Riding in Winter

Riding in winter

By Jenny Richardson BHSAI (January 2015)

As winter continues, many of us are planning on keeping our horses fit over the colder months with events like hunter trials, indoor jumping clinics and hacking. Remember, your horse needs to be at peak fitness for the level of work he is doing, no matter what his discipline – as he will also be less susceptible to strains and injuries. The fittening process simply works by introducing physical and mental stress gradually so the horse’s body adapts and becomes stronger.

But how do you achieve fitness? The simplest way is to follow these steps:

1.      Ensure equine health

2.      Understand changes in your horse’s body

3.      Establish a goal

4.      Follow a plan


Step 1. Ensure equine health

The first step is a sound horse with vaccination, worming, dentistry and farriery programmes up to date. In addition, you could ask your vet to perform a blood test to gain an accurate profile of your horse’s health and current fitness level, which can be carried out at the start and conclusion of a fittening programme for comparison, if required.


Step 2. Understand changes in your horse’s body

Various changes occur in the horse’s body as he becomes fitter, including:

1.      The horse’s skill and co-ordination levels increase and he is able to work at the same speed with a lower heart rate, thus for longer periods.

2.      Oxygen is used more efficiently and the skeletal muscles (attached to bone) strengthen. There is an increase in blood flow and glycogen storage capacity in the muscles. As a managed programme of physical exercise is introduced, muscle tone develops.

3.      The healthy horse’s bones store blood cells and minerals for release into the body, and strengthen with maturity. Excessive stress and concussion can result in bony enlargements such as splints in youngsters, however, controlled fittening work can stimulate bone to become stronger.

4.      In order for the horse to work at his optimum, energy used in exercise must be replaced with dietary fuel, which is subsequently utilised by all of the horse’s systems.


Step 3. Establish a goal

The third step is to establish a goal, whether it be a specific event or just a level of fitness relevant to a planned workload; it is useful to have a plan to work to. Training holidays are a wonderful way of helping you reach a competitive goal – Castle Leslie Estate has a range of breaks available.


Step 4. Follow a plan

Tailor your fittening plan to your own horse’s circumstances – for example, if he has been off with an injury, has been stabled for long periods or has been kept at a low-level of fitness throughout the winter. As a general rule, the fitter the horse needs to be, the longer you need to spend honing the basics – ask your instructor for advice if you are concerned.


Your fittening programme could include carefully managed roadwork to ‘harden’ the horse’s legs for competition; but take it easy to avoid excessive concussion on the limbs.

Woodland and grassland hacks are also good for developing strength and stamina – try and find a circular route for more interest, and gradually increase the duration.

Utilise hill-work into your training if you have hills locally.

Include lungeing and skill training, ie gentle lateral work and gridwork in the manege.

Gridwork over poles is useful to add variety and re-visit basic skills.

If you have a horse-walker, introduce this as well to the programme in small durations.

Why not try some different activities or disciplines like pleasure rides and horse agility?

Take your horse to a safe local beach if you have one – riding through the water is good for the limbs.

Write down your schedule and the duration of the exercises and rides you do, so you can develop the schedule as the horse gains in fitness and stamina. Increase your periods of canter as the horse gains in fitness, and intersperse it with walk.

Why not consider a training break here at Ireland’s Castle Leslie Estate, where Jenny Richardson BHSAI is Equestrian Centre Business Manager? Click here for further details.


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