How to Get Your Horse Jumping Fit This Spring

07/09/2022

After a looooong winter, your horse (and you!) are probably not quite at peak fitness yet. And it isn’t surprising – it’s hard to exercise properly in snow, rain, sleet, and ice. Not to mention the cold nights and dark mornings. In all likelihood, both you and your four-legged partner have taken a bit of a fitness hit. 

Just like humans, horses can do too much too soon and end up with injuries as a result. If your horse has been in less-than-regular exercise over winter or has scaled back in their work, you’ll have to build them up again before getting back into your regular routine. This goes for all disciplines, but especially jumping, where there’s often significant strain on the horse’s legs and back. And that doesn’t even touch the cardiovascular fitness required for the horsey version of hurdles! 

It can be tempting to just pop your horse over a few fences as soon as the weather (and ground!) is good enough, but your horse needs to be properly conditioned in order to prevent injury. And as they say, prevention is better than cure. So if you know your horse needs a bit of extra work before he’s ready to be soaring over fences, here’s what you can do to get your horse jumping fit this spring.

1. Think about what you’ve been doing up until now

First off, you should take stock of what you’ve been doing thus far. If your horse has only been doing flatwork twice a week, he’ll probably not be used to utilizing the muscles and soft tissues he needs to use for jumping. But he won’t be completely unfit and have to spend four weeks building up at a walk only! 

If your horse has done nothing except go out to graze, you’ll need to adjust your program accordingly. The golden rule? If in doubt, always take a little bit of extra time – you may spend a week or two going more slowly than is strictly necessary, but it beats spending a few months doing nothing because your horse is injured. 

Here’s a rough guide to how to build up fitness depending on your horse’s current level of work. You want to build up to full work before your horse is fit enough for jumping, so use the guidelines below to increase your horse’s fitness until he’s at that stage. If your horse is in medium work already, for instance, you can skip the first two stages. If not, work through them in order. A good instructor will also be able to help guide you in terms of figuring out how fit your horse is currently. 

Remember that even if your horse is very fit, you still need to do a sufficient walk warm up of around 10-20 minutes before you trot or canter. 

Current level of work What to do next
Nothing/minimal Longe at walk or hand walk for 10-15 minutes 4-5 days a week for two weeks, then walk under saddle for 20-30 minutes 4-5 days a week for two weeks.After this, you can add in some short bursts of trot after a good walk. Aim for a short (a minute or so) trot for every five minutes of walk. 
Light work Work under saddle for 30-45 minutes of mixed walk and trot 4+ times a week. This phase should last around 4-6 weeks.
Medium work Work under saddle 4-6 days a week for 30-60 minutes, slowly increasing canter stretches from short bursts to longer stretches over at least four weeks.
Full work At this point, your horse should be able to do a full session of walk/trot/canter and jumping. 

2. Vary their work

Secondly, you’ll want to add some variation into your horse’s work. Doing different things is good for your horse, not just mentally but physically too. If your horse does trails on some days, poles on another, flatwork a different day, and longeing occasionally, you’ll find that they exercise a variety of different muscles and condition different tendons and ligaments. This is all important in maintaining a sound, fit, and healthy horse – which is crucial if you want to be jumping regularly over spring and summer! It’s just like the way top riders spend time in the gym building strength, fitness, and balance to improve their performance in the saddle and limit injuries. 

Depending on what your horse does as part of their regular schedule, try to switch it up a bit by adding more variety. Can you incorporate some hill work or cavaletti once a week or fortnight? If you don’t currently longe or longline, perhaps you could work in a session here and there to help your horse develop his topline without a rider. If your horse only works in a sand arena, doing some trails to help them improve balance and get used to different types of ground and terrain would be beneficial to their soundness as well as their way of going.

Focused horse and rider jumping over fence in sand arena

3. Be proactive in your management

Once your horse is back to jumping, keeping on top of things is key. You want to keep your horse fit, supple, healthy, and sound throughout his life, which requires regular maintenance.

When it comes to jumping, there are a few things you can do to lessen the impact on your horse’s body:

  • Make sure you properly warm up and cool down after every ride.
  • Invest in good quality jumping boots which will protect your horse from bumps, scrapes, and bangs. 
  • Cool the legs off adequately after jumping to minimize the chance of soft tissue injuries – you can do this with ice boots or cold hosing, and you can even consider adding cooling gel after a particularly hard session. (This goes for any hard work, not just jumping!)
  • Do regular canter work. Horses spend most of their jumping sessions in canter and if you’re jumping often, making sure they’re “cantering fit” can really help. This is why top eventing riders do so much work in gallop! Incorporate longer stretches of canter into your trails and arena sessions to make sure your horse can cope easily enough. 
  • Regular physiotherapy or chiropractic sessions can help keep tight muscles and stiff joints at bay – for the horse, that is! 
  • Using poles or cavaletti sometimes instead of jumping means you can practice almost everything you need to jump a good round, but without straining your horse’s joints. 

Conclusion 

By taking it slow and steady, and making sure you put your horse’s needs first, you’ll return to jumping with no problem at all. And your horse will be fit and ready to take it on! What’s your favorite way to get your horse fit and jumping ready when the weather warms up? 

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