Hefty horse? Get him back in shape while avoiding injury

New York winters are challenging.  Whether your horse has had one month off or four, he’s lost his fitness level, according to a study led by Cornell University veterinary students and David Eldredge, the head polo coach at Cornell.

If winter left your horse with

more pounds than pep,

trotting is your secret

weapon to get him back

in shape while avoiding


“Trotting is one of the best

exercises to build up

muscle,” says Eldredge.
Start with a warmup,

then interval training --

trotting alternated with

walking -- can be very

effective for improving fitness.

Ask your vet if you have questions, Eldredge says, but in the first week after a layoff, a conditioning routine will likely include 10-15 minutes of total trotting time, with breaks for walking. By the second and third weeks, trotting can increase to 20-30 minutes.

Cantering is "very good for building up the horse’s wind,” Eldredge adds and, depending on the horse, short periods of canter work may be introduced after about three weeks..

The key, says Eldredge: Horses should be brought back to work slowly. Three to six weeks of steady exercise that gradually increases in duration and intensity is ideal.

 Remember that a

good fitness program

should include a warm-up.

“Warming up is always

important, but it’s

particularly important as

you recondition them back

to work,” says Dr. Erin

Morgan-Paugh, veterinarian

and associate professor

of equine rehabilitation

and exercise physiology

at Morrisville Sate College.

A warm-up period increases

circulation to the muscles

and provides the necessary nutrients for proper muscle function. “This increased blood supply also helps the horse dissipate heat that accumulates during exercise,” she added.

 Much of conditioning is activity specific. Exercises typically simulate the activity you want to perform in the future. However, cross-training and incorporating activities such as ground poles or hill work, can benefit horses in any discipline by improving flexibility and challenging the muscles.

“Hills are useful in building up muscle and wind, but should only be introduced in the third week of work,” Eldredge said. “Any earlier and you might strain soft muscles, tendons and ligaments.” 

 A critical element: Monitor your horse. "Knowing how your horse reacts (to work), respiration and sweating wise, are great keys to understanding their fitness level,” Eldredge said. If you’re unsure how to measure your horse’s respiration rate ask your vet or trainer to show you.

A horse’s heart rate during recovery from exercise is another indicator of cardiovascular fitness. During exercise a horse’s heart rate can exceed 200 beats per minute. If the horse is fit for exercise, the heart rate should return to less than 60 beats per minute within 10-15 minutes.

“It’s also useful to determine the ratio of a horse’s heart rate to respiratory rate,  Morgan-Paugh said. “The heart rate to respiratory rate should be 3:1 or 2:1. If this ratio approaches 1:1, the horse is over-exerted or stressed and exercise should be stopped.”



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Sliding Into the Spotlight
The hearts and hooves of para-reining

By Katie Navarra

            Cash, a humble grade gelding, dutifully followed the horse in front of him along any trail. Every summer he carried his rider, Cole Jacobs, through the countryside close to home in the small Central New York village of Fabius.

            When arthritis forced Cash into

retirement, Cole’s mother, Brenda, started

searching for a replacement.

            “For months we looked for a horse

that was as reliable as Cash,” Brenda

recalled. “But every horse we found neck

reined. Cole has some disabilities and,

from early on, he was taught to direct rein.

So this was a challenge.”

            Brenda knew that eventually they

would find the perfect horse, but instead

of making a hasty purchase, she encouraged

Cole to take some riding lessons.

            “We weren’t really in a rush and

thought the lessons could help him develop

his riding skills,” she said.

    The thought would take them on a path neither imagined.

            Five miles down the road were Jennifer and Tom Hoyt, nationally recognized reining trainers. The Jacobs, though, were

trail and recreational riders.

Despite being nearly

neighbors,neither reining

nor the Hoyts were part of

their universe.

But when a mutual friend

suggested Brenda inquire

about lessons, she sent an

email, unsure of where it

would lead.

        For Jennifer Hoyt, too,

it was an uncharted challenge. 

        “I had been teaching

and training horses for 30

years and had never worked with

a rider with disabilities,” she said.

            Cole had only loped a few strides in his entire life. Within a few rides, he was loping, sliding and spinning with confidence. Trainer, rider and parents were astonished.

            “I was so impressed with how our horses handled the situation,” Hoyt said. “I realized that reiners are perfectly suited for riders with challenges because they are so responsive to the slightest leg and rein cues.”

            At the same time Hoyt connected with Cole, she was also serving on the National Reining Horse Association Executive Committee. Discussions were already taking place at the national level about the possibility of introducing a new division, one that made reining accessible to individuals with a variety of impairments.

            Hoyt was asked to write the original rule for what was initially called adaptive reining. In 2016, para reiner competition debuted to a packed house at the All American Quarter Horse Congress. “There were so many people watching. Everyone was so welcoming and generous,” said Hoyt, who now serves as USA Para Reining Committee Chair.

            Cole Jacobs, many strides removed from the young man who rarely broke out of a trot, took the Grade 3 championship on Pin Stripe Benz.

            In para reining – the

same as in para dressage –

competitors must be able to

ride independently. The level

of competition is divided into

different grades, by degree of

difficulty: A Grade 1 rider

performs only at a walk. A

Grade 2 competitor trots the

reining pattern, but a few

strides of loping are acceptable.

At Grade 3, the pattern is

shortened but performed

entirely at a lope. Grade 4

competitors complete a full


            “I think there a lot of riders out there who would really love the thrill of freedom balanced with control in para reining,” said Holly Jacobson, a Massachusetts-based para dressage rider who switched to para reining.

            Changing disciplines was not in her plans two years ago, when she visited Syracuse to look at a dressage horse. The visit coincided with a Central New York Reining Horse Association show. The night before the show, she was offered the opportunity to compete on a horse owned by one of Hoyt’s clients.  She only had English gear in the car but didn’t want to miss the chance, so Jacobson purchased a western shirt and borrowed chaps.

            After one ride, she was hooked.

            “I have one arm and no fingers due to a burn injury, which is a huge handicap for dressage, but much less so for reining,” Jacobson said. “I’ve found reining horses are sensitive, kind and so well trained.”

            In only its fourth year, para reining is quickly gaining attention.  USA Para Reining, which supports and promotes the development of programs for riders with disabilities is an affiliate of the U.S. Equestrian Federation, the governing body for equestrian sport in America.

            In 2013, the first official demonstration took place at the 2013 AQHA World Championship Show in Oklahoma City. Cole was there to participate and help spread awareness for his sport.

            “The reining community … across the country is so supportive,” Brenda said. “Cole has had so many people come up to him and say that they recognize him from different events. It’s been really good for his ego.”

            USA Para Reining has already announced seven approved events from California to Florida, including two in Syracuse. A para reining national championship is on the drawing board.

            Long term, Hoyt said, the hope is that para reining will be recognized by the Federation Equestre Internationale, the international governing body for all Olympic equestrian disciplines.  With FEI recognition, para reining can join para dressage as an equestrian discipline in the Paralympic Games. The first international para reining competition was held last year, in conjunction with the NRHA Futurity in Oklahoma City.

            “We’re still on the ground floor,” Hoyt said. “But we’re about half-way up and looking to keep going.”

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