Exercising is an important part of a horse’s life and is essential for horses that are stabled. The amount and type of necessary exercise will be dependent on the breed of horse, the work required from it, and the conditions in which it is kept.
The mechanics of a horse’s blood flow, especially in the feet and lower limbs, require regular movement for efficient circulation. Horses that are confined to stalls for long periods of time tend to suffer from swelling of the legs; the swelling is caused when fluids build up (edema) due to poor circulation. As a minimum form of exercise, some daily walking is required; 15 or 20 minutes should do the trick.
When riding, the amount of exercise must be governed by how fit the horse is, and a daily routine should be established to guarantee that fitness is attained. Getting a horse fit requires a gradual increase within the exercise regimen. Once the horse is fully fit, reassessment of the required amount of exercise can be determined by basic common sense. For example, a horse that has worked hard one day will not need an extensive work session the next day; a 20 minute walk to work the stiffness out of the joints or take away any swelling in the legs is all that is necessary. Keeping a horse in top condition requires about two hours of exercise every day, whether it be led or ridden. To keep the back and girth regions toned, the horse should be saddled and ridden regularly.
Both circulation and digestion are improved by exercise. Animals that are left in stalls tend to become constipated, also referred to as “impacted,” and may develop mild circulation problems. Boredom accompanies lack of exercise, and stable vices and other psychological problems may arise: weaving, cribbing, wind sucking, and stall walking may all occur following long periods of confinement. It may seem impossible to set a rigidly regular routine. Many horse owners have difficulties in providing regular exercise and find that their animals tend to be worked at weekends and not during the week. As long as they realize the horse is unfit and do not overwork it, such a regime is not harmful. However, owners should also be aware of the problems that can arise from irregular exercise. These are mainly associated with incorrect feeding for the amount of work that the horse is doing.
The most common problem is a muscular condition known as azoturia, or tying up, which results when a horse that is fit and has been receiving regular exercise is left in but still on a full ration of feed; the condition used to be common in working horses, such as draft and carriage horses. On the other hand, muscle damage can also follow over-exercise of an unfit horse. Overfeeding and lack of exercise can also be problematic.
If you are noticing any of the abovementioned issues in your horse, you will want to work on getting your horse fit as soon as possible. A fitness program requires regular work. When getting a horse up from grass, two weeks’ worth of exercise, consisting primarily of walking, will serve as a good start. Continue with trotting and light cantering for similar exercise periods during the next two or three weeks, increasing both the length and the amount of work regularly. Getting the horse reasonably fit should take about six weeks. For competitions in which peak fitness is required, long exercise sessions are needed daily. Such sessions should include long hacking rides, trotting hills, and other forms of exercise to build up stamina.
Lunging is a controlled way of exercising a horse without riding it, by working the horse in a controlled circle. The exercise ring should be as large as possible and have a good ground surface. Lunging a horse properly does take quite some skill and experience; the exercise can be severe at times and should be increased gradually, and then practiced consistently. Horses should not be lunged for long periods of time after days of comparative inaction. A tight circle where the exercise takes place also puts additional strain on the limbs; proper leg protection should be used when lunging. Given the correct instruction and supervision, a carefully monitored lunging program can help build up a horse’s strength and increase its suppleness. The practice is also useful when a horse is very “fresh” and difficult to ride, or has a sore back.
Horses are able to swim and this form of exercise can change the daily exercise program in order to prevent loss of interest in work. Swimming involves a thorough exertion of the muscles of the horse’s hindquarters; it is also a good workout for the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. Although an equine swimming pool is beyond the means of most horse owners, swimming is a common feature of racehorse training programs today.