After a period of foundation training, adult warmblood horses competing at amateur level need 2 or 3 conditioning trainings a week to build up strength (and stamina if needed in your discipline) and at least 1 training a week to maintain current fitness level. Conditioning training consist of segments with intensive trot work or canter with a maximum of 5 minutes per segment. Each segment is followed by the same recovery time consisting of suppleness exercise in walk or stretching calmly in trot.
We base this rule on a literature review that we like to share with you in this blog. As with every rule there are exceptions, in this case studied for Friesians and Quatre Horses (see below). Horses in training for higher levels of competition may increase training bouts to 8 minutes and we will not go into training of race horses, since thoroughbreds have a different physical responds to training.
Building up your training
Training typically consists of 4-5 segments. Each segment has a different intensity and goals. Every first segment is designed to warm up the horses' muscles and the last to cool down. You read more about this in later blogs. The 2 - 3 middle segments are focussing on discipline and level specific targets. Perhaps you want to learn the horse a new exercise or you want to train its reflexes or strength.
Increasing fitness level
The goal of conditioning training is to increase muscle strength by progressive loading. If in training a horse reaches its anaerobic threshold (generally at a heartbeat around 180 beats/minute) this means there is not enough oxygen in the muscle, the muscle switches to a less efficient system for generating power, whereby lactate is being produced. Lactate is responsible for the onset of fatigue in the horse and muscle soreness the next day. In showjumping the onset of anaerobic metabolism is proven to be the cause of faults in the course. The aim of fitness training is to finish a course or a test in dressage with aerobic metabolism. When a horse reaches its anaerobic state depends on his fitness level and the load of the exercise.
Dressage and showjumping specific
Dressage is an aerobic sport, focussing mainly on the development of strength in a very specific set of abdominal an back muscles responsible for flexion of the vertebral column. The duration of a Grand Prix test is a maximum of 8 minutes and performed with a relatively low speed (average 138 m/min). To train the aerobe capacity of the horse it is recommended to not exceed a heart rate of 160 bpm.
Show jumping involves a unique blend of power precision and speed. Both aerobe and a little bit of anaerobic metabolism are involved in jumping a course. The training of a showjumper revolves around increasing the aerobic capacity and minimizing lactate build up.
In her book ‘Conditioning the Sport Horse’ Hilary Clayton recommends Interval training for dressage and show Jumping horses starting with 2 or 3 conditioning training sessions a week consisting of segments of 3 minutes briskly cantering (or trotting) followed by the same amount of time in walk. One can slowly increase the time per segment with 1 minute every 2 weeks to a maximum of 5 minutes. Your horse is now ready to compete at competitions.
In order to train horses for a higher levels of dressage/ show jumping the training should increase the time per segment gradually up to maximum of 8 minutes. Still the work: rest ratio should remain 1:1. So after 5 minutes of canter 5 minutes of walk (or relaxed work in trot) should follow. Within a segment, discipline specific exercises should be performed, with dressage horses focussing on transitions and collecting exercises and show jumpers on speed variation over short distances to train reflexes and mimic competitive situations. The more intense a segments gets the longer rest period the horse requires in between.
High-intensity aerobe training (heart rate 160-180 beats/min) requires a 1:2 work: rest ratio
High-intensity segment exceeding the estimated anaerobe threshold (heart rate 180-200 beat/min) require a 1: 6 work: rest ratio.
For example, a show jumping horse working on its speed and reflexes might accelerate the horse to high speed for 50 meters, then decelerate and turn 90 - 180 degrees and accelerates again. This high-intensity segment of work consists of maximum 4 or 5 accelerations followed by a rest interval of 6 times the time of the work segment.
Unlike in dressage and show jumping horses where strength is important in eventing the cardiovascular fitness of the horse is often the limiting factor. In a cross country horses cannot solely rely on aerobic metabolism but a significant contribution of energy production through anaerobic metabolism is required. It takes several years to maximizes the aerobic capacity of the eventing horse.
Cardio- conditioning- training is performed 3 times a week with 2 or 3 segments of gallop (a fast canter of 400- 500 m/min) is alternated with a rest period in which the horse might do suppling exercises in walk or trot quietly.
This is an example of how to start cardio training for eventing. The same build up may apply to show jumping and dressage training. In stead of increase speed the intensity of the training is increased by adding extra discipline specific , strength building exercises.
(Source: Clayton 1991 Conditioning sport horses)
European Eventing Championships
In preparation for the European Eventing Championships (2010, 2011) Dr. Munster monitored 10 horses during their conditioning training. 3 of the horse finally participated in the championships and 5 of them got injured during the training period. The horses that became injured had a significantly higher maximum heart rate in training.
On average the horses did 62 cardio-training sessions in 12 weeks (once every 5-6 days). Each training session consisted of 2.5 segments (sometimes 2, sometimes 3). Each segment had an average duration of 5,9 minutes with a maximum heart rate of 193 beats/minutes
The Quatre horse is famous for its ability to quickly accelerate and make it seem effortless. In a study of 17 high-level Quatre horses, a segment of 5-minute lope (slow canter) + 1-minute gallop to the left followed by 5-minute lope and 1-minute gallop to the right did not exceed the anaerobic threshold in these horses (heartrate 162 beats/min). Two sets of 2 stops with 80-meter gallop between stops and 1-minute walk between sets would create a little bit more intense workout (heart rate 177 beats/min) but still well within anaerobic thresholds (lactate 2.7 mmol/l).
Indicating that well trained Quatre horses can easily spend over 10 minutes in a slow canter without breaking a sweat.
When talking about training in canter it is worth mentioning the training of Friesians in particular. Friesians are becoming more and more popular in dressage, but canter is not their strongest gait. In a study comparing Friesians with warmblood horses, it was demonstrated that Friesians reach their anaerobic threshold in canter much quicker than warmbloods do. Young Friesian horses of 3-4 years old were not able to canter for 4 minutes without reaching high levels of lactate concentrations. When asked to do 4 minutes divided into 4 segments of 1 minute the horses maintained an acceptable lactate level of less than 4mmol/L. The later providing a good alternative programm for gradually making a Friesian horse stronger in Canter
Bitschnau C., Wiesner T., Trachsel D.S., Auer J. A., Weishauopt M.A., (2010) “Performance parameters and post exercise heart rate recovery in Warmblood sports horses of different performance levels” Equine vet. J. (2010) 42 (suppl 38) 17-22
Bruin de M.N. Houterman W., Ploeg M., Ducro B., Boshuizen B., Goethals K., Verdegaal E. L., Delesalle C. (2017) “Monitoring training responses in young Friesian horses using two different standardised tests (SETs)” BMC Verinairy Research (2017) 13:49 DOI 10.1186/s12917-017-0969-8
Clayton H.M. (1991) ‘Condtioning Sport Horses” Sport Horse Publications 3145 Sandhill road Mason.
Munsters C.C.B.M., Broek van den J., Weeren van R., Sloet van Oldruitenborgh-Oosterbaan M.M. (2013) “Young Friesian horses show familiar aggregation in fitness response to a seven-week performance test”
Munsters C.C.B.M., Broek van den J., Welling E., Weeren van R., Sloet van Oldruitenborgh-Oosterbaan M.M. (2013) “A prospective study on a cohort of horses and ponies selected for participation in the European Championship: reasons for withdrawal and predictive value of fitness tests”
Navas de Solis C., Sampson S.N., McKay T., and Whitfield-Cargile C. (2018) “Standardized exercise testing in 17 reining horses: Musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiac, and clinicopathological findings” Equine vet. Educ. (2018) 30 (5) 262-267