How To Build Your Horse's Topline, Strength and Fitness!Jun 01, 2023
I think I get asked every week about what to feed a horse and what training exercises to use in order to build topline or improve their fitness and strength.
In short it comes down to feeding and exercising your horse to their own individual needs. There is a basic template for a weekly routine I use when horses come to me for bootcamp but each one is worked and fed within its own capabilities and requirements.
Basic horsemanship skills seem to be lacking amongst horse riders in these modern times. I remember as a kid we were all taught at pony club how to take our horses heart rate, how to warm up and cool down properly. We had entire theory sessions on the correct way to groom a horse. I feel this is either no longer happening or the importance of knowing these basic fundamentals of horse care is not understood. OR.. kids just aren't going to pony club now in the numbers they used to?!
Dressage horses with suspensory injuries from not being "legged up" properly, eventing horses experiencing heart attacks on cross-country from not being aerobically fit enough, the equine physiotherapy industry absolutely booming due to so many sore horses. Sore from being trained unevenly, inconsistently and unbalanced. Incorrectly fitting tack or inappropriate feed. Old fashioned horsemanship seems to have disappeared.
I guess that's why I'm putting the time into writing a blog post about it. I really want horse riders across the board to have this fundamental knowledge.
The first thing you need to understand is your horses nutritional requirements. This is not the same for every horse. Your heavier breeds need less fat and protein but if they're heavy sweaters then they need more electrolytes. Your lighter breeds like Thorougbreds and Stock Horses need more protein and fat. BUT then again you need to assess it as a horse by horse case as some lighter breeds are really good doers so they don't fit into the generalisation of what their breed requires.
Horses are so unique and individual to each other that there is not one rule for all. Yes you want your horses having a lot of fibre, ad lib forage in hay and quality pasture and low starches BUT those quantities will vary from horse to horse. Just because your friend Karen is feeding her horse a certain way doesn't necessarily mean it will work for your horse. Be very careful taking advice from other horse owners, especially if they have only ever owned one or two horses.
If you need help compiling your horses diet, then seek the advice of a qualified equine nutritionist. I use Donna Smith from Elite Equine Nutrition. Donna will come out to see your horse in person if your horse is within a one hour radius of the business. Otherwise you can contact her for a phone consultation. You can contact Donna via this link - Elite Equine Nutrition Diet Analysis
The other thing you need to take into account when creating a diet plan for your horse, is that over time it will change slightly. The changes will depend on your horses work load, environmental changes and age. The more work, the more protein they will need and the less work, the less feed. When it's cold they need more hay, preferably a grass hay.
Now this doesn't mean don't feed your horse if they had a day off as some people have asked me. If they get a few days off a week, their daily feeds should be taking this into account. Dramatically changing their feed day to day will send their gut bacteria and acid production into meltdown. Feed portions and types need to be changed very gradually so their gut can remain healthy. Ok, that's enough on feed.
"How do I bring my horse back into work?" Is another really common question I'm asked. Again there is no "one answer fits all" for this. If your horse is in rehabilitation from injury or sickness you need to complete their rehabilitation process before creating a training program.
If your horse has been spelling in the paddock for 3 months or longer then the rule of thumb is to walk them for 5 kilometres a day for 3 months before you add trot work. Seems extreme? It's again something that needs to be monitored from horse to horse. If your horse has been a top athlete, spelled after completing an international horse trials at the end of a full season, then they are not going to need to be walked for three months. These horses will have already been "legged up" which means their bone and soft tissue has already had the work to create density. They do still need to be brought into work slowly but not as slowly as the giant clydesdale cross who's belly is touching the ground from being spelled in knee deep grass for three months or more!
In my experience, the bigger the horse, the longer they take to bring back into work. I have had horses through who I've walked in-hand on the roads for about 6 kilometres and found they struggled. Some of them lying down and sleeping after their training, that exhausted when they hadn't even been ridden.
I really don't recommend riders lunging their horses to bring them back into work unless their ability to train ground work is of a high standard. Leading them out on straight lines is a far better way to set your horse up to create even muscle. Riders need to be fit too, so walking your horse out in hand to bring them back into work is just as good for the rider as it is the horse.
When your horse appears to be coping well with the level of training you're asking then you can increase the intensity. What I mean by "coping well" is not puffing too heavily during work and recovering to a resting heart rate within 5 minutes of stopping the most intense part of their exercise. If they cope with that, then very slowly add more intensity to their training, and train for longer periods of time. If you need more help with this then check out my mini-course on building a horses topline and fitness. It is a template to help you create a training program for your own individual horse. Click the link below to get more help.
What type of exercise does your horse need to build muscle and increase their fitness? Cross-training is REALLY important!! I can't impress enough how training across multiple mediums helps the horses stay sound. If you only train one type of exercise, like dressage for example, then your horse is ONLY using the muscles required for dressage. "What's wrong with that you say?" Well... over time the muscles and ligaments that you're not asking your horse to use begin to weaken which leaves your horse wide open for injuries.
Training over pole patterns is a great way to cross-train. Poles are such a great tool as you can create very low intensity work outs, purely in the walk, that will really help mobilise and strengthen the very unfit horse. At the opposite end of the scale I've designed poles training programs for Olympic and elite level Eventers who have found the exercises tough, technical and extremely effective in improving their horses shape over a jump, ability to adjust, improve stride length and to build muscle in areas they just couldn't build with their other forms of training.
Hill work is another exceptionally effective way to build overall strength. Jumping grids, swimming, interval training and hacks out are all forms of cross training every type of performance horse across the board should be schooling. Riders and trainers just adjust the exercise appropriately for the horse training them. An organised rider plans our their month of training ahead of time so they can ensure their horse gets the type of physical and mental training it needs.
When I was younger and rode track work, the trainer I worked for only trained at the race track every second day. Every other day we hacked the horses out, mainly in walk and trot through the trails, dirt roads and paddock hills. NONE of her horses had soundness issues and all raced successfully for long careers. This lady was so important in teaching me about the importance of cross-training. Even back then, nearly 30 years ago I'd take race horses in for some cross-training over poles. Again... this is not a new concept, cross-training every type of horse! But in our exceedingly busy lives, it seems riders are lacking the time to implement the training their horses require to perform in the way they want.
You have two choices - 1) Make the time to train your horses properly for the expectations you have on their performance or 2) Train what you can in the time you have and lower your expectations of your horses ability to perform.
Keep it real people, be honest with yourself AND kind to yourself! Not everyone has the time or the money to train like an elite rider... do what you can in the time you can allocate AND most of all make it fun!!!
Learn how to take your horses heart rate so you can gauge their fitness level and how its increasing as you train. Seek professional advice if you don't know what you should be feeding your horse. Make sure your tack fits, that you are constantly working on your own balance and rider fitness which can have a huge impact on your horse's muscle development. Find out how and where you can implement some cross-training into your horses program.
Feed your horse appropriately, vary their training and stay consistent! THEN you will improve your horses topline, strength and fitness!!
If you want an easy to follow, day by day road map to improving your horse riding position.. hit the link and find out how!
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