Physiological changes in horses during conditioning

What exactly goes on during the build-up period of the ridden horse?

As a long distance runner, this is interesting to me.  In other disciplines, such as harness racing, horse racing, eventing, endurance, and even jumping, the conditioning phase gets a lot of attention.  In dressage, perhaps not as much, although the processes are the same.

Here’s a look at the effects of conditioning work on the horse, just real short.  I think they’re beautiful.  Particularly helpful to keep in mind when restarting work.

  • Respiratory Oxygen intake capabilities increase the fitter the horse gets, while Respiratory Rate decreases.
  • Circulatory  Change in heart size.  Heart rate during exercise decreases while oxygenation increases.
  • Muscles  There’s a change in the muscle fibertype, while the size and strength of the muscles also increases.
  • Bones  Better quality of the bones, and an actual change in the geometry of the bones.
  • Ligaments/Tendons Strengthens
  • Skin  Elasticity of the skin changes.  (Think this is cool!)  Decreases rubs of the skin.  Not sure how they test for this.  I’d love to get better skin by running!
  • Thermoregulation  Heat dispersion time decreases.  A big one if you live in this crazy place.

Timelines – Length of time it takes for each system to react

  • Respiratory and Circulatory  1-3 weeks for blood volume and oxygen consumption.
  • Thermoregulation  2 weeks to show a sweat increase response.
  • Muscles  Several weeks, highly dependent on horse, condition, and the workload.
  • Ligaments  4-6 months!

That last one is a big one.  Up to 6 months to see better ligaments.  So, while the horse builds on its condition, looks and feels better under saddle, the ligaments are still at risk if the workload just keeps increasing.  Just like my own Achilles tendon, but that’s a different story.

If you’re still awake, here are the baselines for a healthy horse.


  • Heartbeat  Normal at rest:  30-45 bpm.  Slower for larger horses.
  • Breaths per minute  at rest:  8-25.  Depending on how many carrots in front.
  • Temperature  100.1 (99-100 F)  Peaks 10 minutes after exercise.  Should decline 20 minutes after peak.

Enough dry stuff for the day.  Here’s Jaworzno being a goof and spooking on his water troth.  He does this regularly.  Never really caught it good enough on camera. Spooking on the water trothRecently killed a snake living underneath his troth since this photo.  He still spooks a bit on it.  Just his thing.

He arrived sort of untoned, as in this picture.  Then he got a bit too wiry.  Working on adding back on now.  Always a work in progress.

2 thoughts on “Physiological changes in horses during conditioning

    1. Yeah 🙂 They do carry benefits, but the ones that rattle simply must go… Sort of scary sticking the foot under the troth to empty it not knowing what lives underneath.


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