Conditioning Our Equine Partners

I am working five ponies a day right now five days a week, and some more often than that.  (It’s the closest to heaven I think I’ll ever get!)  I consider my ponies athletes whenever I ask them to work, whether ridden or in harness.  As an athlete myself, I’m aware of the importance of conditioning, but it wasn’t until the other day that I learned how conditioning an equine’s body is different than conditioning my own.  It’s given me new perspective on the work I do with each pony since they each are at different levels of conditioning.

Dee McVicker’s article “The Foundations of Fitness” in the July 2011 issue of Equus distinguishes between cardiovascular fitness and musculoskeletal fitness. (1)  “[The] average horse needs only a three- or four-week exercise regimen to achieve cardiovascular fitness, but it takes much longer to condition his tendons, ligaments, and bones…  Over time, beginning around five months and perhaps taking a year or more, bone tissue will respond by increasing in density.  Ultimately, the horse will develop harder bones that are more resistant to fractures.”

Likewise, when a horse quits working, he or she will stay fit cardiovascularly longer than structurally.  Injury from overuse is an ever-present possibility since cardiovascular fitness gives adequate energy and a false sense of overall fitness since the underlying strength to support sustained effort may not be fully developed.

In addition to considering the two types of conditioning, horses differ from humans in the rate at which they return to fitness.  “What’s unique about the horse compared to the human is that they don’t decondition as fast and they recondition much faster,” says Jeannette Mero, DVM.  McVicker expands on this idea:  “Since horses hold their fitness for extremely long periods of time, a horse who was fit in the previous year will take less time to get back into shape than one who has never been conditioned.  And the fitter he was, the faster he’ll make a comeback.”   This explains why I’ve always been able to bring my work ponies back after a winter off for summer season.  And why it’s going to take me a lot more time to bring one of them back who didn’t work at all last year.

The good news is that by keeping my ponies in paddocks rather than in stalls, they are able to keep themselves somewhat fit all the time.  McVicker states, “A horse who is on 24-7 turnout will become fitter in substantially less time.”

I was fascinated by the emphasis on slow work, mostly walking, for a significant part of the conditioning period.  James Hamilton, DVM, is quoted in the article:  “Cantering is good for cardiovascular endurance but it does little for muscle strength ….So the canter should be low on the list as far as conditioning goes.”  McVicker adds, “It is safest to add distance first, rather than increasing speed.”  Another veterinarian involved in endurance riding, Dr. Melissa Ribley, says, “We rarely gallop or canter our endurance horses until they have been in training for a couple of years.”

I also took note of this statement:  “Larger, heavier horses do better if you spend more time walking before moving on to extensive trotting or cantering exercises because their bones and joints are supporting extra weight and are more susceptible to injury.”  While my ponies aren’t large by draft horse standards, they are heavy for their size, so this advice might be applicable.  And certainly when first starting a pony this is important advice to consider.  Since Fells, for instance, are typically started at four but don’t finish maturing until eight years old, taking into account strengthening of their musculoskeletal system might mean slow work for quite awhile.

Two things that were mentioned only briefly in the article are quite important in my experience conditioning my work ponies.  The first is to pay attention to how tack might fit differently as body condition improves.  In work ponies, collar fit is especially important and will certainly change both with the seasons as well as with condition.  Second is the mental part of the work.  When my ponies are in regular work, they know what’s expected and they don’t mess around.  For the last year, though, the only job I’ve given my gelding is eating, and now he thinks that’s what’s expected of him.  It is going to take regular work for several weeks to get him back into mental working condition.

While the article suggests that six weeks is the maximum for getting an equine athlete fit, I think that’s only partially true.  As quoted above about bone density, positive change starts at five months, well beyond that six week threshold.  It definitely pays to keep a horse fit year to year and not lay them off like I’ve done with my gelding.  And for those that I’m starting, I shouldn’t expect too much resilience too soon.  I’ve got my work cut out for me.  Fortunately, it’s heavenly work!

(1)    McVicker, Dee.  “The Foundations of Fitness,” Equus, July 2011, Issue 406, p. 33.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2012

About workponies

Breeder of Fell Ponies, teamster of work ponies, and author of Feather Notes, Fell Pony News, and A Humbling Experience: My First Few Years with Fell Ponies. Distributor of Dynamite Specialty Products for the health of our planet and the beings I share it with.
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