After a period of foundation training, adult Warmblood horses competing at amateur level need two or three conditioning trainings a week to build up strength (and stamina, if needed in your discipline), and at least one training a week to maintain current fitness level. Conditioning training consist of segments with intensive trot work or canter, with a maximum of five minutes per segment. Each segment is followed by the same recovery time consisting of suppleness exercise in walk or stretching calmly in trot.
We have based this rule on a literature review that we would like to share with you in this blog. As with every rule, there are exceptions, in this case, studied for Friesians and Quarter Horses (as explained at the end of this article). Horses in training for higher levels of competition may increase canter in training sessions up to eight minutes, and we will not discuss the training of racehorses, as thoroughbreds have a different physical response to training.
Building up your training
Training typically consists of four to five segments. Each segment has a different intensity and goals. The first segment is designed to warm up the horses' muscles, and the last is designed to cool them down. You can read more about this in later blogs. The middle segments focus on discipline and specific level targets. Perhaps you want to teach the horse a new exercise, or you want to train its reflexes, or build its strength.
Increasing fitness level
The goal of conditioning training is to increase muscle strength by progressive loading. During training, if a horse reaches its anaerobic threshold (generally at a heart-rate of around 180 beats per minute), there is not enough oxygen in the muscle to support aerobic respiration. Therefore, the muscle switches to anaerobic respiration to generate power, in which lactate is produced. This is less efficient. Lactate is responsible for the onset of fatigue in the horse, and for muscle soreness the following day. In Show Jumping, the onset of anaerobic metabolism can cause the horse to make faults in its course. The aim of fitness training is to enable the horse to finish a jump course, or a test in dressage using aerobic metabolism. When a horse reaches its anaerobic threshold, depends upon its fitness level and the exercise load.
Dressage and Show Jumping
Dressage is an aerobic sport that requires focuses mainly on the development of strength in a very specific set of abdominal and back muscles that are responsible for flexion of the vertebral column. The duration of a Grand Prix test is a maximum of eight minutes and performed with a relatively low speed (average 138 m/min). To train the aerobic capacity of the horse, it is recommended to not exceed a heart rate of 160 beats per minute.
Show Jumping involves a unique blend of power, precision and speed. Both aerobic and a small amount of anaerobic metabolism are involved in jumping a course. The training of a horse for Show Jumping revolves around increasing aerobic capacity and minimizing lactate build up.
In her book, “Conditioning Sport Horses.”, Hilary Clayton recommends interval training for horses used in Dressage and Show Jumping, starting with two or three conditioning training sessions a week that consist of segments of three minutes briskly cantering (or trotting), followed by the same amount of time in walk. The time per segment can be slowly increased by one minute every two weeks to a maximum of five minutes. When it has reached this level of fitness, the horse is ready to compete.
To train horses for a higher levels of Dressage or Show Jumping, the training should increase the time per segment gradually up to maximum of eight minutes. However, the work:rest ratio should remain 1:1. So, after five minutes of canter, five minutes of walk (or relaxed trot) should follow. Within a segment, discipline-specific exercises should be performed. For dressage horses, exercises that focus on transitions and collection are ideal. For horses used for Show Jumping, training should focus on speed variation over short distances to train reflexes and mimic competitive situations. The more intense a segment becomes, the longer rest period the horse requires in between.
High-intensity aerobic training (heart-rate 160-180 beats per minute) requires a 1:2 work:rest ratio.
High-intensity segment training that exceeds the estimated anaerobic threshold (heart-rate 180-200 beats per minute) requires a 1:6 work:rest ratio.
For example, training a horse used for Show Jumping for speed and reflexes might enable the horse to accelerate to high speed for 50 meters, decelerate, turn 90º to 180º, and then accelerate again. This high-intensity segment of work consists of maximum four or five accelerations, followed by a rest interval of six times the length of the work segment.
Unlike in Dressage and Show Jumping horses, in which strength is important for Eventing, the cardiovascular fitness of the horse is often the limiting factor. Cross-country horses cannot solely rely on aerobic metabolism. A significant contribution of energy production through anaerobic metabolism is required. It takes several years to maximize the aerobic capacity of the eventing horse.
Cardio-conditioning-training is performed three times a week with two or three segments of gallop (a fast canter of 400- 500 meters per minute) is alternated with a rest period, during which the horse could be asked to perform calming, suppling exercises in walk or trot.
This is an example of how to start cardio-training for Eventing. The same build-up may apply to Show Jumping and Dressage training. Instead of increasing 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 ten horses during their conditioning training. Three of the horses finally participated in the championships and five of them were injured during the training period. The horses that were injured had a significantly higher maximum heart-rate in training.
On average, the horses participated in 62 cardio-training sessions within 12 weeks (once every five to six days). Each training session consisted of two-and-a-half segments (sometimes two, sometimes three). Each segment had an average duration of 5.9 minutes with a maximum heart-rate of 193 beats per minute.
Quarter Horses are renowned for their abilities to accelerate quickly and seemingly effortlessly. In a study of 17 high-level Quarter Horses, a segment of five-minute lope (slow canter) + one-minute gallop to the left followed by five-minute lope and one-minute gallop to the right, did not exceed the anaerobic threshold in these horses (heart-rate 162 beats per minute). Two sets of two stops with 80-meter gallops between stops and one-minute walking between sets, would create a slightly more intense workout (heart-rate 177 beats per minute), but still well within these horses’ anaerobic thresholds (lactate 2.7 mmol per liter).
This indicates that well-trained Quarter Horses can easily spend over ten minutes in a slow canter without breaking a sweat.
While on the subject of training in canter, it is worth mentioning training of the Friesian breed, in particular. Friesians are becoming increasingly popular in dressage, but canter is not their strongest gait. In a study that compared Friesians with Warmblood horses, it was demonstrated that Friesians reach their anaerobic threshold in canter much quicker than Warmbloods do. Young Friesian horses of three- to four-years old were not able to canter for four minutes without reaching high levels of lactate concentrations. When asked to canter for four minutes, divided into four segments of one minute, the horses maintained an acceptable lactate level of less than 4 mmol per liter. The latter provides a good alternative program for gradually increasing the strength of a Friesian horse 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 standardized tests (SETs).” BMC Veterinary Research (2017) 13:49 DOI 10.1186/s12917-017-0969-8
Clayton H.M. (1991) ‘Conditioning 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