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How To Condition An Out Of Shape Horse

Updated on March 6, 2013
A horse in *good* condition.
A horse in *good* condition. | Source

Horses that are out of shape

It's sadly common for people to think of a horse as a machine that can be left in a field (or, worse, a stall) for six months and then, why not just hop on and ride it?

Just like humans, horses can end up out of shape easily. Any horse that has not been ridden for more than a couple of weeks should be considered to be out of shape. In some parts, there is a tendency for horses to be turned away for the winter and brought back into work in the spring. Young horses that have only just been started are also out of shape, as are horses that have been neglected even after they recover weight.

Assessing The Horse's Condition

Before you start, you need to work out just how out of shape the horse is.

To start with, you need to look at the horse's body score. In layman's terms: Is the horse fat? Not all out of shape horses are fat, of course, but a fat horse is more likely to be out of shape. Many horses accumulate fat on the top of their neck, resulting in a floppy crest. You're likely to also see fat on the rump.

Also, look at the horse's 'top line'. Just as any rider is well aware that there are muscles you only use when riding, so there are muscles your horse only uses to carry you around. Carrying a rider strengthens the abs, but also causes muscle to bulk up along the top of the spine, both in the saddle area and across the hindquarters. If an experienced person criticizes a horse for having 'no top line', they mean it has no muscle above the spine and is likely out of shape.

So, the fatter the horse, the more out of shape, and the less muscle along and above the spine, the more out of shape.


Stretching helps you, so it makes sense that stretching will help your horse, especially when he or she is out of shape.

There are a whole bunch of stretches you can do with your horse, including gently lifting their legs forward or backward. A lot of horses also benefit from stretching and then *slowly* releasing the tail. Watch your horse's reaction when you do this as any pain may be a sign that he could use a session with the chiropractor.

It is particularly good to get your horse to stretch his neck and back. Stand next to your horse and encourage him to bring his head around to you (a treat can help with this). Do both sides then hold a third treat between his knees to get him to stretch downwards.

Getting Started

When you first get on an out of shape horse, it's tempting to have some fun. The first few rides should be almost entirely at the walk, with very brief trots/jogs or canters/lopes towards the end. Take the opportunity to work on the basics - work on getting the horse to bend properly through the corners, flex through the poll and improve the quality of his gaits.

Expect the gait quality and purity to have suffered from any extended time off. Do lots of free walk work and also do free trot, encouraging the horse to stretch all the way down and out. Some horses will do this more than others and some tend to put themselves in a frame because that is what they think you want. Sessions should start at thirty minutes and slowly build up to 45 or so. Also slowly increase the amount of time spent trotting and cantering.

Monitor Your Horse

While working with your horse, keep an eye on them. If your horse is puffing, stop, cool down and consider getting off. If he is obviously tired and hot, then you might want to get off and hand walk him until he is cool.

Don't keep working a horse that's puffing and panting - it's not fair. Instead, push them just a little further each day, just as you would yourself. However, you also have to realize that being a little mean to the horse is good for them. If you have a personal trainer, then you know how much you might want to curse them out at times. You are your horse's personal trainer.

Make Use Of Hills

Nothing helps a horse build its topline better than going up hills. Not everyone has a convenient hill, but if you do, use it. If your pasture is on a slope, ride your horse up it a few times, starting at the walk then at the trot.

Repeat until they start to get a little out of breath, then stop. You should be able to keep going a little further each time.

Do not, however, go too fast downhill. I always suggest walking down any significant slope. Horses tend to lose balance, especially when carrying a rider, on down slopes.


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    • profile image

      newday98033 6 years ago

      Voted up. I would rather play tag with an NFL line than a 1000 pound sharp toed gorilla.

    • jenniferrpovey profile image

      jenniferrpovey 6 years ago

      I would actually say to be very careful with that. A lot of people advocate it, but you are dealing with an extremely large animal that could easily hurt you by accident.

    • profile image

      Silke Juppenlatz 6 years ago

      Good post.

      I would also add that playing with the horse adds to flexibility, alertness and muscle tone -- and the horse likely has as much fun as you.

      I used to play tag with my Haflinger. :) Granted, you can't do this with every horse, but if you can -- try.