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Favorite conditioning exercises for older horses?

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    Favorite conditioning exercises for older horses?

    Some of you may recall that I've been engaged in a war of wills with my stubborn, too-smart-for-his-own-good gelding, Teddy. My instructor, who is wise beyond her years, recently suggested that I help bring back an older boy at our barn who'd been off for a year due to an injury and some Cushing's-related issues. They are well under control now, and he was miserable without a job...and, of course, he also happens to be a saint and a sweetheart, and I'm completely smitten.

    My new fella, Sparky, is an Arab cross — either Welsh or Connemara, can't recall. He's the complete opposite of my "push-push-push" boy, in that he is quite forward and very sensitive to aids. It's a delight to ride him, and I find I'm working an entirely different set of muscles than I do riding Teddy. Before he

    We're being very careful to bring him back slowly; he's around 22-24, so gentle is the way to go. I'm curious about what other folks have done to help elder horses get back the spring in their steps. Before he was out of service, he regularly won his 2'6" classes. We certainly aren't going back to that, but it would be fun to pop over some low rails in future months, or try a low-level dressage test since he has the talent and enjoys the work and attention.

    At this early stage, what are your favorite exercises or routines for rebuilding fitness in a senior horse? What should I watch for? Anytime Sparky starts getting heavy on the forehand, we end things pretty quickly since that's a consistent sign that he's worn out. We take lots of walk breaks in between trotting; sometimes we walk an entire lesson and focus on my position.

    Pics coming soon. He's such a lovely boy and so easy to manage; I want to protect him and take care of him, particularly since his owners won't trust anyone else at the barn to ride him (I'm an older rider in a barn full of sweet but speed-loving kids who they just don't feel comfortable putting on a guy that needs an extra-patient ride). Teddy might have competition for my heart.

    Walking... you can do so much at the walk to build fitness, increased gait speed doesn't make work more beneficial.

    also in hand or lunge/long line work can help build strength without the burden if a rider.
    Yo/Yousolong April 23rd, 1985- April 15th, 2014


      Long walks... truly. They're greatly underestimated. Hand walk or ride as he tolerates.
      <>< Sorrow Looks Back. Worry Looks Around. Faith Looks Up! -- Being negative only makes a difficult journey more difficult. You may be given a cactus, but you don't have to sit on it.


        . . . and add gentle hills and cavalettis as his progress warrants. Gentle lateral work on level ground such as leg yielding and shoulder fore in walk will help his suppleness.

        Have fun and continue to listen to him (as you clearly have done).


          Yep get out on the trail and walk- gentle hills, stepping over little things etc.
          No mourners, no funerals


            Walking, lots and lots and lots of walking. Get some headphones and listen to music and go for long walks.


              Original Poster

              Thanks, everyone! It's hard to do long walks on weeknights in the dark, but we'll definitely go out on the property and the trails on weekends. I may hand-walk up some of the hills, since they're pretty steep and it seems like a lot to ask him to carry me and himself at this stage. Last night we did 30 minutes of walk-only in the arena, with some very low cavaletti a few times. Poor guy was breathing audibly by the end, so we cooled off and called it a night.


                Lots of great advice so far, and it sounds like you are being very careful, which will go a long way.

                Doing inclines and cavaletti in hand are great options for strengthening and increasing range of motion safely and gradually. Not saying you can't do a little of that under saddle too, but as you found, at this stage, it's a big ask.

                When you are stuck in the arena, another good exercise is to practice a little shortening and lengthening at the walk. It will start using some different muscle groups.


                  I agree with what has been said so far- lots of walking (even if you have to hand walk) and cavaletti. Slow and steady.


                    Agree with walking - even if you can't get out of the arena, in-arena walks are completely capable of rebuilding fitness.

                    ""fun"" (??) story, I had a horse on stall rest for six months, and prescribed "as much hand walking as you can stand and safely do". We were doing two hours a day for the majority of six months. His condition throughout the duration of this rehab was fantastic. Beautiful topline, great muscle in the hind end, the whole nine yards - it was really beneficial, and we were just hand walking laps around the arena.

