Our Fitness Plan: Bringing a previously injured horse back into work

With Paddy now ready to come gradually back into work, I have been doing a lot of research into fitness programmes – considering long term soundness, cardiovascular fitness, and topline conditioning.

If he had been roughed off and chucked out in a field on a holiday, sound and fit, with no exercise in this time, I would have probably followed a fitness plan like this one (which is one of the best ones I have found), or if I was being more cautious, this one. Both of these plans are extremely detailed and well thought out, and if you are looking for a basic return to fitness plan after a holiday I highly recommend using one of these.

When building Paddy’s rehab and fitness programme, I took the following into consideration:

  1. Injury – as Paddy is returning to work from injury, all increases in workload must be gradual so as to monitor his body’s reaction to the changes
  2. Box rest – as Paddy was on box rest his fitness will be less than that of a horse who was turned out in a large field for the same period
  3. Turnout – However Paddy has been on restricted turnout for short bursts throughout his time off, and
  4. Walk work – Paddy was not totally off games, and started walk work two months after his injury. He was walking for an hour a day before his most recent treatment, so had a very good level of fitness before going back on box rest.

So in summary, my plan needed to be gradual enough that I could monitor any changes in Paddy very closely as the workload increased, but I didn’t need to start from scratch as he had built up a decent level of fitness from all his walk work during his time off. I got some guidance from an experienced friend, built a plan and then got the input of my vet – I think it is extremely important to surround yourself with knowledgeable people with the expertise to guide you in the right direction (but more on that in another post!).

Here is my plan – we are moving onto ridden work now!

Small Paddock Turnout: 2 Weeks

Paddy began by going onto small paddock turnout for 4-6 hours a day (we sedated him the first couple of times just to make sure there were no hijinks!. This allowed him to roam, stretch his legs and clear his head – helping get him in a better and more settled frame of mind for when the work would start.

In-Hand Walking: 2-4 Weeks 

Every day before he goes to the field, Paddy walks up and down the long gravel driveway to our yard twice with my yard owner. Walking in-hand is the pits, but it’s necessary for horses who have had extended periods of time off (especially due to injury), as their back/legs (depending on the injury) may not be strong enough to support the added weight of a rider and saddle.

I did walk him in-hand in the arena, but that was much too exciting as it was a nice big soft open space to get up to no good in! The driveway is narrow, and a much less secure surface for him so he is less likely to act the maggot. He also knows this is field time so he wants to be a good boy so he can go to the field!

After a few weeks of this, he did his in hand walking up and down the driveway before and after his turnout. Again, he wants to be a good boy because he knows he is coming in for dinner!


Ridden Work: 10-12 Weeks

This is where the fun begins! Work under saddle should be focused on building long term fitness and soundness – short term pain for long term gain. Do not be tempted to rush the plan, even if all seems to be going well – it’s important to give muscles, tendons, ligaments and bone time to strengthen, recover and rebuild after such a long time off.

When looking into rehab programmes, this was one of the best articles I found. For Paddy’s specific injury (pedal bone bruising), the reconditioning programme was a bit excessive, but the piece about walking for long term soundness really resonated with me. I spoke to my vet and he agreed, but reminded me of all the walk work I had done with Paddy for months before his recent treatment, and so I was happy that this would stand to us and could cut back the walking for our return to work.

(The ridden plan is focused on variety for Paddy’s active brain, but taking into account I ride after work so must ride in the arena during the week. For those that can hack alone or during the day, I highly recommend increasing roadwork time in the early stages of rehab)

  • Week 1: 20 minutes walking – 2-3 Days Ridden; 1-2 Days Long Reining; 1 Day Hacking
  • Week 2: 30 minutes walking – add basic walk schooling movements e.g leg yielding
  • Week 3: 30 minutes walking, 5 minutes trotting – add polework in walk
  • Week 4: 30 minutes walking, 10 minutes trotting – Subsitute one ridden/long reining day for lunging with Equiami
  • Week 5: 30 minutes walking, 15 minutes trotting – add basic trot schooling movements e.g leg yielding
  • *Week 6: 20 minutes walking, 20 minutes trotting – add polework in trot*
  • Week 7: 15 minutes walking, 15 minutes trotting, 5 minutes canter
  • Week 8: 15 minutes walking, 15 minutes trotting, 10 minutes canter – add basic canter schooling movements e.g leg yielding
  • Week 9: 15 minutes walking, 15 minutes trotting, 15 minutes canter – add polework in canter
  • Week 10 & 11: Normal Schooling – Dressage Competition, Raised canter poles
  • Week 12: Begin Jumping

This has been signed off by my vet and we begin this week!

*Paddy will go for a vet checkup at Week 6 to see how he is progressing.

Some considerations

There are a couple of things that I feel are important to consider when looking at this exercise plan:

  • This is Paddy’s plan. Each horse is unique and it is important to work with your vet/farrier/physio on what is best for your horse.
  • Everything should be gradual. I am not switching from 10 minutes trotting straight to 15 minutes trotting – I am doing it gradually, adding an extra minute or so every time I ride. It allows Paddy to build up slowly, and me to monitor any changes as we go.
  • Don’t ride the plan literally! When I say 15 minutes cantering, I don’t mean canter for 15 minutes straight! Poor horsey! The sum of your session should come in around the duration, but you should be building fitness through intervals/sets (read more on that here). Your horse and his fitness will thank you for it!
  • Don’t be afraid to slow it down or step it back. Listen to your horse, and know when they are telling you that the work is too much. Don’t be afraid to add another week or two onto your plan – a few weeks for the sake of years of fun will be worth it.
  • If in doubt, speak to your vet. I always say to myself that if something is bothering me enough to incessantly google it, I need to speak to my vet. I would rather have wasted his time over the phone for ten minutes, or pay him a consultation to find out everything is OK, than do nothing and find out something is wrong.
  • Top Tip: time how long it takes you to walk, trot and canter the long and short sides of your school – you’ll get nifty at knowing how many times you have to ‘do’ them in each pace to get to your target interval!

Are you currently rehabbing a horse from injury, or returning a horse to work after a lay up? I would love to see your fitness plan and how you are approaching the return to work! Share in the comments below or post on my Facebook page!

For those of you that are looking for a return to work program for your eventers who have been getting fat and fluffy all winter, I have asked a good friend to put together a conditioning/fitness plan that she follows for her EI100 and Novice/1* horses, which I hope you will find useful – stay tuned!

Natalie XO

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