Bring your horse to optimum fitness for competition with these conditioning tips.
By Sebastian Petroll, With Abigail Boatwright; Photos by Abigail Boatwright
Reiners are elite equine athletes. They run high-octane circles, spin fast, and execute rundowns that end with powerful sliding stops. Performing complex maneuvers at high speeds can put torque and strain on their legs and bodies. Just like any elite athlete, reiners must be fit enough to do their job without risking injury.
If your horse has been off from work for any length of time, as he might’ve been during the winter months, you’ll want to carefully bring him back up to strength and fitness to maximize performance and minimize injury as he returns to show shape. I’ll walk you through a program to condition your horse, things to watch out for while you’re conditioning, and how to determine if your horse is ready for a competitive workload.
Why Is Fitness Important?
If your horse isn’t fit, his muscles will fatigue and won’t be able to function properly. Some soft-tissue injuries can happen because of fatigue, including that of his respiratory system. But with proper conditioning, breathing capacity increases and your horse is able to extract oxygen more quickly into his bloodstream, which promotes quicker muscle recovery during a workout.
Plan Your Year
When you kick off a new show season, it’s a good idea to look ahead to the events you want to attend and the time you may want to take off, away from riding. If you want to take a month off in the summer for a vacation, but you want to go to a horse show at the end of August, you’ll need to plan on lots of riding in July, and that will be the extent of your conditioning period to get ready for that show. (Unless your horse is in full-time training.)
It’s a good thing to give your horse time off. It helps refresh his mind. But you must work backward from the horse-show date about six weeks to allow for proper conditioning. The biggest thing is making the time to ride and providing your horse with regular exercise. Conditioning doesn’t mean riding once a week. You can do a lot of trotting and a little bit of loping, and you’ll be fine riding, but you won’t have a fit horse. Regular exercise means riding more than once a week. Just riding every Tuesday and expecting your horse to be in condition to show isn’t fair to him. If you take your horse home and rain keeps you from riding, it’s not good for your horse to load up for a lesson after you haven’t ridden him for two weeks. Sometimes you just have to do the best you can under the circumstances, but your horse needs frequent riding time to get properly conditioned.
Take caution during the “legging up” process. An astounding number of horses are injured while they’re being legged up because people ask for too much, too soon.
There’s a common misconception about a horse’s workout schedule. You might show on the weekend and turn your horse out during the week because you think he’ll keep himself in shape in the pasture. That’s not the way it works. Just being turned out doesn’t mean your horse is legged up. I walk around the barn all day and ride horses, but I couldn’t go run a 10K race. To get myself ready for a 10K, I’d have to have regular, structured exercise. That’s how I’d define legging up—regular, structured exercise for your horse.
When bringing your horse back from a two-month break, you might be tempted to start with a lot of long-trotting and very little loping. Some of my horses on that first ride back from a break might only lope a couple of circles. Our horses get out every day, whether it’s being turned out or on the walker. When we start legging up a horse, we might bring him out and just longe him. You really can’t be too careful when you first start out.
Your conditioning program also depends on your horse’s at-will activity level. If you have one that gets turned out every day and runs up and down the fence, he’s going to be a lot fitter because he’s been doing more cardio than the horse that just puts his head down and grazes. That horse is going to have no stamina or fitness. Either way, start slowly and methodically to get them back into shape.
With our program, if a horse has had a two-day break from structured exercise—but still gets turned out—we’ll get back on him the third day and do a lighter ride, but still work on maneuvers. I don’t usually work on stopping the first day back after two days off. But once I let the time off go past two days, meaning that horse has had three or four days off, he’ll need a reconditioning period again. That means instead of just one light ride, I may have to do a couple of light rides. If a horse is off for a month or two, I’ll be looking at a two- or three-week leg-up period, or even longer than that, depending on what the horse does in his own time.
As you’re working a horse up to a higher degree of fitness, you’ll need to increase the duration of work. Often, we’ll long-trot straight lines followed by two circles each way, walk for a bit, then lope three circles each way. The next day, we’ll add two more circles. We just keep stepping it up. But you must keep track of what you’re doing from day to day.
You also need to watch your horse. If he’s not phased by the exercise, add a few more circles. But you don’t want to ask him to do a marathon, like loping 20 circles, turning around a bunch, and working on stopping all on the first day during the leg-up period. Instead, you should just focus on walking, trotting, loping, and some long trotting—as well as flexing and suppling. As your horse progresses, you’ll start to increase exercise and duration to increase fitness.
Making It Work
If you only have an outdoor track on which to ride, and it rains for a week and a half, you’ll have to get a little creative to keep your horse legged up. Maybe you have a good dirt driveway where you can trot him behind the four-wheeler for 20 minutes each day. Or perhaps there’s a hilltop that stays dry enough to do some long trotting to keep your horse maintained. Look for the best you can in the situation. That takes planning, but it’s necessary to keep your horse in show-ready shape.
Watch for soreness, and keep an eye on your horse’s legs for changes as you’re stepping up the exercise. You need to know your horse. We have some horses that sweat a lot, and that’s not always an indication of fitness. During the leg-up period, after the 10th or 15th ride while you’re still just trotting and loping, sweating a lot might not be the best benchmark for his fitness level, especially in the summer. That’s when knowing your horse is important so you can look for changes: Is he using himself differently? Has his behavior changed? Not all changes are physical—watch for mental shifts, too.
Is He Ready?
A horse should be in regular, scheduled exercise for six to eight weeks prior to a horse show. Once he’s conditioned, he probably doesn’t need to be worked every day. In our program, we feel they can be ridden four days a week, with not more than two consecutive days off, as long as the working days and the schedule of work stays consistent.
You want your horse to be comfortable and not winded during your practice session. Any signs of fatigue and discomfort during a training session are indicators that he might need further conditioning.
Feed for Fitness
Diet plays an important role in bringing your horse to maximum fitness, and nutritional needs vary greatly between horses. For example, with most of our 3-year-olds, we’re trying to keep or improve their weight. During their futurity year, those horses get worked quite a bit. Their feed has to provide plenty of energy to meet that high demand. Once a horse is trained, the workload lessens, which means you might have to manage the same horse differently. With older horses, allowing them to get overweight can result in a whole new set of problems.
We feed a combination of alfalfa and coastal hay and Horsemen’s Elite grain. Some of our horses are on supplements, too, and they get electrolytes in the summer. At all times, the focus should be meeting your horse’s basic nutritional needs. Horses are designed to eat all day, which can be a problem for an overweight horse. There are some good options out there to stretch forage consumption, such as slow feeders, which make a horse “work” for his hay.
We measure a diet’s compatibility with each horse by the way he looks. If he doesn’t consume enough calories, you’ll know pretty quickly, because he’ll have a poor body condition and be thin. His hair coat and overall appearance will suffer if he’s not getting the right nutrition to fit his job.
Keep in mind that not all changes in body condition are a result of the feeding program. Parasites, stomach ulcers, other medical conditions, or changes in lighting are just a few examples of factors that can have a negative effect on you horses condition. Remember that if you do change the feed program, it’ll take at least two weeks for you to see any changes.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sebastian Petroll grew up riding and showing horses. In 2001, he moved from Germany to the U.S. to further himself as a horse trainer. The NRHA Professional and Judge now operates Petroll Reining Horses LLC, a full-service operation in Whitesboro, Texas, alongside his wife, Melanie.