As the year ends and the different shows and events finish, I find the horses get quite a few breaks as we get into colder weather and the snow comes in. It's almost a bitter sweet time of the year because you go parade season ends, main horse show season finishes and most of the clinics are over. For us the year doesn't start up again until the middle of May, so we have 4.5 months to do some ground work refreshers and work on an organised fitness plan for the horses-which I will share below.
Some of the benefits of putting the horses on a fitness program is it allows you to focus on certain aspects of their workout that you would otherwise not always focus on during the show season. For me my main goal is to get them fit and lower their risk of injury or illness by giving them the chance to stay active, stay curious and keep them thinking.
Record/Journal your sessions
One of the first steps in this process is to get yourself a journal where you can record what type of work you've done in your session and perhaps write down the goals you are wanting to achieve each week. You will also want to monitor the horse's vitals for each individual horse before, during and after each workout session to see how you're doing and making sure you are not pushing the horses to much(or not enough). It should also show you a clear progress line of your horses as they build more and more endurance and are able to recover and return to normal vitals quicker after each session.
It is very important to learn how to take respiratory and breathing rates. If you are unsure on how to do so, make sure to do research online. Lots of content there to show you how to achieve this. It is important to monitor this along with a few other basic vitals. You should be able to know what the baseline is for each individual horse.
A horse should be able to return to normal vitals after 10-15 mins of rest. The longer it takes to recover back to normal values, then you need to decrease the difficulty of your workout program because it is to demanding. Really fit horses may have lower values because they are already in very good shape.
Create a program
When creating your program you have to think of what you are training for. Is this a dressage horse? is this a horse you are preparing for endurance? is this horse an eventer? Your program will need to be tailored to those needs and what you are wanting to achieve. The intensity and length of your first few sessions should be tailored to your horse's current fitness level. Make sure to also consider any pre-existing issues that the horse might have(arthritis, cold back, any old injuries that maybe require more time to warm up). Whatever the program you are creating is, you need to go slow and do things correctly. Stepping up to quickly will increase the chance of injury, colic and physical issues such as soreness etc.
When looking at the example below, keep in mind that a exercise program could involve lunging, ground work or even long reining. This is not specifically about under saddle work only. This is a very general guideline if you are trying to get a horse back into shape with a gradual schedule.
Basic workout program example:
Week 1: 30 minutes per ride with 5 minutes trotting
Week 2: 30 minutes per ride with 10 minutes trotting
Week 3: 40 minutes per ride with 15 minutes trotting
Week 4: 40 minutes per ride with 20 minutes trotting and 5 minutes cantering
Week 5: 40 minutes per ride with 20 minutes trotting and 10 minutes cantering
Working training program more suitable to eventing horses:
Week 1 – Around 20 mins forward walking in both directions.
Week 2 – Increase work to 30-40 mins per day.
Week 3 – Increase work to 60 mins per day, including some hills.
Week 4 – Extend hacking time to up to 90 mins per day, including some trot work on suitable ground.
Week 5 – Start introducing some gentle schooling (20-30mins max) with lateral work. Have a riding session up to a max of 2 hours 3-4 times a week.
Week 6 – Gradually increase time spent schooling and introduce some cantering on suitable ground out hacking.
Week 7 – Build up the period of time in canter, including some cantering up hills. Continue with schooling but start to introduce jumping.
Week 8-9 – Continue with the current work and introduce some faster work (strong canter, controlled gallop) in either a continuous training or even interval riding.
These are great example(basic)programs, but they might not be fit for all horses. Monitor your horse's vitals and assess if this is a good program for you, or if it needs to be adjusted to smaller or bigger intervals. Make sure to finish your cool down gradually and finish it off with some stretching.