Your Horse's Daily Workout

The many benefits of a consistent daily workout.
The many benefits of a consistent daily workout.

10 reasons for a daily horse workout

Daily exercise is essential for the over-all health of your horse. A daily workout benefits your horse in the following ways:

  1. Increases stamina and endurance
  2. Improves functioning of heart and lungs
  3. Tones and improves functioning of muscles, tendons and ligaments
  4. Facilitates and maintains proper bone and hoof development
  5. Aids motility of the digestive tract
  6. Increases clearance of secretions from lungs
  7. Improves the immune system
  8. Increases resistance to disease
  9. Helps prevent behavioral problems associated with confinement
  10. Keeps your horse mentally alert resulting in quicker reflexes and better coordination

As part of your horse's fitness and conditioning, the daily workout give you the opportunity to work with your equine buddy in ways that will not only improve the physical and mental health of your horse, but will also improve your health and certainly your working relationship with your horse.

Where to start

If you haven't been exercising your horse on a daily basis, it's important to take a look at the horse's physical condition before beginning an exercise program and then easing into the program. By monitoring the horse's condition before and after each workout, you will have a good idea of how well your work out program is progressing.

If the horse is young or older, isn't used to much physical activity, or has health problems, you will need to start with light exercise and gradually work up to a level that will either maintain or improve the horse's level of fitness.

If you have questions about how much exercise your horse needs, talk with your veterinarian about developing a good daily workout regimen.

Basic elements of a daily workout

  • Warming up: Warming up is essential for getting the best performance and for reducing the chance of injuries. It involves a gradual increase in exercise intensity so that the limbs move freely, the horse relaxes mentally, and there is increased oxygen delivery to the muscles which enhances their ability to work aerobically and reduces lactate build up.
  • Stretching and/or suppling exercises: A regular stretching routine is good insurance against injury and enhances sensory nerve endings in muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints that give the horse's brain information about movement and body position. Suppling exercises increase your horse's suppleness and elasticity, and greatly reduce the chances of pulled muscles or tendons. In addition, stretching and suppling exercises improve circulation and help relieve pain, inflammation and muscle spasms.
  • The Workout Exercise Routine: Horses that are pastured and free to move around most or all of the day will benefit from a 15 to 20 minute workout each day. Horses that are stabled most of the time will require at least a 30 minute workout each day and will benefit most from an hour or more of exercise activity.
  • The Cool-down Period: After exercise, the horse needs to gradually cool down, be dried off if necessary and remain in motion until the body heat has normalized.

The warm-up

A number of different activities can be used for warming up your horse. In fact, any light physical exercise that gets the horse's musculoskeletal system working can serve as a warm-up depending on the age and condition of the horse. Allowing the horse to walk or trot at a nice, easy pace for 10 - 15 minutes works well for most horses

Longeing the horse at an easy pace to get it moving and the muscles active works well also.

If the horse has turn-out time in the pasture before beginning the daily workout, that will serve part of the warm-up.

The air temperature needs to be taken into consideration during the warm up. During cold weather, it will take longer for muscles to reach their ideal working temperature. A warming blanket or a heat lamp may be used during cold weather to warm the muscles prior to exercise.

Stretching and suppling exercises

After 5-10 minutes of warm-up activity, the musculoskeletal system should be warm enough to do some stretching and some suppling exercises.

Under saddle, the back and neck can be stretched carefully. Next, stretch the horse's limbs by extending the non-weight bearing limb carefully in each direction without pulling or using excessive force and working from front left limb to back left limb and then from front right limb to back right limb. Spend up to a minute or less on each limb depending on your horse's needs and reactions.

Suppling exercises fall into three categories: dynamic, passive or natural. Natural suppling exercises include activities the horse does naturally such as rolling, grazing, scratching and biting at flies. As the horse engages in each of these activities, flexibility and suppleness are maintained and improved.

