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Training Your Horse To Be Fit


How Balance relates to Fitness: A rider’s self carriage affects balance in the horse. Balanced performance is key to biomechanical efficiency, prevention of strain and injury, and promotes optimum fitness through maximized effort and energy expense. In this photo, the rider is placing her center of gravity over her feet, making sure none of her joints are locked, which encourages her horse into a natural, balanced hand gallop down a hill. Rider is Amanda Groover, a C-2 Pony Clubber at Cedar Hills Pony Club on “Delaverne Talent.” (photo by Walter Groover)
Interview with Rebecca Billard, by Nancy Brannon

If your horse has been off work all winter and you want to get your horse (and yourself) back in shape for spring and summer riding, where do you start? What kinds of exercises and at what paces should you do? What are indicators that your horse is getting into shape? What is a good conditioning program for you and your horse? These are some of the questions answered by Rebecca Billard in her “B Fit” clinic on March 29, 2014 at Partridge Hill Farm in Pulaski, TN. As a graduate A Pony Clubber, Billard brings a large storehouse of knowledge about how to properly condition and care for the horse, both before and after work outs.

“One of the first things we learn is how to take the horse’s temperature, pulse, and respiration (TPR) and then how to use TPR in training the horse. It is so important to understand these readings and to know them at rest as well as during actual conditioning work. From this basic indicator, we learn how to achieve equine cardiovascular fitness through interval training using TPR. We focus primarily on respiration since it is the simplest to monitor for beginners,” explained Billard.

Interval training has long been regarded as one of the most effective cardiovascular workouts for human athletes, and it is widely used among trainers for their equine athletes as well. Interval training is designed to strengthen the horse’s muscles and respiratory system by a gradual increase in ‘stress’ or exercise levels. It is thought to have been developed by the Hittites, horsemen who lived abound 1600-717 BC, for training their chariot horses. 

“We practice sets of gaits for certain periods of time and learn what is appropriate for each horse in its current state of fitness. But first, we learn how to assess a horse’s fitness as a point to begin fitness training. The recovery time after more strenuous work determines the horse’s fitness and TPR methods are used to help measure fitness.There is also some fun involved with the riding part, as I relate the helpfulness of coming up with a fitness song for your horse,” Billard continued. If you haven’t tried it, singing as you ride is a wonderful way to maintain consistent rhythm in whatever gait you’re riding. And, obviously, the rhythm of the song changes as the gait and pace increase or decrease. If you have a nervous, anxious, or “hot” horse, singing helps relax the horse and create a more willing partner.  “I also include some ideas and exercises about rider fitness that we can practice,” Billard added.

As important as pursuing exercises to get fit, it is also important to recognize when your horse needs a break for “recovery,” i.e., getting pulse and respiration back to normal and making sure muscles aren’t overtaxed, which can result in tissue damage or even “tying up.” Billard continued, “We learn the signs of a tiring or exhausted horse and, if needed, how to give first aid depending upon the season. We also learn ways to prevent injury by ‘reading’ the horse's body and how to take preventative care after hard work.”

“Warming up” is as essential for horses as it is for humans. Preventing injury is important and warming up the muscles before ‘going all out’ is one of the primary ways to keep your horse sound and injury free. Using figure eights and step- under circles at the walk, as well as backing correctly, can help prime your horse for any activity. Back stretching exercises and the rider’s “following seat” and “bouncy knees” can free up the horse’s spine and increase blood flow to all areas of the horse’s body, another way to prepare him for work.

Once you have enjoyed your horse and he has had a good work out, he should be walked out until his body is cool, his breathing is regular and normal. He should be kept warm with a cover during this process if it is chilly; and, conversely if it is hot, he should be continually sponged or hosed with water until he has achieved a comfortable TPR. The optimum procedure is to make his work out come down gradually so he finishes fit and cool, appropriately for the level you are riding. We all know this is not always possible, such as in foxhunting or cross country jumping. Developing these care skills can make you a better horseperson, not only for your own horses, but also to help others you may meet along the way.

Included in the aftercare of the horse is learning how to properly apply leg wraps. If not applied properly, standing leg wraps, while intended to help, may actually harm the horse’s legs. The best way to learn about wrapping a horse’s leg is to wrap your own leg and experience wearing it for a half hour or so. It needs to be gently snug but firm enough not to fall down. This kind of wrapping lesson is called “experiential learning” because you can feel how your leg and circulation respond to the wrap, especially if it is too tight! Bandages should begin in the middle of the leg and descend like a spiral candy cane under the fetlock and then back up to just under the knee, allowing flexibility for the horse should he want to lie down. There must always be a pad under the wrap and against the leg and the wrap is spiraled towards the back and inside of the leg. After strenuous work is the time to bandage, and especially when your horse must stand up in a stall overnight or in a trailer going home from working hard. This helps minor stresses, that are normal in training, heal and the leg return to normal without distending with fluid into “windpuffs.”There are several liniments commonly used to rub down the legs before wrapping and package directions should be carefully followed.

Getting your horse in shape for spring and summer riding activities is rewarding for both horse and rider. Improving horse and rider fitness results in better performance, better general health, and maintaining overall soundness.

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