5 Tips to Get Your Horse Fit with Kyle and Jen Carter

Erin Lassere stands next to a bay horse wearing a black bridle

By Erin Lassere

“Horses are not meant to be static.” – Kyle Carter

Our horses are the epitomes of athletes. They try their hearts out for us to perform to the best of their abilities. It is our responsibility to ensure that they are equipped mentally and physically to rise to the standards we set for them. Kyle and Jen Carter, international event riders and owners of Five Ring Stable, have many years of experience fine-tuning fitness regimes for their horses. In Episode 20 of Ride iQ’s Office Hours, the Carters discuss tips to keep horses fit, injury-free, and competition-ready.

Start Slow

Whether you are bringing your upper-level horse back from time off or introducing a green horse to the world of proper work, it is important to start slow. A good fitness foundation is crucial.

Your horses should be allowed plenty of turnout, ideally at night when they are more inclined to move around in the cooler temperatures. They will be walking significantly more than you’d expect, and this begins to build base fitness; it allows their muscles to get stronger and their joints to get looser.

When you structure a conditioning plan from square one (like the plan Kyle shared during Office Hours), your goal is to create as fit of an athlete as possible without causing injuries. Focus first on building muscle, and then you can move your focus to the heart and lungs. 

“A horse will not be able to perform properly without a good muscle base.” – Kyle Carter

It is a good idea in the beginning stages of fitness to avoid riding for more than an hour. Incorporate a lot of walking in your routine, as well.

Generally, it will take around eight weeks for your horses to be ready for a proper workload. However, it is important to tailor conditioning schedules to each individual horse, as they all have unique needs.

Jen Carter and Sayyida ("Xena"). Photo by Shannon Brinkman

Keep it Interesting

Imagine that every time you go to the gym, you run on the treadmill for forty-five minutes. Your routine never changes. You will inevitably become uninterested and unmotivated. Our horses are the same—they need stimulation.

Your results will be better if your horses want to do the job. Keeping things interesting and exciting will prompt them to work harder and, in turn, create progress.

For example, a horse competing at the Novice level may not need gallop days for his fitness. However, galloping will add stimulation to his routine (and it’s good practice!). You should also incorporate hack days and hill work.

Some horses will seemingly never run out of gas, while other horses will not want to expel as much energy. If your horse falls into the latter category, try doing your conditioning sets with another horse and rider. This will spark more interest. Hopefully, your horse will reward you with more effort! 

Be in Tune to Your Horse

Just like human athletes, each horse will need a slightly different fitness program. It is important for you to be in-tune with how your horses are handling their workloads.

Depending on breed, personality, and the terrain you ride on, each horse will have their own needs. Some horses will benefit more from longer and heavier flat days, but shorter and lighter gallop days.

Your main goal is to build strong athletes while preventing injury. You need to be able to tell “good sore” from “bad sore”. For example, when you are working out, soreness from building muscle and soreness from a torn muscle feel very different. It feels different to your horse, too. You should know if your horse is feeling soreness that will benefit him in the future, or pain that requires veterinary intervention. When it comes to sporthorse management, you can never be too careful. 

“I tend to always look at them like they already have injuries. That way, we are less likely to create one.” – Kyle Carter

Find a feeding program that works for you and your horses, as well. Proper feeding is imperative to building fitness—it is a science. It is generally a good idea to keep your competition horses “rounder”, as they will lose weight from traveling and showing. Let the conditioning program take weight off instead of cutting excessive amounts of grain from their diets. 

Kyle pats his mare Reddy or Not after dressage
Kyle Carter and Reddy or Not ("Reddy"). Photo by Shannon Brinkman

Give Your Horse a Proper Workload

In order for your horses to perform to the best of their abilities, they need to be working hard enough at home. However, how can you tell if you are giving them a proper workload?

This will be easiest if you have a history with the horse, but that’s not always the case. You may be able to feel if your horses are getting tired, but it is important to have markers such as duration of the workout and your horse’s heart rate.

The problem with relying solely on “feel” is that you will not always be able to replicate it. If you choose to use heart rate as a marker while conditioning, you should consider investing in a heart rate monitor. Manually checking the heart rate is possible, but it will be less reliable. Focus less on how high the heart rate is after working, and more on how long it takes to come down after the workout.

If you want to be very specific, ride your horses with the monitors for several weeks and keep records of their heart rates during and after workouts. This way, you can have ranges unique to each horse.

Do not use respiration as a marker for fitness. In hotter climates, horses will almost always be panting during and after workouts.

You should also avoid using sweat as a marker. Sweating is simply a temperature regulator. If your horses are not sweating enough, especially in hot weather, it could be due to anhidrosis.

Want to learn more?

You can listen to the full conversation about keeping your horses well-conditioned, injury-free, and competition-ready with Kyle and Jen Carter on the Ride iQ mobile app. Download the app on iPhone or Android to sign up and start your two-week free trial! You will have unlimited access to all previous Office Hours recordings, exclusive podcasts, and hundreds of listen-while-you-ride audio lessons. 

What are Ride iQ Office Hours?

Office Hours are weekly, live virtual events with a guest expert who takes attendees on a deep dive of a timely and important equestrian topic. Past topics have included things like “Green Horses 101” with a Grand Prix dressage rider, “Ask-A-Vet” with a US team veterinarian, and “Conquering Nerves” with a sports psychology coach.

Every week, Ride iQ members are invited to tune-in live to join the conversation and ask questions. All Office Hours episodes are recorded and shared on the Ride iQ mobile app.

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