Legging up your horse: Conditioning for fitness and injury prevention
by Andria Massie, MA, MAT
Equine Sports Medicine & Regenerative Therapies Massie Veterinary Services
Winter is slowly coming to a close, days are starting to get longer, and I swear I can see spring buds on our trees. Like you, while the rain is pouring or the snow is blowing, I’ve been planning our horse camping excursions and horse show schedules with anticipation!
Experience has taught me that overexerting your horse after a long winter layoff can easily lead to injury. I’ve come across horse riders who underestimated the effects of a good legging up before the spring season, and it did backfire. Rushing a horse into strenuous activities they’re not physiologically prepared for causes physical strains and leads to injuries.
Serious horse owners condition their horses for the work ahead. This is what is called “legging up.” Legging up is a series of conditioning steps you take to restore your horse to full fitness after a long break or injury. Horses need time to recover physically, physiologically, and mentally, before they can be optimally fit for riding again. A typical legging up program might last 4-6 weeks, depending on the type of event the horse is being prepared for.
As we go further, I’ll explain some of the benefits of legging up and the best practices to condition your horse for optimal performance.
Benefits of a solid legging up program
The winter break can cause your horse’s muscles can lose strength and tone. Their capacity for oxygen intake decreases, blood circulation slows, and their tendons and ligaments tighten up.
The goal of any conditioning program is to improve the horse’s physical and psychological responses. Physical responses include improved stamina and endurance, while psychological responses include a mental tune-up to help make the horse ready and eager to perform.
A good legging up program does the following:
Increases the oxygen intake levels of the horse.
Increases heart strength and helps to lower heart rate during training.
Increases muscle size and strength, which in turn builds endurance.
Prepares the horse’s bones for training and racing.
Reduces muscle soreness and aches
Helps prevent injuries during riding season.
Best horse legging up practices
I advise horse owners to ensure their horses are healthy before starting any fitness regimen. In cases of previous injury, you should get a clearance from your vet before proceeding. This way, you’re sure there are no “hidden” injuries or internal problems that could affect the progress of your horse once training begins. Here are some of the steps I encourage riders to take when legging up their horses:
Have a solid fitness plan
This is the most fundamental step in any conditioning program. It should be tailored to suit the horse and the event you’re preparing it for. Legging up usually involves a combination of exercises and maneuvers that increase in intensity the fitter your horse becomes. Set a schedule for how you plan to build up fitness from walking, through trotting, to cantering. Some popular conditioning regimens include:
Slow-speed conditioning- It should be done at the early stages of legging up to build endurance. It involves sessions of walking and trotting for long distances that promote the aerobic production of energy (ATP) and increases oxygen intake. Similar to a person taking deep breaths while exercising.
High-speed conditioning- You can introduce this into your schedule about two weeks into your legging up program. It involves a series of high-speed bursts over short distances that improves the anaerobic capacity of your horse and helps activate the fast twitch muscle fibers.
Interval training- I advise riders to use this only in the latter stages of legging up because of its high intensity. It is carried out by performing multiple bursts of high-energy workouts in a day interspersed with little rest intervals.
Go slow and steady
Don’t rush your horse. The secret to success is a safe and methodical progression by meticulous conditioning. For the first week, try to limit your program to just walking on easy trails. This would get the muscles adequately warmed up and prevent overexertion. You can increase the pace gradually as your horse adjusts to the new routine. A good practice is to engage in mobilization techniques (before the ride) and stretching techniques after every workout to cool the horse down.
Once you begin your horse’s workout regimen, stay true to it. Don’t take your horse for a ride only when you feel like it. You only defeat the entire purpose of the program this way. Follow your schedule and ride your horse consistently.
Include hill work in your drills
Hill work is a potent tool for conditioning that can get your horse to fitness faster. Try to include moderate hill climbing at a walk when possible. It helps build muscles, strengthen the ligaments and tendons, and improve blood circulation.
Have rest days
At this stage, it is important not to over-exert your horse. You can arrange your program to initially include two workout days followed by an easy day of leisure riding and rest. On these days, you should also observe your horse to look out for any significant changes the workout regimen may have caused. You would gradually build up to 4 work days with 2 days off after that. Once you get up to 5 work days in a row, make sure you continue to offer 2 full days of leisure and rest.
Gradually increase the diet to high-energy foods
Sometimes I ask horse riders to increase a horse's feed intake to keep up with the increased energy expenditure. This might not be necessary sometimes because many horses often come out of the winter break carrying more weight than they need. I’m happy to consult with you to help you determine the best nutrition for your horse.
A good way to keep track of your horse's fitness levels is to learn how to record its pulse and heart rate before and after exercise. A horse's heart rate should return to normal within 15 minutes after a session. If there’s still an elevated pulse rate after an hour, then the workout must have been too intense, and you should tone down the intensity. A horse that is working too hard may also show signs of pain or resistance, such as body aches, pinned ears, general reluctance, or clumsiness.
When I'm starting colts, or bringing a horse back into fitness, I like to give "bute" (Phenylbutazone) for 3 days to reduce “resentment” as they will get sore while legging up. Think about starting to work out again and how sore you get. Horses experience the same thing! Talk to your veterinarian about using bute for this purpose and get their o.k. before using any pharmaceutical.
Here’s my typical legging up schedule, for a horse without health or soundness issues, that includes some of the conditioning methods explained above. The key is to pace the horse and make sure she recovers after every session. Remember to include rest days in between.
Week 1: 30 - 45 minutes of walking daily for 3-4 days. You can add 5 minutes of trotting in the last session of the week.
Week 2: 20 - 30 minutes of walking with 10 minutes of trotting for 4-5 days. You can incorporate hill work at this stage.
Week 3: 10 minutes of walking, 20 minutes of trotting, and 5 - 10 minutes of cantering for 4-5 days.
Week 4: 10 minutes of walking, 20 minutes of trotting, and 20 minutes of cantering for 4-5 days.
Week 5: You may now proceed to interval training with high-speed bursts and brisk gallops and short rest periods at intervals. Do this 2 days at a time, with a rest day in between.
Keep in mind this is a regimen for building fitness; it is not discipline specific. You can always add discipline specific maneuvers as as your horse gains strength and flexibility.
The need to properly condition your horse after a long break cannot be overstated. Legging up not only reduces the risk of injuries but also puts your mind at ease because you know your horse is adequately prepared. The practical steps I’ve explained have worked for many horse riders for years. I’m confident they will for you too. In no time, your horse should be fully fit and ready for the rigors of riding season.
If you do have any more questions about equine sports medicine, tailoring a personalized conditioning plan for your horse, or any of our equine regenerative therapies, feel free to contact me below. Happy Trails!