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Veterinarian: Creating a Strong and Durable Horse – 3 Things to Focus on

The horse was born to live out in the open. That´s why, it´s built to be an amazing athlete. But to get a durable athlete, the horse requires that we as riders know what the horse’s body needs. Veterinarian and horse chiropractor Ulla Vestergaard Andersen, knows everything about the horse’s athletic potential, how to maintain its endurance and strength, and ultimately how to keep it fit for as long as possible. Here you will find three of the important things that needs to be your main focus: basic fitness, restitution and discipline-targeted training.

Aerobic (low intensity) and Anaerobic (high intensity) Training

When trying your horse, you distinguish between aerobic and anaerobic training.
Aerobic training takes place at a relatively low intensity. In this case, the horse has a low heart rate and the muscles are not subjected to heavy load. This happens, for example, when we take the horse for a walk or when we ride a light trot to warm up the muscles before moving on to the more difficult exercises.
Anaerobic exercises, on the other hand, are characterized by a high intensity and a high heart rate. This type of training happens, among other things, when the horse is jumping or racing.

You might also like to read: Why Your Horse Benefits from Field-time

1. A good basic condition is the foundation

With the above in mind, it is important to train your horse aerobically before anything else. This ensures a good basic condition, which makes the horse better to utilize his fat burning and to retrieve oxygen from the blood. This way, the horse improves it´s blood supply to the muscles and the content of mitochondria increases. Mitochondria helps convert energy into fat and sugar into a fuel which all the cells of the body can use. In addition, the muscles become better at removing and convert lactic acid, and their structure becomes stronger as they are ready to work at an increased load. In other words, a horse that is forced to do a high-intensity training without a propper warm up of the muscles can quickly become injured. Therefore, a good basic condition is so important before proceeding with your training.


“It takes 3 to 12 months, depending on the horse’s age, breed and previous training, to build up a good basic condition. This is accomplished when the horse can do a work out for 45-60 minutes without any complications. When it´s able to do this in all three gaits at an average speed of six to eight kilometers per hour. Furthermore, 2-3 minute intervals of canter at 16-18 kilometers per hour. When all of the above is accomplished, then the basic condition is in place,
”explains Ulla Vestergaard.

Turnout is good for the basic condition

Research from 2013 (Source 1) emphasises that horses placed in fields though not in training still have stronger bones and a better condition after 14 weeks off, than horses trained for two hours a day kept inside. It says a lot about the importance of horses being turned out in the fields.

2. Restitution is as important as training

The next important thing is to allow the horse to recover. In fact, it´s just as important as the workout itself. The explanation is simple: The training of a horse causes minor injuries to the muscles. These injuries can only be rebuilt if the horse is allowed to recover sufficiently. If not, you will end up breaking down the muscles instead of building them up – and eventually you get a damaged horse.

Unless the horse is allowed to recover, these minor injuries can develop into major injuries which then can result in lameness and decreased performance. To know if one’s training is progressing properly and whether the horse is in better condition, it is a good idea to do a standardized training test at a two- or three-month interval. Here, both heart rate and lactic acid are measured, and the future training should be based on the knowledge of the heart rate in combination with the lactic acid limit for your horse,” Ulla Vestergaard emphasizes.

Study of show jumping horses’ and their need for restitution

In a 2016 study, (Source 2) muscle values were measured in show jumping horses competing two weeks in a row. The conclusion was, that not even five days of recovery was sufficient for the muscles to recover fully after the exertions.

According to Ulla Vestergaard, training is not just training. It must be discipline-oriented. That is, a dressage horse should not be trained in the same way as a showjumping horse because there is a big difference in the distribution between aerobic and anaerobic movements within the two disciplines. Below she gives you her suggestions as to how the two types of horses should be trained.

The Training of the Dressage Horse

“Compared to dressage horses, the dressage program itself is performed in the aerobic and low-intensity zone with short sequences of higher velocity, such as the extended trot. Therefore, I recommend that low-level dressage horses have a training program which includes five minutes of aerobic exercise with short sequences of trot and canter.”

“While the high-level dressage horse should be able to handle eight minutes aerobic exercise and ten-second-sequences of trotting and canter. In both situations, emphasis should also be placed on transitions, as this increases the horse’s ability to extend its stride.”

The training of the Showjumping Horse

“For showjumping horses a much higher degree of explosive power is required, and so the initial, slow training of the horses should be followed by interval training, where the anaerobic system is trained for 30 – 100 seconds”.

Ulla Vestergaard also emphasizes that showjumping horses’ performance are significantly improved by including interval training.

Mentally relaxed horses are better athletes

Mentally relaxed horses have more energy to respond to the aides of the rider. A study has shown that horses who are partially trained in groundwork are more relaxed and have lower heart rates. In a tense horse, natural escape instincts are sharpened rather than the learned behavior. This means that it takes longer for the horse to understand the rider’s signals. Therefore, mentally relaxed horses are usually the best athletes.

Sources: Sources 1. Source 2.
This article was originally published in August 2020 and has since been revised and edited.

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