                    Once your senior is a little more fit, walking over ground poles (and then escalate to cavaletti) is another favorite of mine. I also quite like variation of gait in the walk. Package gently (allowing for his age/fitness, this is going to be very slight - perhaps just two or three strides thinking "sit and take weight behind") and then free up into a working walk again. Rinse & repeat. Change where he is in the walk - again, allowing for his fitness, your stages (if it were me) would vary between "nose out/down, stretched as far as he's willing to give you" to "a little more out and up through the neck/shoulder but still not super elevated". Baby steps for the oldies, but the good news is a lot of those baby steps can be in the walk and you can really work on doing all of this off your seat and really reinforce the education to the seat. It's a really great opportunity.

                    I'm a bit of a long-and-low purist (working over the back, down and out through the nose into the hand/connection), with the mind that reinforcing the swing and working through the back is of primary importance. The balance (uphill, etc) is secondary. Once the strength comes (which I have found is generally easier and more correctly built with a focus on working over the back) then I can look more at self carriage/working uphill/not being so heavy on the forehand, etc.


                      It's hard to hurt them at the walk, provided that you're keeping in mind his baseline fitness- which it sounds like you are. Be mindful of asking him for an active walk rather than just putzing around, dragging his hind end by his front end.

                      As he gets stronger, you can ask more of him at the walk: engaging his quarters and lifting his back, lateral work, steps of compressed and extended stride, inside and outside bend. Lateral and longitudinal stretching is incredibly beneficial and a good way to occupy yourself going miles around an indoor, or the same lap of road, all winter.

                      On the ground, do carrot stretches, belly lifts, and tail tucks to promote his musculature in a low-impact way.

                      Older horses don't have the same flexibility in their soft tissues as younger horses, and Cushings horses can be more prone to soft tissue injury. With this fellow I'd be particularly mindful of working your way up methodically.
                      "I'm not always sarcastic. Sometimes I'm asleep." - Harry Dresden


                        Is this guy on any joint supplements?

                        My soon to be 22 yo Tb mare had a rough patch last summer when she was living out 24/7 and probably didn't get all of her feed / supplements at times. She had 2 months off because my life got in the way of my riding, and when I started riding her again she was stiff and discombobulated (for lack of a better word).

                        She is now back in day turn out and in at night, and is feeling and looking so much better.

                        Even though she still acts like a 5 year old at times, I have to be careful with her now, so when bringing her back we do a lot of hill work at walk and trot out on the xc field and trails. I am so thankful to have places to ride outside, because I get really bored just walking in the indoor.

                        In the indoor, we do lots of walking while stretching down, circles spiraling in-out via leg yielding (we now can do it at trot, as she's back in shape), turn on the forehand, turn on the hind end, lateral work, walk-halt-trot, slow walk to working walk, etc.
                        Then once on to trot, changes within the gait, lateral work, lots and lots of transitions.
                        Ottbs - The finish line is only the beginning!


                          It sounds silly to echo all of the walk posts but it makes an unbelievable difference.

                          With an older horse I try to keep changes of bend very gentle and sweeping. Instead of doing a serpentine I may ride a bunch of shallow loops so that I can get a horse moving off of both legs and bending through the rib cage without putting them through the strain of circles.

                          An early 20s Arabian is really in his prime. They tend to be very long lived and honest workers. Some are so honest and hardworking that they will give you a great forward feel past the point where their strength can carry them. With a horse like that I always try to end things well before they feel done because if I wait until they start lagging, I already passed the point of asking for too much. He sounds like a really fun and forward thinking gelding!


                            With the older dudes, I like to warm up with a few laps around the ring hand-walking before I even get on. That way they can loosen up before adding the extra weight.
                            "Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out." ~John Wooden

                            Phoenix Animal Rescue


                              When you ride Teddy, could you pony along his older friend? If you ride English, maybe not, but I did this when retiring my older mare and teaching a green gelding the trail. What a confidence boost for the gelding! You can reverse it, if need be and ride Sparky. We practiced in the arena several times before going on the trail, but they made quite a team. It was also a great way to exercise two horses while working long hours.