Conditioning a Horse for Work after a Layoff

Conditioning a horse on a trail ride on Antelope Island, Utah.
Conditioning a horse on a trail ride on Antelope Island, Utah. A4GPA

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.

Trail riding for better conditioning.

Slow and steady walking for better conditioning.

Miles of trail riding help improve the conditioning of your horse.
© 2009 by Davy Nin

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.

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Author picture

Heather Smith Thomas has raised and trained horses for 58 years and has been writing about them nearly that long. She got her first horse at age 9 and began raising horses of her own while in high school, using them in 4-H and to help with cattle work on her parents’ ranch.

She began writing horse stories for children’s magazines and horse care articles for equine publications to help pay her way through college (University of Puget Sound), and has sold more than 10,000 stories and articles and published 24 books. Her first book, A horse in Your Life: A Guide for the New Owner, was written during the summer between her sophomore and junior year of college and published by A.S. Barnes & Company in 1966.

Most of her magazine articles deal with health care, breeding, training, horse behavior/handling or veterinary topics (horses and cattle). She and her husband raise beef cattle and a few horses on a ranch in the mountains of eastern Idaho, where they use their horses for cattle work.

What began as an expression of interest and love of horses (freelance writing) soon became a way to help pay the bills on a struggling family ranch; her writing became the equivalent of an “off farm job” that could be done at home at odd hours between riding range to check on cattle, delivering calves, etc.

Heather rarely leaves the ranch--staying home to take care of “critters” has been a way of life. After selling some of the cow herd to her son and his family, her part time writing job has become more full time. She now writes regularly for more than 25 farm and livestock magazines and about 30 horse publications,

Recent books include Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey’s Guide to Training Horses, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Stable Smarts, Beyond the Flames—A Family Touched by Fire, Care and Management of Horses, Understanding Equine Hoof Care, Good Horse-Bad Habits, Essential Guide to Calving, and Cattle Health Handbook.

Heather's most recent books include Horse Tales: True Stories from an Idaho Ranch, a compilation of horse stories telling about some of the interesting and challenging horses in her life. Cow Tales; More True Stories from an Idaho Ranch, and Ranch Tales: Stories of Dogs, Cats and Other Crazy Critters. Most of her books and articles deal with horses or cattle health care, breeding, or handling. Her goal has been to learn all she can about care and handling of horses and cattle and to share these experiences with her readers.

These days, she enjoys riding with her youngest grandchildren who live on the ranch are now ages 14 through 17. She has also appreciated the help of her oldest granddaughter (Heather Carrie Thomas) who graduated from Carroll College and is now married and living on a farm in Saskatchewan. “Grandma Heather” enjoys the special times with her grandchildren who share her love of horses.