Appropriate exercise does not cause lameness, and can in fact be a valuable part of the rehabilitation process. The same common sense that applies to us going to the gym or doing a workout routine applies to our horses as well. If the exercise we’re doing is appropriate for our bodies, it will make us stronger, not break us down & cripple us. The physical demand simply needs to be appropriate for the body doing it, and any increase in demand needs to be made slowly and incrementally, watching for any sign of discomfort or imbalance. In our horses, these signs usually first show up as a less-than-enthusiastic mental attitude. As an example, if I want stronger arms I might do bicep curls with free weights. Given my frame/build, I should probably start with 3-5 lb weights. Over time, if I‘m consistent, I can safely increase the weight/demand in gradual increments. This will build strength rather than creating injury, and the strength built will also help keep my body injury-free as I tackle other tasks in daily life. On the other hand, if I put too much demand on my body when I have not adequately prepared it, like trying to use 50lb free weights (inappropriate for my size no matter how long I’ve been building my strength) or doing too many reps, I will surely damage my body instead of strengthening it...then I will need time, therapy, and rest to heal before I can go back to the gym. The need to educate people on this has become more and more apparent over my years as a bodyworker. Many well-meaning horse owners who truly love their horses make the mistake of confusing horses and ATV's, to be pulled out of storage any time they want to go for a spin. Just like us, horses need regular, appropriate exercise in order to stay sound and fit, and to be sufficiently prepared for the job they are being asked to do. This is even more important for horses whose owners have goals of performing or working up the levels in their chosen discipline; a horse ridden twice a week will not develop at the same rate as another horse ridden 5 times a week, yet many riders make the mistake of expecting it to do so. And like the example above, asking more of the horse than he is physically prepared to do well will actually cause damage rather than build strength; the damage then needs treatment, rest, and time to repair before the body can go to work again, and when it does return to work you're now dealing with a compromised structure. Certainly, a horse can be hurt on his own out in the pasture: a swift kick from a turnout pal, a slip while running on wet grass or mud, a bump of a hip while going through a gate. We do our best as horse owners to minimize and prevent such things, but we can't bubble wrap our horses (unless we want them insane... not fun either). What I'm talking about here are the aspects of our horses' physical activity that are directly our responsibility, and which can either contribute to making them more sound or more broken. Aside from the basic mechanics of this discussion, one must also consider the wider ranging effects of inappropriate exercise. Discomfort on any level- physical, mental, or emotional- triggers the sympathetic (fight/flight/freeze) nervous system, leading to stress-related conditions such as ulcers, allergies, digestive and skin problems, and a partner who is less willing to engage with you. Stressed horses can become withdrawn, cranky, or aggressive; handling them can range from simply unpleasant to downright dangerous. Physical pain creates mental/emotional trauma-this trauma is reinforced each time it happens, even in the hands of well-meaning and kind people... Trainers often have undue pressure on them to “produce” according to outside expectations - it puts them in a bad position because what is wanted isn’t always appropriate for the horse. Trainers need to have the support and permission to proceed at a pace that feels appropriate for each individual horse- mentally, physically, and emotionally. A more successful outcome is made possible when you and your trainer “take the time it takes” to produce a truly balanced horse, comfortable on all levels of his being and completely on board with all aspects of his work- physically, mentally, and emotionally. The goal you are working for needs to be congruent with your horse's ability and with what you yourself are willing to put into preparing him for the task. There are 3 primary factors to consider: current physical condition, time spent exercising, and the intensity of the exercise.
Current physical condition is the basis for determining where to start, so that the exercise can systematically and gradually improve this condition while not causing damage. If you have been a couch potato, or worse yet, laid up with a back injury or something of the sort, it would be wise to start with a daily walk around the block; if you decided instead to jump right in to an hour-long aerobics class, you'd likely be sore (and not in a good way) and prone to injury. Likewise with your horse. If your horse has been a pasture pet, he is out of condition and will need to be brought back gradually. If your horse is older or has a history of physical lameness issues, he will need his physical demands modified. You wouldn't expect your 80 year old grandmother to do the same physical workout as a 25 year old athletic man. Time spent exercising refers to both duration (how long the exercise session is), and frequency (how often you exercise your horse). Each horse, just like us, is individual; there is no one formula that will work for everyone. The first priority should be to do no harm. 15 minutes of hand walking every other day is a safe place to start, even for elderly or compromised horses. From there, you can gradually increase (or if needed, decrease) based on your horse's response. According to Ted Stashak, DVM in his book Practical Guide to Lameness in Horses, "In general, a horse has 15 minutes of peak performance whether in a daily work session or at a competition." A trainer friend of mine, Katie Schmit, has trained hundreds of horses and is the head trainer of FLTRAC facility specializing in transitioning ex-racehorses to new careers; Katie has found that most horses, even those with the high energy and fitness level of a racing thoroughbred, do best with just 15-20 minutes of exercise. The horses I have rehabilitated would agree. Many horses begin to exhibit problems after the 30 minute mark, whether behavioural (such as bucking) or movement related (such as recruiting muscles to get a job done); yet somehow we humans have become conditioned into thinking that all horses should work for a full hour every time we get on.
Intensity refers to the physical demand of the work itself, including specific maneuvers being asked and the weight and balance of the rider. Start with a low-intensity demand, such as walking, and gradually increase over time adding trot work, canter, and lateral work depending on your horse's response. Rider weight and balance is extremely important: a fit horse should carry no more than 20% of his body weight - maximum - in combined weight of rider and tack (for example, a 750lb Paso or pony needs a rider below 115lbs if tack is another 35lbs). Furthermore, the rider must be balanced and have self-carriage (if you've ever tried to move those 100lb bales of hay on a wheelbarrow, you get an idea of how the same weight when even slightly off balance becomes exponentially heavier and more cumbersome.) As you begin refining your horse's exercise routine, be sure to make changes gradually and let your horse's response and attitude guide you. Don't increase both duration and intensity simultaneously; stick to the same time frame and frequency when you add more demanding exercises, and increase the time only when the current level of work becomes easy for your horse. Watch for your horse's response: any avoidance, unwillingness, or loss of connection signals discomfort- whether the discomfort is physical, mental, or emotional it is all relevant.
Physical soreness or pain will cause mental upset and an unwillingness to return to work again, in addition to setting you up for lameness issues. Mental/emotional tension or confusion will lead to physical holding patterns and dysfunctional movement. If the work is appropriate for the horse and progressing along at a pace that your horse is comfortable with on all levels, you will have a happy, willing partner who is stronger and more apt to stay sound over the long run.