Conditioning for Equine Athletes

In order to properly condition your equine athlete, you must first consider the event the horse will participate in along with the experience and abilities of competing horses.  The amount of time available to complete the training also matters a great deal.  Even the animal’s condition following the previous race plays a part in conditioning for the next competition.

The Purpose of Conditioning Your Horse

The aim of equine condition programs is to improve the animals’ physical and psychological responses to physical activity.  Examples of physical responses include improved endurance, strength and skills including reining and jumping.  Reduced soreness and susceptibility to injury are added benefits.  In terms of psychological responses to conditioning, the horse experiences heightened confidence and more of an inclination to perform.  Furthermore, the animal feels more intellectually stimulated.

Let’s take a closer look at the physical changes that result from basic equine conditioning.  The animal’s muscular anatomy is enhanced through increased aerobic activity and subsequently improved capacity.  The animal’s muscles increase in both size and strength.  Even the fibers that comprise muscle tissue are altered following a basic conditioning program.  The animal’s respiratory system is also altered as more oxygen is ingested and ventilation decreases amidst exercise.  Even the horse’s bone changes; bone turnover is reduced while bone quality and quantity increase in proportion to the amount and intensity of training.  Basic equine conditioning also impacts the animal’s cardiovascular system.  This conditioning reduces the animal’s heart rate amidst exercise, expands the size and strength of the heart, boosts vascularity and heightens the blood’s capacity to carry red cells.

Tailor the Conditioning Program to the Event

Your horse’s conditioning program must be orchestrated with the upcoming event in mind.  Consider the type and length of exercise the animal will perform in the event.  Thoroughbred horse trainers will likely benefit from deviating from the traditional aerobic conditioning program.  After all, horse racing is considered an anaerobic activity.  Below, we take a look at the two basic conditioning program classes: high-speed and slow-speed.

High-speed Conditioning

Trainers intent on improving their horse’s anaerobic capacity will find high-speed training beneficial.  This approach is typically used in combination with long distance days in which the horse remains at a relatively slow speed.  In some cases, it makes sense to bump up the speed for small increments until the horse reaches maximum speed.  Some trainers such as Richard Schibell have found success bumping up the speed for just a bit, approaching top speed and then slightly increasing the distance.  Others commit to a certain distance and slowly increase the speed as the end point nears.

The conditioning method you select dictates the number of high-speed days in any given training period.  In general, trainers typically have the horse gallop at a fast pace across short distances in what is known as breezing.  The animal reaches three-quarters of its top speed once per week.  Other trainers employ a different approach in which they gallop their animal close to top event speed once every five days or so.

The overarching aim of high-speed horse conditioning is to boost the amount of training that spurs the anaerobic production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) without spurring fatigue or excessive training.  Training a horse at top speed is likely to overwork the animal so most trainers keep the horse at 80 percent of top event speed or below up until the competition.

It is interesting to note horse trainers in England make use of a treadmill with upwards of a 10 percent incline to bolster the animal’s anaerobic capacity.  This way, there is no need to force the animal to reach its top speed until it is absolutely necessary.  Studies have shown when high-speed conditioning is performed correctly, horses’ Type II muscle fibers increase.

Slow-speed Conditioning at Long Distances

Also known as endurance training, the slow-speed approach to preparing a horse for an event is employed in the initial weeks of conditioning programs.  This conditioning sometimes includes breaking.  Slow-speed distance conditioning is comprised of cantering and trotting at a slow pace across considerable distances.  The purpose of slow-speed conditioning is to enhance the animal’s aerobic production of ATP for improved energy.  Richard Schibell and similar trainers typically start the animal off at a slow pace and gradually hike the distance.

The amount of time the animal spends in this conditioning program differs by the upcoming event and the animal’s current condition.  In general, slow-speed conditioning lasts between a month and nine months.  Racehorses typically complete this program in five weeks or less while endurance horses often require upwards of two months.  Slow-speed conditioning has the potential to enhance horse limb strength, boost aerobic capacity and even cause the adaption of horse skeletal muscle.

Skill Training

Skill training is beneficial for horses set to compete in events that test specific skills.  A horse scheduled to compete in fox hunting or pole bending should engage in this type of training.  Horse trainers can alternate skill training between slow-speed and high-speed days.

Interval Training for Horses

Interval training is all the rage for people.  This unique approach to exercise is also quickly gaining favor for horses.  Interval horse training requires several workouts per day spaced out between sessions of short rest.  Certain trainers rely on his conditioning approach to serve as the animal’s high-speed program.  Some studies have shown interval training can change muscle fibers.  However, interval training should not be completed at anywhere near full speed as it can reverse previous gains and adaptations.

Beware of Horse Overtraining

Your horse will not be able to reach and maintain its fitness potential unless you regularly evaluate and improve the animal’s conditioning program.  Consistent exercises performed at the optimal intensity allows for the ideal rate of adaption.  Be careful to avoid the trap of exercising your horse at top intensity as overtraining will sabotage the animal’s chances in the upcoming event.  The last thing you need is an extended period of recovery when the animal should be in the midst of a training program.

The Detraining Process

Detraining is the rapid halting of a horse’s conditioning program for reasons outside of injury and/or sickness.  The animal endures a sudden loss of its adaptations following training sessions.  Alterations in muscle typically take place across a 2-4 week period.  Bone, muscle and cardiovascular changes ensue.  The animal’s ventilation capacity and oxygen uptake are likely to diminish a couple weeks into detraining.