Horse fitness plan: Bringing your horse back into work after a break

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If your horse has been on a layoff for a couple of months, then you’ll no doubt be keen to get out riding again as soon as you can. But, however tempting it may be to get your horse straight back out there, it’s important not to move too quickly.

After an extended break, your horse’s fitness levels will almost certainly have dropped, and he will likely have gained weight and lost muscle tone — no matter what condition they were in before you stopped work. Their confidence and ability to follow your commands might have diminished as well, especially if they’ve suffered an injury. All of this means that pushing them too hard, too quickly can be incredibly risky — both for you and your horse.

To keep your horse safe and healthy, you should always make sure that you adjust their exercise schedule gradually to help them ease back into work. While it takes a little time to do this, steadily building their fitness back up will help to ensure they don’t strain or injure themselves, and it will ensure that they’re going to be safe for you to ride, too.

In this guide, we’ll talk you through the process of bringing your horse back into work at a safe pace. We’ll cover:

Before you begin: making sure your horse is ready to go back into work

Before you can begin, you’ll need to check that your horse is sound. This is especially important if your horse has been injured, as the last thing you want to do is worsen the problem by riding before they have fully recovered.

Here, we’ll outline the important checks you should do before you attempt to bring your horse back into work, from body condition to tacking up.

  1. Condition and health: You’ll need your vet to check your horse over and give them a clean bill of health before you can begin. They’ll check the horse’s body condition, teeth, and spine, and should be able to check for signs of lameness. If your horse has suffered an injury, they’ll also be able to advise you on whether this has healed well enough for them to begin work.
  2. Diet: Assuming your horse has been on grass and hay during the layoff period, they will likely be fine to continue this diet for at least the initial walking and trotting stages of the fitness plan. You can then adjust their diet to include more hard feed or supplementary fibrous foods as they begin more energetic work again. Your vet will be able to help you work out a new diet plan for your horse as they gradually become fitter and more active, taking into account size and weight, age, and breed. If you do adjust their diet, be sure to make changes gradually over a minimum of ten days to help reduce the risk of your horse developing colic. To learn more about this, read our horse feeding guide.
  3. Farriery: If you’ve taken your horse’s shoes off for the duration of their break, then it’s time to get them re-shod. You should also ask your farrier to check the overall health and condition of their hooves and get them to check that they are walking well once the shoes are back on. Read our guide to shoeing your horse to learn more about this.
  4. Saddle: It’s likely that your horse may have gained some weight during their break from work, so you may find that their saddle no longer fits them properly. So, take some time to check the fit of their saddle. It may help to seek the advice of a professional saddler before you bring your horse back into work. You can also learn read our saddle fitting guide to learn more about this.
  5. Tack: Dirty tack can cause sores or blisters, so check everything over to make sure it’s clean, supple, and in good condition before you tack up for the first time. Don’t forget to check that rugs and saddlecloths are clean, too, as they might need a wash if they’ve been gathering dust in storage.

Once you’ve checked that your horse is ready and made sure that all your tack is fit for purpose, you can get started on an exercise regime to start building up their fitness.

From field to fit: A basic 10-week horse fitness plan

Not matter how fit your horse was before going on a break, it’s inevitable that they will have lost conditioning while they were out. However, just like humans, a horse’s fitness can be developed through a program of interval training, where the intensity and duration of exercise are gradually increased over a few weeks. Getting them fit again isn’t an especially complicated process, but it is important to follow a structured plan.

To help you get started, we’ve shared an example of a horse fitness plan that should help you get them back up to speed. You’ll start off with walking in hand, before gradually moving on to trotting and eventually progressing on to more advanced work. It will normally take around 8–10 weeks to get a field-kept horse back up to their former level of fitness, although it could take a little longer if they have been injured.

The horse fitness schedule goes as follows:

You’ll need to monitor your horse carefully throughout the plan to see how their fitness is improving, to make sure they’re not in any pain or discomfort which could indicate an underlying injury or health issue. Your horse will also need to have one day off a week to recover, preferably with some time turned out in the field for them to stretch out and relax. It’s also important to incorporate a proper warm up and cool down into each training session, to help reduce the risk of injury.

