Love the sun, hate the hard ground? How to keep your horse fit and sound in a heatwave

How to exercise your horse and keep it fit when good going is in short supply

When wading through muddy fields and racing the clock to get jobs done in daylight in the depths of winter, horse-owners dream ahead to fine summer weather. The blue-sky days at this time of year help recharge every equestrian’s battery and make being outside one of the great joys of owning horses. However, whether you’re a competitive rider or one who simply enjoys hacking, the hard ground that accompanies a prolonged dry spell may cause as many problems as the wettest of winters.

“As ground conditions change, we see an increased number of lameness cases and managing horses can become very tricky,” reveals equine vet Lucinda Ticehurst. “The most at-risk include the overweight, laminitic, heavy breeds, those with weak feet and poor limb conformation, plus any horse with a previous injury.”

Going too fast or jumping on firm going can result in horses becoming what many of us know as “jarred up” – feeling a bit sore and uncomfortable. As a one-off, hopefully most horses will be themselves in a day or so but the accumulative effects of repeatedly exercising on hard ground can have serious consequences.

Travelling at speed on hard ground causes concussion, which can lead to a host of problems

“Young, developing horses can be just as at risk as older equines and any horse can suffer long-term repercussions if they are worked on hard ground. The consequences should not be underestimated,” says Lucinda Ticehurst.

Put simply, working on hard ground makes equine legs susceptible to a whole host of problems caused by concussion. Soft going and the foot itself helps cushion impact but sunbaked ground overloads a horse’s “shock absorption” capacity. This puts strain on the limbs and can be even more problematic in older horses and those with ongoing joint issues. Concussion tends to start in the area closest to the ground – the hoof – but can travel further up the body.  

“Degenerative joint disease, osteoarthritis, tendon and ligament damage, muscle strains and changes in the back, to name just a few issues, can all be dramatically exacerbated or caused by the impact of the horse’s limbs hitting solid terrain repeatedly,” warns Lucinda.

We’d all love an all-weather gallops at home but sadly few of us have such a luxury. Obviously, if you have such a facility close to hand that can be hired, it will provide a perfect place to help increase and maintain your horse’s levels of fitness.

A great deal of fitness work can also be done in the school. However, it is vitally important that the work is varied to ensure horses have a mental as well as physical workout. Poles can be a great asset, including raised poles and canter poles. Exercises done from the ground, without a rider, can be a good way to add variety and introduce and refine more advanced dressage moves, for example.

All-weather gallops make are an ideal training ground but there are alternatives for those without access to such facilities

“Simple things, such as working on basic lateral work and including leg-yield and rein-back can be hugely beneficial, as well as reinforcing the fundamental aspects of training,” says vet Lucinda. “Plus, from the ground it can be easier to assess whether your horse is moving correctly by observing foot placement and head carriage.”

Going slow can also be a much faster route to fitness than many imagine. Walking and trotting, especially up hills is you have them nearby, is an excellent way of increasing strength and stamina. Equally, if you need to take your horse cross-country schooling, school over small fences that you can trot to. Trotting in and out of water is another good way of giving your horse a refreshing change from the menage while improving fitness. Some concussion still occurs but will be less than when schooling at speed.

Post exercise, hosing with cold water, ice gel and cooling boots will definitely help your horse’s limbs recover more quickly and also offers them a soothing reward for their hard work. “Rapid-tendon cooling significantly reduces injuries post exertion. For this reason, if your horse needs to wear boots for protection, choose those that are air cooled or light in structure so reducing the risk of overheating the legs,” advises Lucinda. “Hot weather is not the time to get out the matching exercise bandages unless your horse has a specific need to reduce the risk of strike injuries.”

Crucially, don’t neglect the feet. It is important to retain the hoof’s natural level of moisture to prevent cracks and other problems occurring. Regular use of an oil-based hoof product can help. Sole pads can help protect the sole and frog from bruising in shod horses.

One thing we can be absolutely sure of in Britain is that the dry weather won’t last forever and in no time we will be bemoaning the wet weather. With a coordinated team effort involving your farrier and vet, finding an optimal routine during dry periods will help keep your horse happy and on the move whatever the weather.