If you own a horse, you probably know that physical activity is an important part of your equine buddy's life. Regular exercise builds endurance, stamina and resistance to disease. It improves the functioning of your horse's heart, working muscles, increases tendon and ligament strength, and motility of the digestive tract, and increases clearance of secretions from the lung. At low levels, exercise improves the immune system. Essentially, exercise keeps the body in good working order.
For the young horse, in particular, exercise is important because it facilitates proper bone development and growth of the feet. "Bones develop in response to the force that's put on them," says Rhonda Rathgeber, D.V.M., an equine veterinarian in Lexington, Ky. "The force you put on a horse's legs during exercise allows his bones to develop normally and be strong."
If your horse is young and stabled, exercise is especially critical. "Horses confined to stalls for long periods of time often develop orthopedic diseases where the bone and joint do not develop normally and they can become lame," Rathgeber says.
Exercise for Good Behavior
In addition to keeping your horse in good physical condition, exercise also helps prevent many behavioral problems associated with confinement.
"Exercise gives your horse a better attitude and makes him easier to ride," says Carol Timmerman, a horse trainer and owner of Timmerman's Ranch in Island Lake, Ill. "If you don't provide your horse with enough exercise," Timmerman says, "he will have a lot of pent-up energy and may be especially difficult to handle on the rare days when you do ride."
Vices such as bucking, kicking, barnsourness, weaving, wind sucking, cribbing and stall walking all can be the result of lack of exercise. Exactly how much exercise your horse needs to keep from getting restless and bored, depends on his personality, breed, age and lifestyle. "A horse that is pastured most of the time probably won't need as much formal exercise as a stabled horse," Timmerman notes. "A young horse or a very excitable hot-blooded breed such as an Arabian will need more exercise than a 20-year-old Quarter horse that's used to taking the grandkids for rides around the ring." Here are some suggestions for developing a fitness program for your particular horse:
Ease Into It
Look at your horse's physical condition. If he isn't used to a lot of physical activity, you'll need to start with light exercise and gradually get him accustomed to the activity. Just have him walk during the first couple weeks and, once he's handling that well, you can up the pace to trotting and cantering. Gradually increase the length and amount of work you require from your horse. It should take eight to ten weeks of regular exercise (1-2 hrs/day) to get your horse reasonably fit.
Get Into the Habit of Warming Up Your Horse
Warming up is essential for getting the best performance, and for reducing the chance of muscular injuries. A nice easy trot is the best warm-up: The body temperature rises, and blood flow increases to working muscles, but there isn't undue stress.
Try Stretching Your Horse
Under saddle, the back and neck can be stretched carefully. You can also stretch the horse's limbs by extending the non-weight-bearing limb carefully in each direction, without pulling or using excessive force. You should do the stretch at each site for 10-60 seconds. Stretching is better done once the horse has had a light warm-up, if that's possible.
Establish an Exercise Routine
In order for your horse to maintain good physical condition, you should establish a regular daily exercise routine. If your horse is stalled or restricted in a small pen or corral, try to give him 30 minutes to an hour of exercise each day. If he's pastured and free to move around, he'll still benefit from a 15- to 20-minute workout each day. Riding is one of the best ways to exercise your horse but you can also vary the routine by occasionally lunging, driving or ponying him and having him trot up and down hills. Of course, turnout can suffice if the horse is very active, but this is unusual in the adult horse.
Hire an Exerciser
If you have difficulty finding time to exercise your horse during the weekdays, consider hiring someone-such as a neighborhood kid or staff member at your stable-to ride or lunge your horse a few times a week. Doing so will make your horse much easier to work with on the weekends. Irregular exercise predisposes to "tying up" and other injuries.
Use a Hot Walker
Find out if your stable has a hot walker. A hot walker is an automatic device-resembling a merry-go-round-in which usually four or six horses can be attached for exercise at the same time. If the barn has a hot walker, ask them to put your horse on it for about 30 minutes on days you're not able to be there.
See Your Veterinarian
If you have questions about how much exercise your horse needs, consult your equine veterinarian about developing a fitness program. He or she can help you match your horse with the right exercise regimen.