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No Pain no Gain! The same goes for our Horse

We’ve all hear the saying but how does it apply to our horse?

Gym goers will be familiar with this saying and in simple terms it means we need to work outside of our comfort zone to make a physical change.

Pushing the body damages the cells of our muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments. Once damaged the cells then repair and rebuild in way to make them more resilient i.e. stronger so that they are ready to be challenged again.

During the repair process the cells actually overcompensate by getting even stronger than they need to be, it’s our bodies way of protecting itself and making sure it’s ready for the next load of work.

Our horses’ body works in the same way. When we are getting our horse fit we need to push them just outside of their comfort zone to effectively damage their physical structure so that it can repair and rebuild.

The amount we need to push our horse varies depending on his current state of strength and fitness.

As an example, let’s take the horse who has been out of work for 3 months.

We often hear people say ‘my horse keeps himself fit, he’s always running around’. This means very little when we look at the way we ask our horse to work under saddle. The horse is a naturally athletic and strong animal capable of high speeds and power without any specific training; but that doesn’t mean the horse is strong in the way we humans need them to be.

Take the horses’ back for example. Your horse is never, ever going to be able to train himself to carry the weight of a rider, no matter how much they gallop around the field. Simply adding the weight of a rider is strenuous for your horse and it will take time for the back muscles to strengthen up.

Before sitting on your horse you should always begin with groundwork and include things like poles and grids. When it is time to sit on your horse limit sessions to easy walks starting at around 10 minutes at a time and gradually increase the duration.

While strengthening the back we also need to consider the bones, tendons and ligaments.

These structures will need gradual exposure to concussion, load (weight) and speed. You will need to expose your horse to these stressors in small but frequent sessions. Mixing up terrain, incline and speed is a great way to build condition in the supporting structures which is where hacking is invaluable. Straight lines and varied ground conditions are great for fitness work.

Once your horse has a good amount of basic strength and fitness you can start asking for more challenging things like circles. Simply carrying a rider around an arena is difficult for the horse in the early stages as he will have to balance not just himself but also the rider who may or may not be balanced themselves.

When you start your arena work ask for speed transitions on the long side and come back down before the corner. After a while you can maintain the speed around one corner at a time and it won’t be long before your horse is happy to walk, trot and canter in circles on either rein.

Remember damage is essential for development so bear this in mind when you are training your horse. You want to create just enough stress to cause a change without pushing too hard and causing an injury.

Our top tips for horse fitness:

· Groundwork, groundwork, groundwork

· Walk as much as possible in the early stages, keep faster work to short bursts in straight lines

· Hacking is invaluable! It’s much easier to mix up terrain and incline and prevents boredom setting in

· Change your diagonal while trotting on hacks

· Consider ground conditions and avoid trotting and cantering if the ground in too dry and hard

· Go off-road! Picking your way through a forest is great for proprioception (body awareness) and overall strength training

· Swim! If you have a local river use it for resistance training. Walking through water is great for fitness

· Little and often. Don’t try to cram all of your training into one weekend, you are much more likely to cause an injury and will struggle to get any significant results. Short sessions 4-5 times a week are much more beneficial.

· Integrate active recovery sessions. As your horse’s fitness improves add in easy hacking days between more challenging schooling sessions.

Horses are notoriously poor at self-preservation so while your steed may be feeling fresh and want to gallop everywhere try to avoid temptation and take things slowly. Your horse will thank you in the long run.

Remember a horse in pain will struggle to develop and saddle fit can play a huge role in your fitness plan. As your horse gains muscle his shape will change and it is vital that your saddle is checked regularly to ensure your horse is comfortable and able to work correctly. As a horse owner it is essential that you are able to assess the fit of your saddle and know when something is not right.

IASF run regular saddle fitting courses for horse owners and equine professionals to help people understand the importance of saddle fit and learn how to recognise issues. For our latest courses please visit

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