Conditioning and Schooling the Equine Athlete

For an equine athlete to remain healthy, the horse needs to have its body and mind strengthened and conditioned over a significant period of time.  To perform to its highest level of potential, the horse needs to be encouraged into a ‘healthy frame’ or ‘position’ that allows it to develop the necessary muscles for balance and throughness.  When these muscles have been developed through a careful and complete conditioning program, the equine athlete will be able to enjoy moving freely without injury for many years.

Conditioning Workouts and Schooling Plans

Just like a human athlete, for an equine athlete to remain healthy, its body (and mind) must be conditioned over a period of time. An individualized conditioning and schooling plan is instrumental in establishing a strong physical and mental foundation for the equine athlete. Each discipline requires a different combination of mental control and neuromuscular coordination.  A healthy conditioning (fitness) plan encourages maximum performance by inducing physiological and structural adaptations within the athlete. On the other hand, schooling exercises increase an equine’s motor control and mental discipline.

Conditioning Workouts

Different exercise workouts have different goals that should be in line with the goals of the chosen discipline and the baseline condition of the horse.

Many different conditioning workout techniques are utilized to custom the exercise routine.  These include:

  • continuous training (long slow distance)
  • interval training (exercise is broken up into short work times separated by rest intervals)
  • sprints
  • inertial drills (changes speed or direction)
  • strength training
  • overloading through hill work
  • cavalletti work
  • groundwork for suppling

By incorporating discipline specific conditioning for both the horse and rider, RPH encompasses this foundation piece to bring along the performance athlete.

Schooling Plans

Schooling exercises center around a horse’s mental and motor control.  Therefore a schooling plan needs to take into consideration any specific coordination or mental challenges presented by a specific discipline.  Examples would include: jumping, reining, and calf roping.   Jumping requires a horse to learn to balance himself over a fence while reining and calf roping require a quick response from the horse off of the riders leg and seat aids.

My schooling program incorporates the classical training scale in my schooling plans.  I follow the classical scale that has been successfully used to encourage healthy progress in performance horses.  Relaxation, balance and appropriate hand contact are at the foundation of the scale.  Followed by throughness, impulsion, straightness, and at last collection.  By progressively bringing the equine athlete along at an appropriate sustainable timeline, one is able to maintain the healthy mental and physical well being of the horse.

The foundation blocks in RPH are based on are applied, real-life, proven, successful Natural Horsemanship and Classical principles.  Underlying these foundation pieces within the program are the scientific principles of biomechanics and conditioning physiology.

By following a performance plan, these proven foundation principles will help your equine athlete to attain the level of performance that you are seeking and help enable your athlete to continue at a performance level for many years.

Where to start?   ⇒  The Proper Warm-up

Both conditioning and schooling sessions need to start with a proper warm-up.

An effective warm up has the benefits of enhancing performance and reducing the risk of injury.  A well-designed warm up involves the gradual increase in exercise intensity, which facilitates the body’s adjustment from rest to exercise.  The first objectives are to establish physical and mental relaxation in the horse, so that the limb movements become free and elastic and the horse starts to move through his/her back.

Relaxed and warm muscles are energetically efficient while tense and stiff muscles result in an overall increase in energy expenditure.  Warm muscles contract more powerfully and warm fibers are more pliable. This reduces the risk of injury due to tearing of the muscle fibers.

Cold muscles are not as flexible and elastic as warm muscles and are prone to such injuries as: muscle, ligament, and tendon strains; muscle spasms; stiff gaits; and maybe even torn muscles or tendons. Hilary M. Clayton in her book, “Conditioning Sport Horses”, writes, “It can be a mistake to perform suppling exercises at the start of the warm up while the tissues are cold because the fibers in the muscles, tendons, and ligaments are more susceptible to overstretching injuries.”

Another warm-up objective is to increase blood and oxygen flow to the muscles.  Clayton states, “The increase in cardiovascular and respiratory responses increases the oxygen delivery to muscles, which enhances their ability to work aerobically and reduces lactic acid build up during the workout.  Therefore, a good warm up delays the onset of fatigue and soreness due to lactic acid accumulation in high intensity sports.”

Warm up times depending on different variables

  • Environmental temperature
  • Warm weather = shorter time for the muscles to warm up
  • Cold weather
  • Use of a quarter blanket on the haunches and loin area helps facilitate in muscles warming up by reducing heat loss through the skin
  • Age of the horse
  • Breed of the horse
  • Condition of the horse
  • Activity to follow

Warm-up Example

  • 10 minutes of active forward movement at the walk
  • 10 minutes of active trot or canter on the lunge
  • 20 minutes of groundwork exercises
  • Relaxation exercises
  • Suppling exercises

Help keep your horse healthy, and avoid muscle strain and resulting performance issues by routinely practicing a sufficient warm up routine.  The warm ups should be short so as not to promote fatigue.

Contact Karen to help you design a custom conditioning program for your horse.