Conditioning the driving horse

This article was written by Northwest driver/trainer Nancy Van Deen. Nancy has an extensive history with horses, both ridden and driven, including as jumper rider for the USET. She owns a professional training and boarding facility in Enumclaw, Washington and has trained and driven horses, mules and ponies, singles, pairs and fours, competing and winning to Advanced level.

As the winter weather clears, carriages are dusted off and horses are clipped, people are asking ‘‘what can I do to get my horse fit for the summer.’’ ‘‘When do I start?’’ Toward that end, I share with you my experience and my knowledge.

As we start our horses back from their winter off, it’s important to remember a few basic things about conditioning.

There are three systems which need to be addressed in conditioning the horse; cardiovascular (heart, lungs), digestive and skeletal (bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments). These systems must be monitored and dealt with individually.

The Skeletal System

Horses have all of their muscles above the hocks and knees. These muscles, using tendons attached to bones by ligaments, work the legs and propel the horse forward. This entire system needs to be strengthened in a balanced way, without one part becoming stronger than another.

If strength in the parts of the system develops out of balance, the weaker parts can easily suffer damage. If the muscles are stronger than the tendons, the tendon fibers may rip. If the tendons are too strong for the muscles, the horse can risk tearing muscles and may develop stifle, elbow, back and/or hock injuries. If the ligaments are not strong enough to hold the tendons to the bone, they may tear away from the bone. If the bones are not dense enough to support the strength of the muscles, tendons and ligaments, they may chip and/or twist.

This is only a small sampling of damage which can result from improper conditioning of the skeletal system!

Conversely, without stress, muscles, tendons, ligaments and bone won’t get stronger. To increase in strength, all parts must be stressed equally, without incurring injury.

If you support the legs (tendons and ligaments) with boots or bandages, you will build the muscles of the upper body stronger than the tendons and ligaments. This causes an imbalance in the strengthening of the system, and the chance of injury is multiplied.

If a horse is conditioned on a treadmill, the same problem occurs with the bones. There is reduced strength building bone concussion, and when the animal is returned to regular work, the bones will not be as able to support the added strength of the muscles, tendons and ligaments, and may fail.

There is no short cut for getting a horse in shape. All parts of the horse get stronger from the work they perform. It takes years to get an animal completely fit. You gain a little in fitness each year, even with time off for the horse to heal and repair any damage done during the previous season.

A general rule of conditioning: Muscles, tendons, ligaments and bone will continue to strengthen for about 48 hours after stress. Beyond that time period, unless conditioning continues, the system components will start to degenerate until they are back to their original level of conditioning. This is why consistent and progressive work is so important. In giving your horse time off from his scheduled conditioning, you are allowing the skeletal system to lose the strength and fitness only just recently gained.

The Heart and Lungs

As we work on the skeletal system of the horse, we must also be aware of the heart and lungs, whose general conditioning is fairly straight-forward. The heart and lungs are a unit universally watched, as pulse rate and respirations-per-minute are measures commonly used to gauge the level of athletic conditioning. If you’ve been conditioning your horse’s body at a steady rate, the heart and lungs will be improving at a comparable rate. The heart and respiratory system are also a good indicator of the rate of the skeletal system’s progressive conditioning.

Too Much Cardiovascular Fitness

You should try not to condition the heart and lungs more than the body. This means, don’t get your horse’s heart, lungs and skeletal system fitter than the digestive system can support. If this occurs, the horses is generally referred to as being over-conditioned. The body starts to feed on its own muscles because it cannot consume enough energy to support the level of work being required.

Common symptoms for over-conditioning are; the ‘‘greyhound look,’’ loss of appetite, inability to relax, tension and/or lack of focus. If this level of conditioning is reached, you can do nothing but give your horse time off to let the body rest and heal.

The Digestive Tract

The digestive tract is usually over-looked in conditioning programs, and is easily the most vital link between the other systems being conditioned.

Without conditioning comparable to that of the skeletal and heart/lung sytems, the digestive tract of the horse will be susceptible to stress colic, loss of fluids, ulcers, and lack the ability to digest enough food to feed the increased physical demands of the conditioning horse.

When this occurs, general system failure is the result. Good gut health is vital to keep the other systems fed and able to work. A horse who goes off his feed, or gets a loose stool while working, will only lose condition, as the body will not be able to get or retain enough necessary nutrients to sustain support and repair functions.

The working horse needs to be fed lots of roughage, appropriate supplements and little grain. The more hay you can encourage him to eat, the better. Working horses cannot be over-fed, but they can be miss-fed. Keep good hay in front of him, using grain to increase his appetite. If you have your horse on pasture, you will never get him as fit as a horse on dry hay. The moisture content of grass adds no-roughage bulk. Horses cannot consume the volume of roughage necessary to support a hard working system when only eating grass.

Your horse needs to consume as much water as possible. (25 gallons a day would be nice). Water is vital to every system and a horse cannot perform to the limit of his physical ability without it.

Feed supplemental electrolytes and salt. A free-feed salt block will not be enough. Keep sugars to a minimum in the diet. They are not productive to the gut health of a horse, and can actually cause problems with nutrient balance and absorption.

When horses are working, they don’t get fat. Most of the time, the problem is the other way around, and you find you have to back off your work program to let the horse gain weight.

The Plan

Research has found a horse cannot be worked forever without becoming over-conditioned. A horse’s condition peaks between 200 and 230 days after the start of conditioning. After 250 days, most horses will be over-conditioned and will start a downward spiral.

When to start your conditioning program must be determined by your driving event calendar. Check the date of your last competition of the coming season and count back 240 days. This is when you want to bring your horse in to start work.

A good working program, for a horse coming off winter lay-up, is to start with 20 minutes of work every other day, adding 5 min per week to each work session, working the horse just to a sweat. It is very important not to over-do. If your horse suffers an injury during the conditioning program, the time needed for your horse to heal will haunt you for the rest of the competitive season. (If you break your toys, you don’t have toys to play with!)

A horse must have 60 days of good solid work for the muscles and ligaments to gather sufficient strength to avoid being torn. This does not mean your horse is close to being fit, but he’s at a point where the injury risks are reduced.

After 60 days of steady conditioning, you can start pushing your horse a little. Try not to give your horse more than two days off in a row. If you do, the work you’ve done will have already started to degenerate, and you will have gained nothing in fitness and condition.

Don’t put your horse into competition until he has been in a conditioning program for 90 days. This will ensure your horse is reasonably fit enough for the task.

Being Wise

Horses get sore and tired, just like people do. Just because you know how to do a sit-up doesn’t mean you can do 200 of them starting today. If you work hard, you might be able to do 200 sit-ups after a lot of steady work.

Your horse is the same. Pushing your horse beyond what he can physically give you will only discourage him from wanting to come out and work again the next day.

Give your horse every chance you can. Get his teeth floated and make sure his worming and immunizations are up to date. Care, condition and feed him for a successful driving season, and enjoy the results!