Weekend Wellness: 7 Tips on Equine Conditioning With Biomechanics

Bringing a horse into work requires careful consideration of  biomechanics and how to introduce a workload properly. Here’s what Dr. Hilary Clayton had to say on the matter in an interview with Equine Guelph.


There are many important questions pertaining to equine conditioning and fitness as we all look forward to returning to work. Dr. Hilary Clayton recently shared some cautions and considerations in a Skype interview with Equine Guelph. Dr. Clayton is a veterinarian, researcher and horsewoman. For the past 40 years she has been conducting amazing research in the areas of equine biomechanics and conditioning programs for equine athletes. Dr. Clayton has also been a guest speaker in Equine Guelph’s online course offerings.

During the interview, Dr. Clayton answered seven key questions on conditioning horses while taking into considering biomechanics. Here’s what she had to say:

1. What are the differences between conditioning and training? 

Training is the technical preparation of the athlete — learning skills and movements necessary for competition) — whereas conditioning is progressive strengthening to make a horse fit and able. The goal of conditioning is to maintain soundness while maximizing performance.

 2. What the considerations for horses that go from full work to just pasture turn-out? 

It’s important to remember not to change things suddenly. Ideally a horse’s work load would gradually decrease from full work to fewer days a week, lessening the intensity. Although horses are resilient, they should stay in light work a day or two a week. Finally, when a horse’s workload decreases, its diet should adjust accordingly.

3. How long before a horse begins to lose muscle mass and fitness? What about bones/connective tissues?

Horses maintain their muscle and cardiovascular ability longer than humans — it takes a month before horses lose these. A horse’s bone and tissue will adapt according to their workload. For instance, with no work, their bones become weaker, their muscles smaller and their endurance decreases. The good news is that bone and muscle strength and endurance will increase when work resumes.

However, ligaments, tendons and cartilage mature by the time a horse is two-years-old. Beyond that age, those connective tissues have a limited capacity to adapt to work. So it is ideal that a young horse is turned out so that it can run around and build a robust musculoskeletal system. Further, how ligaments, tendons and cartilage respond to changes in the workload is a bit more of an unknown. According to Dr. Clayton, “Those are the tissues that really affect the quality that I would call resilience in our equine athletes. And so resilience I define as being the ability to stand up to the performances.”

4. When getting back to work, where do you start and how do you know how to move forward?

Before really getting back to work, it’s important to address the condition of the horse’s feet, saddle fit and develop a plan for increasing nutrition requirements first. When you do begin, start gradually by walking for the first two to four weeks. Begin with 10 minutes under saddle, working just three to four days in the first week. Increase the amount of walking by 1o minutes a week.

By the third week a horse should be walking approximately 30 minutes a day and you can start introducing 20 seconds of trot. From there you can introduce short canters slowly. Performing a lot transitions between gaits in great for improving fitness.

5. What are the signs of “too fast, too long and too soon!” and how do we avoid this?

As you work on conditioning a horse, it’s important to watch for back pain, limb pain and inflammation. These can be signs of working “too fast, too long and too soon.” Monitor any changes carefully because horses can fool you with their cardiovascular fitness improving before their strength. Don’t let an energetic horse dictate how much work you do — this increases the risk of injury.

6. What are some of the similarities and differences in training programs for different disciplines?

For all disciplines, the initial phase of conditioning is similar since the goal is to build aerobic capacity and strengthen muscles. The first two to three months can be dedicated to this general conditioning. From there specialization should occur depending on the intensity and endurance required for each individual discipline.

7. What advice do you have for horse owners that are worried that leaving the horse alone is detrimental to its well-being?

Plenty of horses live outside 24/7 with little exercise and do just fine, however that is not the standard of care we expect for our top competition horses. Per Dr. Clayton, “If I’m really honest, I think the pendulum has swung a long long way from the natural lifestyle that horses were bred to live in. So, we do coddle our horses, we keep them in stalls, that kind of thing.” What we can do for our horses is to maximize their turnout and forage. And, when it comes down to it, horses need water, food, shelter and someone to check on them a couple of times a day to make sure they aren’t lame, colicking or having other issues. “As long as we can provide that…,” Dr. Clayton added, “most horses will be fine.”

Want to watch the full interview? You can see it here:

If you want to learn more about developing training programs, Equine Guelph offers a 12-week online exercise physiology course.

Dr. Hilary M. Clayton, BVMS, PhD, Dipl. ACVSMR, FRCVS is a veterinarian, researcher and horsewoman. For the past 40 years she has performed innovative research in the areas of equine biomechanics, conditioning programs for equine athletes and the effects of tack and equipment on the horse and rider.

She has written seven books and over 250 scientific articles on these topics.  She is a charter diplomate and past president of the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, an Honorary Fellow of the International Society for Equitation Science and has been inducted into the International Equine Veterinarians Hall of Fame, the Midwest Dressage Association Hall of Fame and the Saskatoon Sports Hall of Fame.

From 1997 until she retired in 2014, Dr. Clayton was the Mary Anne McPhail Dressage Chair in Equine Sports Medicine at Michigan State University. She continues to perform research through collaborations with universities in many countries and is active in publishing and presenting the findings. In addition, she is president of Sport Horse Science through which she applies the results of scientific research in the development of practical tools and techniques to help riders, trainers and veterinarians. 

As a lifelong rider Dr. Clayton has competed in many equestrian sports, most recently focusing on dressage in which she competes through the Grand Prix level.

Dr. Hilary Clayton and Donzi. Photo by Carmen Franco.