Before asking his reining horses to mark a high-scoring stop at a show, Matt Mills ensures they are physically and mentally ready to work. * Photo by Mallory Beinborn/Impulse Photography

Fit For Work? Matt Mills Shows How to Assess A Horse’s Condition

Before a horse can safely slide, spin or rollback, it needs to be in optimum physical fitness. Arizona reining horse trainer Matt Mills builds a horse’s physical fitness through conditioning sessions that work on improving a horse’s cardiovascular capacity, endurance and ability to perform the maneuvers needed to successfully complete a reining pattern. 

For 39-year-old World Equestrian Games Team gold medalist, it isn’t about training the horse every ride, but checking in to see if the horse is mentally and physically in good shape. 

“You don’t need to overtrain,” he says. “The importance of actual conditioning as far as reining horses go doesn’t mean spinning and stopping all the time, but rather having the horse in good physical condition. Never underestimate a horse’s overall health. For me, that means being injury free and having cardiovascular fitness, where their muscles are fit to do the job.”

Through experience, Mills learned when to push a horse and when to back off so that mentally, the horse is not at its breaking point. This is incredibly important when training horses into their 3-year-old year for futurities. Recently reaching over a million dollars in earnings in Equi-Stat, Mills has nearly perfected his training program with four ways he assesses his horses and how he looks for warning signs something might be amiss. 

In part 1 of this 2-part training series, Mills outlines the first two steps: How he starts each training session and how he monitors a horse’s condition as he builds up fitness.


It sounds like an easy, relaxing ride, and Mills plans for the horse to feel that way about his light rides. But for Mills, he focuses on each and every step the horse takes as he checks in with his mount. 

He’ll spend from 5 to 15 minutes walking before engaging the horse to trot. 

“I trot around and pay attention to a horse’s gait. Are they off a little right or left? A horseman that is tuned into what is going on will feel an irregularity in a horse’s gait before a vet can see it. I trust my instincts when something isn’t quite right instead of waiting. The horse’s health is the most important.”

He watches how the horse reacts to his leg and spur, or his rein, cue. If the horse is pinning its ears or ringing its tail, that is a warning sign it is either mentally not with him or there is a physical problem.

“I bend and work on lateral exercises,” he said. “It is simple, but it can tell me so much if the horse isn’t responding how it should. Overall, I’m just fishing to see if everything feels ok.”

As he works the horse, Mills pays close attention to how the horse is handling longer trotting sessions. How is its breathing? 

“Watch to see if a horse gets to puffing too hard. Just like people, you have to build a horse up to run and stop. On training days or easy days, I’ve had to get better at noticing when a horse is out of breath,” he says. “If you continue to ask a horse to work when it can’t breathe it becomes a struggle and a negative point. If the horse physically can’t do what you’re asking, it needs to have more easy days where you’re building condition cardiovascular so they can work longer.”


Trotting is a great way to build a horse’s muscles with less impact on its feet and legs, but a reining horse needs to be fit enough to lope multiple circles. He watches the horse’s reaction to the cue to lope off, and then monitors how its cadenced loping circles and straight lines. Instead of willfully guiding the horse with a lot of drive, Mills puts the horse on cruise mode and tunes in to its gait.

“I lope the horse around to see if the horse is carrying itself the same on the right lead as it does on the left lead. I lope circles, ask the horse to bend around and respond to pressure. Most horses all have one side that is better than the other, but a significant difference on one side or the other, you more than likely have something brewing with lameness,” he explains. 

These check-in sessions help Mills get in front of a potential problem that could lead to a more extensive injury down the road. Additionally, if he can only lope five or six circles before the horse huffs and puffs, then Mills knows that the horse needs more conditioning before heading to a horse show. 

“Compare your horse to an NFL athlete. If he’s been sitting on the couch for a month then throw him into a game on Sunday, more than likely he’s going to be injured. It’s the same with these horses,” Mills says. 

Matt Mills Training Tips Part 2

In Part 2 of this two-part series, Mills will explain how he uses the back-up as an important part of his training, as well as what management techniques he uses to keep horses in peak condition.

Click here to read Part 2 of Fit For Work.

* This story was originally published in the Sept. 15, 2018, issue of Quarter Horse News.