Passive suppling exercises are usually done prior to riding and after riding while the horse is warmed up. In effect, passive suppling exercises consist of stretching the horse's shoulders, hips, back, neck and poll and can play an important role in symmetrical development.

Effective passive suppling exercises include moving the hind leg forward and across the body under the widest part of the stomach; folding the foreleg and rotating the point of the shoulder up and forward, stretching the neck forward and down between the horse's knees and to the side towards the girth area.

Dynamic suppling exercises can be accomplished by either riding or walking the horse through a series of traditional suppling exercises. These include making turns, circles, serpentines, doing lateral work, making transitions forward and backward, and leg yielding.

As the horse becomes accustomed to the dynamic suppling exercises, include smaller circles and voltes and add more difficult lateral movements.

The purpose of suppling exercises is to systematically get the horse's musculoskeletal system working in a synchronized way that develops suppleness and flexibility throughout the body.

The daily workout routine

Depending on your horse's workload and whether or not your horse is a performance or competition horse, your daily workout will be specific to the kind of work your horse does. The daily workout helps condition your horse for the type of work it does.

For example, if your horse is a jumper, part of the warm up will include some jumping of lower fences and the actual workout will include a progressive increase in size of the fences to allow a gradual stretching of the tendons and ligaments.

If your horse is a pleasure horse used for trail riding, the workout routine will include trail riding with gradual increases in speed from walking to trotting to galloping and possibly some more intricate trail maneuvers.

Although riding is viewed by many as the best way to exercise your horse, you can vary the routine by longeing the horse. Longeing works well with horses that cannot be ridden for whatever reason and in young horses, longeing may be sufficient to initiate cardiovascular adaptations.

The workload during longeing may be increased by working the horse with more impulsion or on a deeper surface such as a bed of sand.

When a horse canters on a loose deep surface the heart rate is around 180 bests per minute and a significant elevation of blood lactate occurs. If you are doing longeing on a loose, deep surface for conditioning, introduce the work slowly with gradual increments to avoid muscular or tendon injuries.

You may also use a treadmill to exercise your horse. Work on a treadmill begins by warming up with the surface flat and walking the horse for a few minutes. The speed is then increased gradually and the surface of the treadmill may be inclined to increase the exercise level.

At the end of the workout the speed is reduced gradually to allow an active warm down ending with a period of walking.

If you have access to a pool where your horse can swim, swimming can become part of the daily workout. Although most horses swim well, extra care should be taken the first time a horse is put into a pool because a few horses will sink and others may become distressed.

It is recommended that horses swim very briefly the first time and gradually build up to 10-20 minutes over time. If a horse has a back injury or a lung disease, swimming is not recommended because of stress placed on those parts of the body.

The cooling-down period

The way you approach cooling down your horse will depend on the weather and other environmental conditions. Following the workout, a period of relaxed walking will help the horse adjust to lowered activity. The main goal of the cool-down period is to get the horse to a point where it is, cool, dry, and relaxed, but not cold. If temperatures are cold, a blanket to help maintain body heat will be necessary once the horse's temperature and heart rate are back to normal.

If the weather is hot and the horse is overheated, it should be moved to a shady area, and, if necessary the horse may be sponged or sprayed with cool water to enhance heat loss. The horse can be offered small drinks of water to replace fluids lost during exercise. No hay or feed should be offered until the horse's temperature is below 102 degrees F to minimize the risk of colic. A little hay is safe feed at that point, but grain should be saved until later.

Consider this

Whatever form of exercise you choose for your horse's daily workout, it is important to be consistent in maintaining the daily schedule. Irregular exercise predisposes some horses to "tying up" and injuries can occur when a horse is given time off and then brought back into a full daily workout program without time for retraining

About the Author

EquiMed Staff

EquiMed staff writers team up to provide articles that require periodic updates based on evolving methods of equine healthcare. Compendia articles, core healthcare topics and more are written and updated as a group effort. Our review process includes an important veterinarian review, helping to assure the content is consistent with the latest understanding from a medical professional.