstate New York, Jennifer is a lifelong horsewoman and graduate of the University of Kentucky. She spent the early years of her career in the advertising, retail, equine management and veterinary fields. Jennifer then spent more than eight years with the United States Equestrian Federation as the National Director of Dressage.
Now a published author and photographer, Jennifer is doing what she loves by continuing her career in the equine industry. She is currently the owner of Yellow Horse Marketing, which specializes in public relations work for equine organizations, companies, and competitions.
Jennifer lives just outside Lexington, KY, and competes in hunters, dressage, and pleasure driving with her World Champion palomino Quarter Horse, "Whistlin Dixi Time", as well as combined driving with her rescued Hackney pony, "Harpo".