Like humans, horses need to stay in good physical shape to maintain good muscle tone and cardiovascular ability. The winter months often leave both ourselves and our horses in a less than desirable state, leaving us flabby and winded after even a short workout. To get your horse and yourself back in shape for this summer, try these great tips.
Your Horse: Start off your first week of conditioning with some work at the walk. 40-45 minutes is long enough for a horse who’s seriously out of shape. To avoid boredom, practice flexion, bending, and circles. When you ask for a walk, ask firmly and demand a nice working walk. Ask your horse to halt and back up often. You: When you ask your horse to move off your leg, practice sitting deep in the saddle and use your leg muscles to drive the horse forward. Steer as much as possible off your leg, to help build your own muscle. Don’t let yourself be floppy because you’re only doing walk! Feel free to haul off that saddle and work bareback if that makes you work a bit harder. Rider callisthenics are also a good way to stretch your own muscles.
Your horse: in the second week, add in some trot/jog. Start by warming your horse up for at least 15 minutes at walk/halt, then gradually move into a nice working trot or strong jog. When your horse gets winded be sure to give him a break on a loose rein so he can stretch. If your horse is in really poor shape, he may be clumsy and stumble often. Be sure to use protective bandaging such as polo’s while riding. You: Kick your feet out of the stirrups and practice your sitting trot, breathing deeply and concentrating on sitting deep. Alternate between sitting trot and posting trot. When you post, post high and briskly, keep your heels down, and your eyes forward.
Your Horse: When the walk/trot routine becomes too easy, it’s time to move on to canter work. While the majority of your routine should still be walk/trot, add in some short canters to your workout, beginning with just a few strides and moving up to several spins around the arena. You: Alternate between riding in the 2 point and 3 point positions to help strengthen your leg, back, and core muscles.
BONUS TIP: Spice up your ride by taking it to the trails. Trail riding or hacking is a great way to build muscle and as an added bonus, it’s a nice mental break from arena work. Walking or trotting up hills will build muscle in your horses hind quarters, and trotting or cantering up hills will help improve suspension. Take a friend along with you for added company!
Your Horse: Move between the gaits. Go from a walk to a trot to canter, then back down again. Then switch from walk to canter, canter to walk, halt to trot, etc. Moving between the gaits will build muscle in the hindquarters and increase suspension and balance. You: At this point, a full hour work out shouldn’t leave you winded or tired. But if it does, ask a friend for a loan of their well conditioned horse a couple times a week to really get yourself working!
Your Horse: After several weeks of conditioning, add in some ground poles, cavaletti, or even small jumps. This will not only increase muscle tone, but make your workout more exciting. You: Ask a friend to lunge you at the trot, canter, and over some small cavaletti while you practice sitting deep, doing calisthenics, and focusing on your position. Have your friend advise you from the ground if your heels start to come up or your elbows poke out, or any other tips they can give you to improve your position.
However you decide to get your horse in shape, remember these tips are very general. You may need a different approach if working with an elderly or injured animal, or a more intense routine for a competition horse. Pushing too much too soon can cause injury, and working your horse without a warm up can cause colic. It’s important you always use safety when you bring a horse back to condition.
As for yourself, it’s also important you get yourself in condition, as a rider with poor muscle tone can have a negative effect on even the best conditioned horse. Consider joining a gym or developing your own cardiovascular and muscle building routine, especially in the first few weeks. Get both yourself and your equine companion in shape, and in no time you’ll be back on top again!