You can find lots more tips and tricks for getting your horse back into work in our From Field to Fitness with Equisafety series. Presented by event rider Simon Grieve, this is a new training series that will show you how to keep your horse in good health during the winter, so they’re ready to go when eventing starts up again. For best results, be sure to check it out before starting this fitness plan!

Please note that every horse is different, and this is only intended as an example. It will probably take longer to bring your horse back into work if they’re recovering from an injury — especially a tendon or ligament injury — and have been on box rest. So, always consult your vet and work with your trainer or instructor to create a custom fitness schedule to suit the individual needs of your horse

Week 1: Walking in-hand

Even though it’s tempting to saddle up and go straight out for a ride together, you’ll need to start much more slowly with some short walking in-hand exercises before you can actually get on horseback.

For the first week, take your horse out on a lead rein for around 20 minutes a day, five days a week — you may need to build up to this if they are very unfit. Walk in straight lines on a hard, level surface (ideally on a quiet road) as this will help to strengthen the legs.

Week 2: Walking under saddle

After walking your horse on a lead rein for a week, you’re ready to get back in the saddle. It will take your horse a little while to readjust to the feeling of having a rider onboard, so take things slowly. Walk for 30–40 minutes, keeping to hard, level roads where possible to help strengthen the legs. Repeat this five times over the course of the week.

It’s always advisable to have an experienced person with you when you first mount your horse after a long break, perhaps with a lunge rein on just in case. If it seems a bit nervous, it may help to try laying your body over the saddle before you mount, as you would when breaking in a horse.

Now that your horse is starting to work a bit harder, you’ll need to allow him plenty of time to warm up and cool down before and after your ride. So, if your horse seems particularly hot and out of breath after your first sessions, remember to walk him gently until he has fully cooled down before taking him back to the stable.

Week 3: Trotting

During week three, you can begin to incorporate some trotting into your horse fitness plan. As a rule of thumb, start with 30 seconds of trotting for every five minutes of walking, and don’t exceed more than five minutes of trotting in total. Try to trot in straight lines at first, and don’t pick the horse up too much. Aim to get your horse up to around 60 minutes of roadwork (including around five minutes of trotting) per session by the end of week three.

At this stage, you can also begin to start walking up gentle slopes and hills in a walk. Hill work is fantastic for strengthening the hindquarters and core muscles, but take it easy and make sure to give him plenty of time to recover before trotting again. This is also a good time to start practising halts and rein-back.

Week 4: Advanced trotting and basic arena work

If your horse seems to be progressing well, you can gradually increase the time spent trotting by a minute or two during each session. Your horse should be able to go hacking out for up to 90 minutes a day during week four, although you can split this into two rides if you prefer.

At this stage, you can also take your horse back into the arena for some gentle schooling, but keep it short: no more than 20 minutes. If your horse is making good progress, you could also start to pop over low poles in the arena, or maybe even small obstacles in the field when hacking out. However, don’t attempt any proper jumping at this stage.

Week 5: Cantering

By week five, your horse can be doing up to two hours of exercise a day, including trotting up hills. If things are going well, you can also re-introduce cantering while out hacking. Always go into a canter from a trot and be careful to canter out of the saddle, riding in big circles to start with. During week five, you can also start to incorporate a bit of easier lateral work into your horse fitness plan, which will help improve their flexibility and add a bit of variety into your routine.

Bear in mind that if your horse is coming back into work from stable rest or a serious injury, you may need to continue the trotting phases for another couple of weeks to give them time to build up their strength and fitness properly before cantering. It may be best to ask your vet to take a look at your horse at this stage, to assess how they are progressing. They will also be able to advise you whether or not your horse seems ready to start cantering again.

