Fitness preparation for the Hunting Season

Equine Mgt Notes BR Farm
FITNESS: Slow steady hacking is the essential base for all fitness programmes. (FW37-504NN)

WITH the summer months slowly coming to a close, the hunting riders will be thinking of bringing their hunt horses back into work. All owners have different ideas on how to get their horses fit for the coming season, but regardless of personal preference, a fittening plan should be tailored towards the horse’s own requirements.

The timescale required to get a horse fit will be influenced by many factors, such as their age, how fit they were prior to the rest period, if injured previously and the breed. The resources and facilities available will also influence the training undertaken. Before the fitness programme commences, it is sensible to get the horse’s general health checked. It is a good opportunity to get up to date with all worming, vaccinations, shoeing and teeth. For older horses, an equine physiotherapist may be required if they suffer from stiffness when returning to work. Saddles should be refitted by a qualified saddle fitter as the horse will have changed shape while resting in the field.

All fitness programmes should be gradual, to allow the horse to adjust physically and mentally to the new routine, with a rider fitness programme also being recommended.

The aim of any fittening programme is to:

– Reduce the onset of fatigue

– Reduce the onset of injury

– Increase the horse’s exercise capacity

– Improve the horse’s overall performance

– Strength

– Speed

– Skill

– Endurance

As the horse’s fitness programme progresses, he will spend less time in the field, helping adjust to the winter routine ahead. The first week of training is spent walking / hacking, building up from half an hour on day one, to two hours a day in week two. This slow exercise is essential for the long term health of the horse, as it prepares the body for more intense work.

The use of hill work is often undervalued, and can be gently introduced in the third week of hacking. Hill work takes the pressure off the front legs, whilst developing the horse’s hindquarters. Trotting on flat surfaces can be used for short bursts and by the end of week four trotting up small hills is advised. Arena work can help vary the fitness programme and the fifth week will involve cantering with the rider in a light seat. Canter is invaluable for helping develop suppleness and making the horse work through its back.

By the end of the fifth week, the horse may be ready to attend a cubbing morning for a short period. Cubbing is the training phase for young hounds, as it is when the foxes scent is strongest on the ground. Cubbing enables the hunt horses to get fit, generally lasting for three to four hours. This is an ideal opportunity to gauge the horse’s fitness and allows him to get back into the routine of hunting. The sixth week will see the horse being able to maintain canter for longer periods, thus physically ready to gallop in moderation.

There are three main concerns to look out for when getting horse fit: coughs, back sores and leg injuries. A cough is commonly due to horses coming into a dusty stabled environment, therefore good airflow is essential in the stable block. Horses can get sore backs if the saddle does not fit correctly, therefore prevention is advised by checking saddle fit at this stage of the fittening programme. Girth galls are also a common problem, seen as lumps on the girth area caused by dirt irritating the skin or the horse’s skin being soft and sensitive. A girth sleeve should be used to protect the area whilst it heals.

During the training period, it is essential that the owner is taking note of daily changes in any of the horse’s vital signs. The checks should be done at the same time every day to account for natural variation throughout the day.

A good technique to monitor your horse’s fitness level is by taking his pulse and then recording heart rate before and after training sessions. After working, a horse’s heart rate should return to normal within 15 minutes. If his pulse is still elevated after 45 minutes, then the workout was too strenuous and you will need to moderate the physical demand until fitness has improved. Every horse is different, therefore some horses take longer to reach full fitness than others.

Signs of a healthy horse

When the horse is resting and before any activity such as feeding or grooming begins, it is advised to observe and record your horse’s vital signs daily. Vital signs include temperature, pulse, respiration, mucous membranes and level of hydration. To check your horse’s temperature, insert a digital thermometer into the horse’s rectum until the thermometer beeps, keeping hold of the thermometer at all times. A temperature range of 37.2-38.3°C or 99-101°F is ideal for healthy horses. A vet should be called for temperature readings higher or lower than this.

To measure the horse’s pulse, place your first two fingers under the jaw line on the left hand side, or on the inside the elbow joint where arteries pass over bone and are easily felt. Count the number of pulses in 30 seconds and then double the amount to calculate bpm. The pulse of a healthy horse should be 28-44 bpm. A resting pulse of more than 80 bpm indicates a problem and a vet should be called.

Respiration at rest is normally 10-16 breaths per minute and this can be measured either by watching the horse’s flanks or nostrils and counting the number of inhales only. Dehydration in horses is often associated with summer conditions, however dehydration can be a concern for horses in any weather. If a horse fails to drink after strenuous work, the excessive sweating can cause dehydration. It is imperative to test your horse’s hydration level on a regular basis by either checking capillary refill time (time it takes for capillaries in the gums to return to pink after being pressed with a finger) which is usually two seconds or less, or by performing a pinch test (pinch a small piece of skin on the horse’s neck or shoulder area). If the skin stays elevated for more than a few seconds, dehydration is possible, and must be treated straight away.

The sixth week will also see the requirement of new shoes and clipping may be required at this stage to enable the horse to work comfortably and without undue sweating.

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