When it comes to properly conditioning your barrel horse, there is no shortage of information available. But not all information is good information, and the overflow of opinions can easily lead to overwhelm. How do you know what advice to follow, and what advice to leave in the dust? Performance horse veterinarian and barrel racer Dr. Noah Grimes, DVM, of Athens Equine in Athens, Texas, shares his top tips for safely achieving peak fitness in your barrel horse.

  • It takes a minimum of six weeks for your horse to achieve barrel race-ready fitness.  If your horse has been off work for an extended period of time, its muscles, bones, soft tissue structures and lungs need time to acclimate to the new workload. Conditioning should begin with low intensity, low impact exercise like being ponied, walking and long trotting. Over time, you can gradually increase the time and intensity of your workouts. An optimal fitness routine will include three to five days of exercise per week, with days of rest built in between.
  • Intentional rest is just as important as exercise. Much like a human who works out at the gym, horses require rest to achieve peak fitness. A day of rest enables the body to repair and rebuild stressed muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones. If your horse is working every single day, it will likely become sore and resentful. By allowing the body to undergo its natural healing process, you are reducing the likelihood of injury and mental burnout. Subjecting the body to constant stress without allowing rest leaves a horse susceptible to tendon and ligament injuries, as well as fractures.
  • You need to condition slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscle fibers. Slow-twitch muscle fibers are designed to support sustained, low impact exercise, like long trotting. Fast-twitch muscle fibers, on the other hand, are designed to support short, powerful bursts of energy—like the sprinting required during a barrel pattern. Once slow-twitch muscle fibers are conditioned, weekly sprints should be incorporated into a comprehensive conditioning program. Sprinting conditions the muscle fibers responsible for speed and acceleration and trains your horse to be able to sustain the burst of speed needed to be at its competitive peak.
  • Proper fitness reduces the risk of injury. Conditioning your horse’s musculoskeletal system is one of the most important factors in reducing the risk of injury. Tendons are attached to muscles, making them especially susceptible to injury when the supporting muscles are not effectively conditioned. Muscle fatigue exposes all soft tissue structures to an increased risk of injury.
  • Condition on different types of ground. Most horses compete in an assortment of arenas with different footing conditions. Exercising your horse in a variety of footing types prepares it both mentally and physically for any condition it may encounter on the road. Hard ground generates more concussion and is harder on hooves and bones, while deeper footing taxes muscles, tendons and ligaments.  Exposing your horse to both extremes—even just during slow work—helps build resilience to these less-than-ideal conditions.
  • Let your horse be your guide. While you may be in a hurry to get back to competing, slow and steady progress is key when it comes to conditioning. Never push your horse to the point of exhaustion since over-exertion can lead to mild breakdowns or micro-tears within the soft tissue structures and over time, these micro-tears can result in serious injury. Monitoring your horse’s nasal flare—the effort required to take in oxygen through its nasal passages—is the ideal way to gauge how your horse is handling its workload. Sweat patterns are often an unreliable fitness guide since variables like genetics, environment and weather often play a role in how much a horse sweats. Your horse’s nasal flare and respiration rate should return to close to normal within several minutes of rest. 
  • Ensure your horse is fit for the intended purpose. Just because your horse is fit doesn’t mean it is fit for its intended purpose. For example, show jumpers rely on a much different set of muscles than racehorses. Likewise, barrel horses have unique conditioning needs. If you are transitioning a horse from another career to barrel racing, don’t assume its muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones are ready to handle the job. Be sure to allow adequate time to establish the specific fitness required for barrel racing, like small circles and quick bursts of speed.
  • Make horsemanship an integral part of your conditioning program. When you first begin conditioning your horse, understand that it will not have the proper fitness to safely and comfortably perform certain tasks, like working in small circles or maintaining collection. It’s your responsibility to understand what your horse is capable of and when to offer a break. Over-drilling a horse that is fatigued only results in frustration—for you and your horse. Use rest periods as opportunities to ask for simple but important maneuvers like hindquarter yields or lateral movements, and remember that a properly timed release of pressure is one of the most powerful components of your training and conditioning program.

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