Winter fitness

Winter fitness

How can you ensure your horse stays fit and healthy over the winter months, ready for activities and competition in the spring? Eventing icon Lucinda Green discusses suitable winter management for a variety of horses and explains how to build competition fitness.

Keeping horses fit and healthy through the cold, harsh winter months is hard enough as it is without the pandemic that has disrupted our everyday lives and horsey calendars. So what can equestrians do to ensure their horses are primed and ready for action in spring?

Lucinda’s Winter Fitness Checklist

‘Maintaining a horse’s health and fittening him through winter takes a multi-faceted approach involving the correct feed, clip, management and exercise,’ says Lucinda Green MBE. 'Once you have all the correct ingredients, you can tailor a programme to suit your horse and away you go.'

1. Choose the right clip

What clip you give your horse depends on whether they live in or out, and how much work they are doing. Before you clip, be honest about your horse’s workload. If you’re only hacking twice a week, they probably won’t need to be clipped at all.

‘With horses that live out, we only take off the jawbone below the cheekbone and a go-faster stripe from under the chin, down through the front legs and along under their tummy,’ Lucinda says. ‘We design it for where the horse sweats and often take a hoop up to his hip bone and arching down either side.’

If your horse comes in at night, you can take off as much as you need to. But it’s a good idea to leave an unclipped ‘blanket’ area to give them some extra protection over their kidneys.

2. Tailor your turnout

Every horse is an individual and will need different management to keep them at their best.

For sharp horses, keep them out, if possible, to allow them to burn off excess energy. When they become accustomed to it, most horses prefer the more natural life.

‘I’m game for any horse to be out as long as it is in good health, is sensibly rugged and has access to sufficient forage,’ Lucinda says. ‘We just watch when the spring grass comes, especially with good doers as putting on too much weight in the spring means it will be harder to trim them down for their fitness.’

3. Avoid overfeeding

Overfeeding plays a big part in excess energy levels.

As long as they have good quality meadow hay, a balancer and some good chaff, you shouldn't need to feed anything else. You should feed according to your horse’s workload and how energetic or lethargic he feels.

Allowing your horse to drop off a bit of weight over winter won’t do them any harm.

‘Horses are designed to be thin in the winter because they become fat in the summer, so don’t worry if your horse backs up a bit in their condition,’ Lucinda tells. ‘On the flip side, if your horse struggles to maintain weight, remember that warmth is key – if a horse is using energy to stay warm, they won’t look so good. In the same breath, be careful about over-rugging as horses can easily become too hot.’

4. Vary your fitness programme

Finding the time and enthusiasm to exercise your horse in winter can be tough, but variety will keep you both interested. You can mix and match the following to suit your horse:

  • In-hand work
  • Lunging
  • Long-reining
  • Hacking
  • Arena work
  • Pole exercises

In-hand work

In-hand work such as backing up is great for building core strength while doing something different,’ says Lucinda. ‘Keeping them straight is important so use a fence line to help you guide them, and be consistent with your voice command. The ideal is for them to drop their heads, but teach them to go backwards first and soon the lower head and neck will come.’

Once they understand and are happy backing up on the flat, you can introduce backing up or down slopes.


Lunging can be incorporated for horses who are fresh to ride to help them burn off steam before you mount. But be careful not to overdo it.

‘Lunging keeps the horse on a constant turn, which is fine in moderation, but going round and round in endless circles puts pressure on their joints,’ explains Lucinda. ‘If your horse is feeling particularly fresh, it’s a good way to rid them of a bit of fizz before you climb on to save being bucked off. There are also some uses for lunging if your horse is coming back from injury, but keep the circles big and the pace working but not fast.’


Long-reining is another great tool to have in your arsenal, especially for horses coming back after a back injury or time off, as you can essentially ride them without the weight of a rider.

‘It is great for working on straightness and training them to go forward,’ says Lucinda. ‘Keep a sufficient distance from their hind end and ensure they are working forwards. You can walk and trot in straight lines, practising turns, shapes and transitions in both walk and trot.'


When it’s appropriate to do so, hacking is a good way to fitten your horse, especially if you can ride safely over a variety of terrain and up and down hills. Always wear suitable high-viz clothing and make sure you and your horse are visible to other road users. The British Horse Society provides advice and information on hacking safely.

Arena work

‘When it comes to working in the arena, try setting up an obstacle course with different objects, such as a gate or saw benches or dustbins,’ suggests Lucinda. ‘Walk over narrow folded tarpaulin or tough plastic and gradually unfold it until they step on it and walk across it. You can gain so much of their trust and desensitise them to lots of things this way.’

Horses can jump when they first hear the sounds of their feet on the plastic. So be prepared and quick to praise their first steps.

Pole exercises

Poles are another great way to spice up your winter schooling sessions and prepare your horse for competition.

‘You can do so much with poles, such as making turns, working in and out of every second pole in a serpentine, or putting them in a line with alternate ends raised – you could have one line for walking and trotting, and one for cantering,’ says Lucinda. ‘Adjust the distances to suit your horse, and you can set them on a straight line or a gentle curve.’

Looking for polework ideas? We’ve teamed up with international dressage rider Charlie Hutton to bring you expert how-to videos and tips. Watch here.

How do you know when your horse is competition-fit?

The short answer is: it depends on your goals. ‘A dressage test requires a much lower level of fitness than a one-day event,’ explains Lucinda.

For example, hacking out two to four times a week and jumping twice a month should keep your horse fit enough for a novice dressage test or low-level showjumping.

‘If we have a four-minute cross-country coming up, we work up to riding three sets of three-minute canters with a two or three-minute break in between,’ explains Lucinda. ‘Your horse should have recovered before starting the second canter set, and not quite recovered after the second break. If they are gasping for breath, you have done too much for the level they are at. Trying and experiencing it will help you to read your horse so you know when they’ve done too much or not enough.’

How do you keep your horse fit through the winter? We’d love to hear your ideas on Facebook.