A horse’s optimal fitness will depend on discipline and level, but in general, a competing horse should have some basic principles to abide by. These basic principles are body condition and time. They will vary greatly depending on your goals but these principles can be applied throughout the course of training.
Body Conditioning- Every horse owner should have a good idea of what a body conditioning scoring (BCS)is. A horse’s BCS is a scale based on muscular and fatty conditioning to objectively categorize the horse. It is also used as a weight loss or weight gain guide. For a 1,000 lbs horse each body condition score is about 50 lbs. The BCS scale is from 1-9, with 4-6 being the “ideal range”. This means the horse has adequate muscling covering the skeleton but without fat pocketing. Some disciplines struggle with over weight and obese horses being the “norm”. This is a trend we need to be careful with in the show arena. We believe it comes from a lack of understanding and the ability to properly condition horses. Horses that are not as fit often get calories added to achieve the round show horse look that is desired because it is easier to add fat then muscle. Unfortunately, this creates obesity which is a problem. It often masks or accompanies a lack of conditioning which can lead to injury, poor performance, metabolic concerns and systemic health concerns. If your horse is overweight, it CANNOT be an athlete.
Time- It takes a lot of time to be an athlete. Your horse is no different. How long is your ride? How many days a week do they work? What is your horses lifestyle (stall/turn out)? No human athlete reaches their peak with a 30 minute gym session a few times a week and your horse is no different. Your horse needs a proper warm up, workout, and then cool off for each training session. This takes time. It takes being intentional. If your horse is stalled, your warm up needs to be longer. Horses are meant to be moving for a minimum of 16 hours a day. Increasing stall time has a negative impact on joint health and function, intrinsic muscle development, flexibility, and muscular conditioning. If your horse is stalled you should spend at least 10-15 minutes walking prior to asking your horse to warm up. This time walking should be soft and promoting fluidity in your horse. Your actual warm-up will vary greatly on your horse and what the plan for the day’s ride is. Some horses require long warm ups (20 minutes plus) and others can warm up more quickly. Then your horse is ready to work out. The time spent working out will vary depending on the horse’s level of fitness, the stage at which they are at, and what you are working on. The last part of your ride is the cool down, which is just as important as the warm up. The cool down part of your ride helps to regulate the horse’s body temperature, heart rate, and help reduce lactic acid build up in the muscles.
The condition in which your horse is in and how much time you spend working them are two important principles to physically training a horse. Understanding theses principles and how they affect your horse will impact how well your goals and fitness needs are met. Have a goal, know your starting point and make a plan.