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How to Get a Horse in Shape

A horse's fitness is essential to both his/her overall health and performance. A horse who is fit has less chance of injury and much more endurance than a horse who is a "pasture statue". This is the same principal that applies to humans. Like a human, horses need cardiovascular and muscular endurance to be able to perform, especially in equestrian sports like eventing, jumping, and endurance, although every horse benefits from a good exercise program.


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    After researching a good exercise program, write out a customized program for your horse a week at a time. Remember to start small.
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    Trails are a great place to start. They help take the “boring” out of a really long ride, and the different terrain and obstacles are great for your horse, too. Some tips are listed here:
    • Walk up hills. This builds your horse’s rear, and helps with canter work. Horses can walk up quite steep hills, but start out with smaller ones at first, and be sure to check the footing.
    • Trot over small logs that have fallen down. This causes your horse to pick his legs up higher, building muscle useful for expressive collections and great self-carriage. For a back-muscle building workout, walk over small logs going uphill and downhill. This causes horses to pick up their shoulders and use their back muscles, therefore increasing self-carriage and collection ability.
    • Trot slowly downhill. This builds the back leg strength needed for jumping, and can actually help your horse jump higher and do better extensions. As an even harder workout, start out trotting downhill at a medium-slow trot, and then slow to a very collected trot. This exercise uses momentum to make it harder. Remember to only trot down slight to medium hills, never steep ones.
    • Trot along riverbeds, especially sandy ones. It is a lot of work to trot through sand, and so increases endurance as well as leg muscle.
    • Weave around trees. This helps build flexibility and can help your horse have a better all-around performance.
    • Trails are also a great place to practice turns. Try to stop him/her from over bending. Your horse will probably stay on the trail, especially if it is rimmed with trees, giving you the ability to ask for a lot of bend while he turns. This is a great stretch, and builds shoulder muscle as well.
    • Side-pass along turns. Most horses want to follow the trail, so if you keep their head straight and put your leg on, they should side-pass nicely, building lateral muscles simultaneously.
    • Trot and canter up medium hills to improve suspension. They will naturally trot and canter with a longer, loftier stride uphill, and so will increase fitness for doing the same on the flat.
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    Add extra weight with saddlebags full of water bottles or weights for a cardiovascular and leg muscle workout.
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    Arena work is important, too. You can:
    • Back up a lot. Don’t settle for two drags of his/her front feet, either. Marching backwards at a fairly good pace increases back and leg muscle, helping with self-carriage.
    • Practice stopping quickly in the corners. Trot briskly down the long side, and drive your horse into the wall, asking him/her to stop at the last moment, causing him/her to hold himself up as he stops. This improves collection and self-carriage.
    • Trot and canter over ground poles. Once your horse becomes good at negotiating first a few, and then several, you can set them up the whole length of the long side, about nine feet apart for canter work, and six for trot. This depends a lot on your horse’s stride, however, so adjust as necessary. Of course, they can also be used to help training collected and extended gaits, but increase the distance slowly.
    • Trot over cavaletti, otherwise known as raised ground poles. This does the same for your horse as ground poles, only it intensifies the effect. Never set up more than six in a row.
    • Stretch before each ride. This will prevent muscle injuries and will improve flexibility.
    • Jump! Jumping can improve fitness in any horse, no matter the discipline, and it is fun. Start low, and increase the height gradually.
    • Practice extreme collection in turns. Trot or canter quickly on the long side, and turn completely around at the last moment before the corner. Your horse will have to carry himself throughout these, building back muscle. Try doing this without breaking gait.
    • Side-pass over a ground pole. Walk onto the pole and side-pass along it until your horse side-passes off the pole. Try this at a collected trot, too. This helps them side-pass really straight, and builds a lot of muscle.
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    Extended periods of long-trot and canter will build cardiac endurance, and remember to give loosening walk breaks when your horse gets winded.
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    Always warm up and cool down before every ride, to prevent colic and pulled tendons.
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    If possible, ride every day. Never let a horse sit in his stall all week and then ride him hard on the weekends.
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    Check your horse’s feet often. If they are wearing down faster because of the increased exercise, he might need different farrier care or a hoof supplement.
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    Feed high-quality hay and/or grass. Unless your horse is a hard keeper, do not feed much grain. Most horses only need enough grain to put their supplements on.
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    Play polocrosse. It helps your horse to become quicker at stopping and turning.
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    Remember, always have fun with your horse, and make sure that he/she is having fun, too. The goal of riding is to be a partner with your horse, not a dictator.


  • Reassure your horse. If he does something right, let him know that he did it right by telling him how good he is.
  • Start slow and build up.
  • Be patient. Fitting up a horse takes time, so don't get discouraged if results don't come quickly.
  • Don't over-do it. Read your horse. If he is breathing too hard or over-heated, walk him for a few minutes, let him catch his breath, and go back to work.
  • Don't just take him out of the paddock for work. He will get tired of it. Give him a day off with cuddles, treats, and love. Horses are smart.
  • Start off on a lunge line and do some horsemanship. It will help your horse to pay attention to you. Also, you should try to only feed your horse little bits of grain while brushing him. That too will help him to pay attention to you.
  • Make sure you work with your horse everyday, or as much as you can, but don't overdo it. You and your horse will both benefit and you will have a much better connection with your horse.
  • Try ascending jumps, its great for getting that stretch out of a jump.
  • Some horses simply don't enjoy your shows of affection. If this is the case, you can always "reward" him by grooming him thoroughly and calmly after every workout.
  • Always remember to walk your horse out after a good long ride but don't make it a boring walk around, trail ride, go farther into the woods and explore that way your horse Doesn't get bored or cramp up or get overheated.


  • Cool your horse out after riding to decrease his risk of colic. If he is sweating, hose him down with water and scrape it off until his shoulders are cool to the touch. If it is very windy, cover him with a light cooler so he doesn’t get chilled.
  • Don't push your horse too hard at first; he has more risk of injury this way. Build his/her endurance and strength up before you seriously pressure him/her.
  • Getting a horse in shape takes time. It may take longer for older horses to get that muscular body to be healthy.
  • It is not good to ride your horse hard every day! A horse must get a 1-2 day break from riding a week. Too much riding can cause lameness and sore muscles.
  • Each breed is different. It may be easier for an Arabian to gain muscle then a pony. Your horse will have its own pace to getting into shape.
  • Wait at least one hour to feed your horse after he has been ridden. Feeding a horse too soon may cause him to colic.
  • Don't jump until your horse is in relatively good shape because jumping an overweight horse can be hard on joints and the entire front assembly. Remember, that the front end takes one-hundred percent of the force when the horse lands, even if for a second.
  • Wear a helmet when you ride, for your own safety.

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Categories: Horse Training