Training the older horse

Training any horse to prepare it for a certain kind of athletic endeavour will take carefully planned effort that continues for several months. Workouts should begin with walking and proceed to increase the biomechanical strength of the horse through progressive training methods, which include periods of increasingly strenuous work with a recovery period for the body to adapt to the training. Working the horse consistently in this way gives him the best chance of building strength and lessens the risk of strain or fatigue.

With a horse, all of its body tissues respond to work with incremental changes. The tissues served with a bigger blood supply will respond to training most quickly. The muscles, with their high blood supply, are therefore the fastest, with new muscle mass taking three to six months to develop. Ligaments and tends take longer to condition (from six to 12 months for the average adult horse). Bone takes the longest time to become fully conditioned to work (one to two years).

Once a horse has become well-conditioned he does not lose fitness rapidly. Humans may lose their fitness in just one or two weeks, while a horse retains his condition for a month or more on average. Moreover a horse is able to return more quickly to his previous level of conditioning. Once a strong capacity for work and good condition has been built up, only three to six months should be necessary to return an adult horse to peak condition after a long layoff. However, all of these time estimates should be doubled when working with an older horse or a mature horse recovering from injury.

Over-training

There is also greater potential for over-training with an older horse. Unfortunately, some of the symptoms of over-training are pretty similar to those you might see as degenerative changes begin to affect the older horse. This can make it difficult to differentiate but keeping a daily record of the amount of work done can help you to assess whether what you are seeing is due to overtraining or perhaps general old age changes. Some of the symptoms you may see as a consequence of overtraining include:

  • Stiff and sore muscles
  • Less interested in work
  • Sore back muscles
  • Lameness
  • Slower eating
  • Dull eyes

If your older horse starts to show signs of over-training back off a little, but do not stop entirely. For example, if you were working with your horse every day, instead reduce the frequency to every two days. Alternatively you can consider swapping a schooling session for a hack. This gives your horse time to recover, without allowing arthritis and stiffness to set in from a lack of movement.

Once you and your vet have decided that your horse is healthy enough to begin a conditioning programme, you should find respected people in your field or discipline to determine the type of training programme they would recommend. In this guide we go into the basics, and while these should keep you busy, whatever your discipline, for at least the first few months, you are likely to need input from your coach or another specialist in your discipline to specifically prepare your horse for the work you are wanting to do with them.

Of course, it also goes without saying that if your horse starts to struggle or seems unhappy, you should chat to your vet and either slow down the programme or stop for a while if that is what you are advised.