Your horse should be noticeably fitter at this stage, with some improvements to their body condition and muscle tone. If so, now is a good time to consider adjusting their diet to include some hard feed if more energy is needed. Your vet should be able to advise you on this.

Week 6 and 7: More cantering and basic schoolwork

In week six and seven, you can begin to increase the duration of your cantering every few days. Be sure to keep up the hill work, to make sure that you’re working and conditioning all their muscles.

You can also start some pole work and other basic schoolwork with your instructor, if you haven’t already. Useful exercises that will help you work towards jumping include leg yields, “shoulder in” exercises, and having the horse lengthen and shorten its stride.

Week 8 and 9: Jumps and schooling

Week nine is a good time to introduce some faster canter work when hacking out, and possibly even controlled galloping. Canter them up hills from time to time to help build strength and stamina. Schoolwork can become more intense at this point, and they should be able to train in the menage for upwards of 30 minutes by this point, too.

Assuming your horse has been doing canter work for around four weeks by this stage, both you and your horse should be strong and fit enough to take on some jumping. Keep it nice and low to start with, and make sure your horse is warmed up properly before you attempt the first jump. For your first session, I would recommend jumping from a trot to be on the safe side. You can also a use a neck strap if you feel you need it while you re-build your confidence.


Week 10: Get ready for your first competition

By week 10, your horse should be back to the same level of fitness they were at before they went on layoff, meaning you can continue with schooling, including jumping and other arena work. If you plan to start eventing, showjumping, or competing in dressage soon, this may be a good time to check in with your vet and instructor, to see if they think they’re competition ready. You could also consider scoring your horse’s body condition at this point, to see what sort of shape they’re in.

Important things to bear in mind before starting your horse fitness schedule

Should I be warming up and cooling down as normal?

Warming up is always important, regardless of how long you’ve been training for. So, always allow plenty of time to walk your horse before your training sessions to ensure their muscles are fully warmed up before you start work. This will greatly help to reduce the risk of an injury, and will also help to get your horse into the right mindset for training.

Cooling down after work is equally important. Never put a hot, blowing horse straight back into the stable without cooling them down first. Remember that they may also need rugging after exercise — you can learn more about this in our horse rugging guide.

What if the horse seems very overexcited at first?

If your horse has been on box rest for some time during their break, they may well be a little nervous, or they might even be so keen to get out there again that they become very overexcitable and difficult to control. If you think your horse may be very nervous or jumpy on their first outing, it may be worth asking your vet about options for sedation.

Once you’re back in the saddle, it may be sensible to ask your instructor or a competent friend to accompany you on your first few rides — possibly using a lead or lunge rope if needed. This can help to keep your horse calm and under control. If you can, you could ask a friend to bring another sensible, steady horse out to accompany you, which may help to relax and reassure your horse.

What about lunging?

Using a lunge rope is generally best avoided early on in the rehabilitation process, so we’d advise waiting until weeks 4 or 5, when you start to increase schooling. However, it may be necessary to start lunging earlier if they’re very energetic before riding or too nervy to safely walk in-hand. If you’re in doubt about whether or not to lunge your horse, consult your vet and your instructor.

How will I know if my horse is getting fitter?

As your horse training schedule progresses, it’s extremely important to monitor your horse very carefully. You’ll be able to tell that your horse is getting fitter by keeping a close watch on their behaviour before, during, and after riding, as well as looking at body condition and muscle tone. Look out for:

  • Increased energy and motivation to get out and exercise,
  • Ability to maintain a consistent speed and even gait,
  • Less sweating and panting when doing work that previously tired them out,
  • Recovering more rapidly after exercise (checking your horse’s pulse after riding will help you to measure this),
  • An improvement in overall body condition, with increased muscle definition and tone. They may gain or lose weight, depending on their condition prior to starting work.

Preparation and patience are key to getting a horse fit after a break. But, as long you follow a structured horse fitness plan like the one we’ve shared above, you should be able to get them back up in shape and ready to start eventing again. Be sure to watch our From Field to Fitness series to learn more about bringing your horse into work after the winter break.

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