Anyone who competes or shows soon learns that several elements make a winning horse: The right conformation, the right training and the right conditioning. While conformation and training are the two most obvious components that can land a horse in the winner's circle, the importance of conditioning – correct conditioning – should never be underestimated.
"For a horse to perform physical activities to the best of his ability, his body must function properly and his muscles must be in tone," says equestrian Louise Serio. "Without conditioning, a horse can become stressed and injure his ligaments and tendons or suffer from muscle soreness that will inhibit his performance. A horse must have proper fitness for the job he has to perform."
Serio would know. A former Virginia Horsewoman Of The Year, she has won numerous championships and reserves in hunter classes at prestigious shows such as the Washington International, Pennsylvania Nationals and National Horse Show. Serio also trains hunters and jumpers, judges competitions and is a member of the American Horse Show Association's Breeds and Disciplines committee.
At her farm in southeastern Pennsylvania, Serio employs a simple but effective conditioning/warm-up program for her hunters and jumpers: A daily 20 to 30 minute workout consisting of walking, lots of trotting and cantering. "In conditioning a horse that has been out of work – for example, one that has been resting between seasons – I follow this program for 1 1/2 weeks before we even consider jumping them. I condition them more on the flat than over fences. Flatwork gets them fit and strong."
Serio then adds jumping to the program, eventually extending the workout to 45 minutes. "They have to jump a certain amount to keep those muscles working, too," she says. "I like to do gymnastics for both young and seasoned horses. Not difficult ones, but a cross-rail to an oxer. A little combination is always a good way to start a horse that is out of condition because I'm actually working on their style as well as conditioning them. It's an easy way to get them jumping again and to work on their form."
Customize Your Training
Naturally, not every horse requires the same amount of work to obtain and maintain conditioning. "Jumpers are normally much fitter than hunters," says Serio. "A thoroughbred is typically much fitter than a warmblood. With some of the warmbloods, you have to constantly keep them at a fitness level, whereas the thoroughbred will easily hold his fitness level for twice as long.
"You also alter the amount of conditioning pertinent to the work they're going to do. If you're going into the show season, obviously you have to have your horses prepared," Serio adds.
In preparing for the show season, Serio generally starts conditioning hunters three weeks before an event and jumpers at least a month prior to competing.
To address the individual fitness needs of each horse, Serio customizes her general conditioning program by varying the intensity and the duration of the exercises.
"If I bring an old working hunter back to work and flat him for 1 1/2 weeks, I might jump him around a course of 10 to 12 jumps, come back the next day and do that many again, and then just build him from there," Serio says. "But if I'm conditioning a young horse that's never jumped before, I ride him for 1 1/2 weeks, then start him over cross-rails. A young horse is limited to the amount of training he can absorb at one time."
Likewise, maintaining conditioning varies among individual horses.
"If a horse holds his conditioning well and performs well, you let him pick the level that he needs," Serio says. "But you can't generalize that. I have some older thoroughbreds that do the junior hunters. They might flat two days a week and jump once week, then go to a horse show and they're very happy and comfortable because that's all they need. But then the next horse has to be ridden every day."
Conditioning includes effects such as increasing fitness (aerobic capacity) as well as physical strengthening of bones, ligaments and tendons. All these things are important. Training increases the power of the heart to pump blood containing vital oxygen to working muscles, and at the same time, strengthens those muscles and increases their blood supply (by increasing the number of small blood vessels). When peak heart and muscle strength (and blood supply) coincide, you've got a fit horse, but that takes 10 to 12 weeks. At the same time, you've got to have a horse that can hold up the concussion of jumping, and that requires careful, long-term introduction to jumps. Naturally talented or not, a horse requires conditioning.
While it's important to recognize potential problems in an under-conditioned horse, it's equally imperative to know when a horse has reached a fitness level suitable to his work.
"The hunters in particular should reach a certain level and then stay at that level," says Serio. "Because of the kind of work a hunter does, you don't want one that is so fit and hard that he can go forever and ever. They should be relaxed and very loose.
"Sometimes when you over-condition a horse it works against you because then you have to get him a little quieter, meaning you may have to lunge him. You're better off having your horse at a conditioned level where he can perform his best, but not so fit that you have to work him down," Serio says. The best indicator that a horse has reached a suitable fitness level is "when your horse can perform his best and do it day after day after day."
Serio, like many trainers, feels that a little down time also is an important part of a conditioning program. "They get tired of doing the same thing all the time," she explains. "After a break, some horses go 10 times better because they're a little fresher."
Even during an active show season, Serio intersperses rest periods into her horses' schedules.
"If they can't have an extended period off, I give them intermittent time. We might come home from four weeks on the road and be home for two weeks. I'll give them the first week off to do nothing. They'll get turned out every day for four to five hours in big grassy fields, so they're still going out and exercising," Serio says.
"I also take them out through the fields a little bit for nice relaxing rides, which helps them maintain their conditioning while they're enjoying themselves. The second week, we'll pick up and start back again. This usually works well and keeps them much fresher," she adds.