PSA: Your horse is an athlete, just like you.
If you haven’t gone running in a month or two, you are not likely to wake up in the morning and run an 8-minute-mile for 10 miles. If you had been conditioned to do so, and were in shape to run like that, and had some sort of training schedule in place, it would be no problem, or at least within your abilities. But if you hadn’t run in a month and tried to do that, you could cause yourself a lot of damage. Shin splints? Probably. Some serious cramping? Likely. Respiratory distress? Sure.
If you hadn’t run in a while, your technique might not be up to par; the risk of tweaking an ankle increases. You sprain an ankle, pull a muscle (or worse) because you weren’t in shape for the task you were trying to complete, now you have set yourself back significantly.
Your horse is exactly the same.
Your horse is an athlete, and whatever you ask him to do, you need to ensure that he is in shape to complete the activity you want to do.
What does that mean, exactly?
Your horse needs to have a good baseline before anything else. If he’s looking a little rib-y, you should probably get some groceries on him before you start asking him to burn additional calories with work. Conversely, if he’s too plump, you may need to gradually increase work so as to not stress joints or his respiratory system.
If your horse has been sitting on stall rest, turnout only or without work for any extended period of time, he is *probably* not in shape. Work with your trainer or vet (or if you have rehabbed/brought horses back into work before, come up with your own plan…there are a lot of excellent resources online as well) to develop a plan to reintroduce work gradually to avoid injury and build muscle tone and condition.
Even if your horse is in full work, you still must consider what you are asking your horse to do. If I want to jump my horse around, I make sure that I have hacked her out on the flat the day before at the bare minimum, and if she’s had a day or 2 off, I might flat her hard for 2 days before asking her to jump. It wouldn’t be fair to ask her to haul the both of us over a fence if I can’t even flat her around the few days before to get her muscles working. If I’m preparing for a jump lesson, I make sure to hack her over fences on my own the day or two before the lesson (and flat hack for 1-2 days before that)…so you start to see; it takes a little bit of planning.
Would I love to come out to the barn on the weekend after a week of vet school classes and not being able to ride for a few days, and gallop my horse over 3 foot oxers? I mean, yea; both my horse and I love to jump. But is it really fair to her? No, probably not.
And just like the overzealous runner, what is the risk to asking a horse to perform at a level above what they are in shape for? Heat stress, respiratory distress, tendon and muscle injury…if you point your horse at a fence they realize they can’t haul themselves over at the last second…is the potential risk for injury (to both you and your horse) worth it?
Horses are not machines. They do not sit in their stalls at peak performance 24/7, 365 days a year.
Horses are athletes. They need to be trained as such, and that comes through hours in the saddle, day after day of flatwork (and yes, some days I hate flatwork; but it makes my horse and I better, so I do it anyway).
You get out what you put in. They are a commitment. Ride the horse you have, not the one you want to have one day, or the one you had in tip-top shape over the summer. If that means just 20 minutes of walk and trot work, then do it. If that’s an hour of interval training, then do it. It that’s 40 minutes of flat with some jumping, then do it.
No matter what we want, the ability of our horse, their fitness and general well-being needs to come first.
(And if you aren’t sure where to start, don’t be afraid to ask for help! Ask your trainer where to start to condition your horse and develop a schedule, or consult a vet for those tough to manage (metabolically, athletically, or nutritionally) horses)