Every horse needs preparation for his job. If he’s had time off, such as during winter when you weren’t riding, or during recovery from illness or injury, he needs a period of gradually reconditioning to get back in shape.
A soft horse not only becomes tired quicker, but is at risk for problems/injuries such as cinch sores, saddle sores, strained/sore muscles or muscles tying up, pulled joints, colic, “thumps” and other unhealthy conditions.
Even a short ride might be too much for a soft horse that hasn’t had opportunity for exercise, especially if he has to climb hills or exert in hot weather.
Consider your situation, and how you’d feel if after several months of inactivity you suddenly had to run a marathon or go mountain climbing. If the horse had a “vacation” you can’t expect him to pick up where you left off. His muscles are out of shape, and he might be too fat (or thin) for hard work.
If he’s thin, gradually increase his feed as you start riding. He’ll need more calories for energy as well as building body reserves. Don’t suddenly increase his grain ration, however, or you’ll risk indigestion, colic or founder. Feed changes should be made slowly.
If he’s fat, he’ll tire easily (carrying extra weight around) and become overheated quicker; fat is insulating and makes it harder to cool himself efficiently by sweating. If he’s fat from pasture or too much hay during idle months, don’t cut back his feed; he’ll burn the extra calories and pounds as you condition him. If he’s fat from too much grain, however, cut back his grain ration until he loses the fat.
If he’s fat and hasn’t been ridden for a while, he’s more likely to get a cinch sore if your rides are too long or strenuous at first. There’s fat under the skin, the skin is tender, and the girth area needs time to toughen in with multiple short rides—so the cinch or girth won’t rub a raw spot.
If time off was simply vacation over winter, you can start him back into work at a lower level and increase the length and intensity of workouts. If layoff was due to illness or injury, he may need a more careful return to fitness. A gradual increase in work should eventually include climbing hills, for developing cardiovascular fitness and wind.
To get a horse back into shape, he needs regular workouts but be careful to not overdo it. A horse kept in a stall needs more careful reconditioning than a horse at pasture that can self-exercise. The pastured horse won’t lose as much fitness during vacation from work.
After a horse has been fit, it doesn’t take as long to recondition him after a layoff, especially if he has room to move around. Horses don’t lose their fitness as rapidly as humans do.
Gradual conditioning enables the horse’s body to adapt and develop the ability to handle more work without pushing him too far at once. Give him some rest stops during a conditioning ride, and some days off between rides when he needs a break. Don’t over-stress him to the point of tearing him down instead of building him up.
If you can recognize when the horse is getting a little tired, conditioning is fairly easy; just take it one step at a time with short, easy rides at first, gradually increasing length and intensity before you do any speed work. It usually takes a couple weeks of riding every day or every other day to change the physiology of muscles, burning off fat and replacing it with muscle.
Getting heart and lungs back in shape takes longer than muscles. The muscles adjust fairly quickly to greater workload and more stress. Bones and joints take longest. For the first conditioning rides, use gentle terrain, then add more hills after the horse starts to build fitness. Going up and down hills is one of the best tools for fitness conditioning; this works the body harder than speed work.
Ride in open country, using natural terrain—uphill and down. Arena work is too repetitive and quickly becomes boring for the horse. Working in circles puts twisting forces on cannon bones and joints. Miles and miles at the walk in open country, gradually adding some trotting and hill climbing (and later some galloping as the horse gains fitness) is the best way to condition a horse without risk of injury.
At first you can do a short ride every day. You might only go a mile or two the first day, so he won’t get tired. Reward him by doing short, easy rides at first rather than wearing him out on a long ride.
Importance of warm-up and cool-down
Warm-up can be brisk walking, alternating with a trot, or moving in large circles to limber muscles and tendons. Five to 10 minutes of warm-up gets the heart rate elevated a little, increases circulation to the muscles, and increases respiration rate in preparation for faster work.
A warm-up increases oxygen intake for muscles, stretches the tendons and stimulates natural lubrication of joints, to prevent injuries.
Proper cool-out after a workout can prevent muscle stiffness and other problems. Most horses can do this themselves if they are turned back out into a pasture or large pen; they walk around and roll, go to feed and water, moving around. If they are put into a stall they need to be more carefully cooled out.
A horse can be adequately cooled out at the end of a conditioning workout if you drop to a slower speed before you end the workout. Horses that have been doing fast work can benefit from several minutes of trotting before they walk, since trotting keeps the blood circulating more—to bring overheated blood to the body surface for cooling.
If a horse is put away before he’s fully cooled, he’ll generally break out in a sweat again, even if he was dry when you put him away.