Horses have five hundred muscles throughout their body in three separate layers. Add that to an average of one thousand pounds per horse and you are considering a major undertaking in trying to bring this massive creature to a certain level of fitness. Ligaments, tendons and muscles are connected and are attached to bone. All of them make up a symphony of parts that must be fine tuned as one. This means that we cannot focus on just the muscle but all of its counterparts. A healthy muscle attached to fragile bone or ligaments and tendons attached to malnourished or overworked depleted muscle is not going to get your horse to the athletic level that you desire. Having said that, nutrition is the very first consideration in helping your horse in becoming fit. Secondary to nutrition is of course, exercise. Having your horse properly shod will make a major difference in your horses’ performance and then making sure your horse is being schooled over the correct type of terrain. Your basic show horses are usually schooled and shown in a large ring with shallow sandy soil. Eventing horses are shown in the ring but also jump cross country and usually are traveling on uneven grass, not to mention the fine tuned dressage moves that are specific and demanding, asking your horse to perform very difficult maneuvers. Racing horses are traveling over a much deeper but softer track in order to minimize the amount of return trauma sent back through the body after hitting the ground at tremendous speeds. Why am I mentioning shoeing and terrain? Like all other things with horses, the demands that we put upon our horses must be fitted with the actual type of ground that they travel on. You cannot train a race horse successfully for a long period of time on shallow hard dirt. Nor can you train a dressage horse on a deep race track without causing problems along the way. So, matching the correct surface that your horse travels over during their rigors is extremely important in helping them to reach the fitness level desired as well as helping them to stay sound. Different disciplines should be matched with the proper terrain to that discipline in order to achieve the maximum quality results.
The very first part of determining your horse’s level of fitness is by sight. Stand in front of your horse looking straight down both sides of the horse. You should not see a bulging stomach. You should see a nicely rounded shoulder and not a pointy shoulder. Go to the side of your horse and stand back and get a good view of the whole horse. Taking into consideration the confirmation faults of your horse, first look at your horse in sections and then as a whole. Start with the throat latch that should look defined with no extra fat in that area, moving onto the crest of the neck looking for extra fat. Now look at the center of the neck. It should be full but not too full, showing some definition of the muscles. Take into consideration of whether you are looking at a filly or a mare, a colt or a gelding or an older horse that is perhaps beyond his or her prime. As you start to look at the shoulder, there should not be too much of an indentation where the neck meets the shoulder, there should be a smooth connection that does not look depleted. The shoulder should have muscular definition, looking full and strong. Look at your horses’ withers. This is more difficult with some horses such a Quarter Horses of whom usually have a smaller undefined wither. There should not be too much fat over the withers nor should you have withers that are too bony and distinct. Moving onto the sides of your horse, you should see ribs that have a smooth appearance and no ribs showing. When your horse moves, it is OK to see a hint of the rib, but not ribs that are very defined. Now look at the horses’ flanks. They should not be hollowed out and should also be smooth as the hips of the horse should be rounded the same as the point of the shoulder. Look at the horses’ back. Is should show some muscle on either side of the spine and the spine should not be sticking up in a point nor should it be too flat from too much fat on the body. Moving onto the croup or rump, again, you should not see any bones sticking up or out. The muscles from the back should smooth out over the hips down to the tail. Look at the size of the stifles and gaskin muscles as well as the gluteal muscles which are on either side of the tail. These three different muscle groups should show fullness, strength and definition.
The next step of understanding your horses’ fitness level is by feel. Run your hands down your horses’ neck using slight pressure. It should feel firm and full, meaning that if you push on the neck with your hand, it should not be flabby and jiggly; the same with the shoulder and the rest of the body. If your horse is fairly fit, all of their muscles should have close to the same fullness, definition of muscles and respond in the same way to your touch. Usually, a horse’s muscles on their rump will be a little fuller, stronger and not be as yielding to a push of the hand. You should be able to feel their strength as you run your hand over their body. Usually a fit horse will exude a brighter shinier coat, a more brilliant color and perhaps dapples all over their body and not just at shedding time.
And of course, you will for sure know and understand your horses’ fitness level when on their back. This takes understanding of your animal and their usual behavior patterns. Most of the time, a fit horse will not sweat as quickly as an unfit horse and they will sweat in a different way. An unfit horse will sweat up. This means that they usually will start to sweat on the underside of their body first, then to the chest and sides, up to the neck and head and rump. Also an unfit horse will sweat very large beads of sweat on their head and rump. On their neck will be a slimy type of sweat; the type of sweat that you notice from a very nervous horse. A fit horse will usually start to sweat in the center of their neck and under the saddle first. The sweat will start to spread throughout the neck and on the chest and then to the withers. A fit horse has a tendency to have an even sweat and will not sweat profusely unless driven far beyond their means. The next thing to know about a fit horse is their breathing. A rider should always be listening when they are on a horse’s back. A fit horse will not make noise when breathing unless they have a particular problem that you should be aware of. There should be no roaring or their nostrils should not be flaring too much nor should they be taking short breaths. A fit horse should be light on their feet unless their confirmation is very poor and they cannot help but hit the ground hard. Even if this is the case, the fitness level should help to improve the horse that is a poor mover. As your horses’ fitness level improves, the ride should become more comfortable and smoother.
Bringing a horse to a high level of fitness takes a long time because you should always start a horse out going easy and increase the time and demands as they will let you know when it is OK to step up the demands. Patience will play a very large part in this process. Pushing too hard, too fast is asking for trouble with muscle soreness and inevitable joint issues. If your horse starts to lather down, this is a big red flag. Either you are pushing your horse too hard or they are experiencing pain. There should never be lather on your horse; a good strong sweat but not lather. Have a training schedule in mind and try to stick to it and remember that you cannot get a horse fit by riding them once or twice a week for ten or fifteen minutes. You must have a safe and consistent plan, riding every day or at least five or six days a week. So my suggestion is to be kind but be stern and before you know it, you will have a fit horse that will enjoy their job and look like a picture of health.