By: Melissa Sykes, thoroughbred breeder and freelance writer
– There are as many forms of exercise (if not more) than there are muscles in the body – especially the equine body. Not to be confused with actual training, in this article we are discussing specific forms of conditioning without a rider on the animal’s back.
There are any number of reasons for a horse to be conditioned without a rider up. It could be a yearling being fitted for the sales, or an older horse coming off an injury. No matter the circumstances, there is an exercise regimen out there that is suitable for your circumstances.
One of the most common types of exercise, especially at the racetrack, is ponying. The handler is mounted on a pony horse and leads the animal to be exercised. The gait usually used is the jog or trot.
An advantage to ponying is the ability to work in a straight line or in very large circles. This is more naturally how an animal would work with a rider up. Also, the animal can be worked over a variety of surfaces and inclines. For instance, when ponying in a pasture, there are usually gentle slopes with areas of both grass and sand to travel through. Most young horses will enjoy working with a pony horse.
However, the drawbacks to ponying include not being able to accurately regulate the pace – the pony horse will dictate how fast/slow the work is. The temperament of the pony horse can be a plus or a definite minus in exercising the racehorse. A good pony horse is worth his weight in gold, but a handler doesn’t want to be on the pony if the two should start to fight.
Control is another factor. Once off of the ground (i.e. on the pony horse) the handler doesn’t have as much control over the animal to be exercised.
ROUND PEN AND LUNGING
A round pen can be a wonderful conditioning tool for a horse. As a matter of fact, this is usually the top choice among pinhookers for fitting weanlings and yearlings for the sales. Exercise can be broken down by gait, direction and exact time. For instance, a yearling can work five minutes in each direction at the trot, eventually lengthening the amount of time to both get his heart rate up and tone his muscles.
If no round pen is available, it doesn’t take much to train the horse to a lunge line. The benefit here is that the size of the circles he is working in can vary – they can be as large as your longest line.
With either of the above exercise methods, be sure that the circle the animal is working in is fairly large in diameter. Tight circles can cause ankle problems. It can also teach the horse to alter his stride to fit the area (i.e. Constant exercise in a small circle may teach him to shorten his stride.)
The concussion generated by the feet striking the ground with each stride is very important in the development of bone density. But too much concussion can cause sore shins and splints.
Although round pen work and lunging are easy on the handler, it can be a very boring routine for the animal.
EUROPEAN TYPE EXERCISER
Pinhookers are installing European type exercisers in record numbers. The machine resembles a mini-racetrack with only one lane. Metal gates act as partitions separating each horse on this track. The horses are free inside their individual moving stalls. The gates hang from arms very similar to those on a walking machine. The machine can be set for varying speeds including walk, trot and gallop.
The exerciser comes in diameters large enough that a conditioner would feel comfortable having the animal gallop.
These exercisers, besides being fairly expensive to install, require an attendant to constantly monitor the animals exercising. Much like a treadmill, the speed is completely controlled which can be a problem if the horse begins to fall behind.
Swimming is a good way to leg up youngsters and keep injured horses fit. The gait used when swimming is the trot. This is the gait that builds forearm and gaskin muscles.
The cardiopulmonary system also benefits greatly from swimming. The horse’s breathing pattern is different than when he is working on solid ground – he takes fewer but deeper breaths when swimming.
Many horsemen believe that swimming an animal helps to hydrate the body. The theory is that the skin absorbs some of the water, which is stored in the tissues.
It is not recommended that swimming replace other forms of exercise. Swimming should be used only in conjunction with exercise over hard ground.
Equine swimming pools and ponds are usually in one of two shapes: round or straight. In a pond or round pool, the animal swims in a circle, propelling his body through the water. In a straight pool, the animal is held in place via a ring in his tail. He is swimming against being anchored. Most equine exercise physiologists do not recommend tying the horse in one place to swim, especially by the tail. It causes the animals’ haunches to sink and the horse begins swimming using a climbing motion. There is a lot of unnatural force being placed on the spine in this instance.
If the horse has an injury such as a bruised foot, sore shins or abscess, swimming can be used in lieu of other types of exercise until the animal is recovered. For injuries to the stifle, buttocks and back, consult with your veterinarian first. Swimming may only aggravate matters.
Although treadmills are not nearly as common at farms as round pens or even swimming pools, some conditioners do use them for their animals. A treadmill can provide not only exercise for the horse but gait analysis and other diagnostic information to the trained observer.
Exercising on a treadmill can be done at any time, no matter the weather. The handler is not dependent upon a rider showing up to work his horse. With younger animals, not yet mature enough for a rider, it can condition them at higher speeds than you would get either round penning or lunging.
Speed, heart and respiratory rates can be completely controlled when exercising on a treadmill.
However, it has been observed that there is a heat build-up in the shoes and feet far greater than the animal would experience doing the same work over the racetrack. It has also been reported that speed work at an incline can produce muscle and back soreness.
A new product under scrutiny at several universities is a weight vest for the equine athlete. Designed by a former pro-football player, weight training could become the next tool for conditioners.
The vests are designed to carry up to 100 pounds and will be available as either a saddle pad to be used in conjunction with a rider or attached to a surcingle, putting weight on the animal without having a rider up.
The vests are being worn by the horses during round pen and treadmill exercise. Researchers are currently gauging the added weight’s affect on bone density, muscle mass and heart and respiration levels. Researchers looking at muscle mass feel there is an added benefit to muscling up sale horses using the weights.
No definitive long-term studies have been completed or are currently planned. If a conditioner were to incorporate weight training into their exercise program, they may want to carefully monitor the horses’ responses and adjust the weight accordingly.
There are so many ways to exercise a horse. But conditioners may want to take a lesson from trainer Michael Dickinson. At his Tapeta Farm in Maryland, horses get turned out in large pastures for a couple of hours each day. They walk out any stiffness, roll in the sand and may buck and jump to burn off excess energy.
One last tip: A horse in a herd type setting will exercise himself!