New Equi-Stat Elite $1 Million Rider Matt Mills & Wimps Cool Breeze, a horse with whom he found great success over the course of several years. * Photo by Waltenberry

Fit For Work Part 2: Tips From Matt Mills On Assessing Horse Condition

Horses in the Western performance world need to be at the peak of fitness to perform the demanding work of reining, cutting and reined cow horses. For trainer Matt Mills, that means a training routine that keeps his reining horses ready to hit sliding stops, turns and circles.

Mills builds that cardiovascular fitness through sessions that work on the animal’s physical fitness and endurance, as well as their ability to correctly perform maneuvers.

He shared four tip with Quarter Horse News about how riders can assess their horses and check for warning signs something might be wrong.

In part 2 of this 2-part training series, Mills outlines the final two steps: How he uses the back-up as part of the fitness program for his horses, and how he uses regular post-training maintenance to prevent injuries.

Click here to read Part 1: How Mills starts each training session and how he monitors a horse’s condition as he builds up fitness.


 Typically, Mills uses backing up as a reprimand for not stopping properly or well, but the back-up is an important part of conditioning. 

“A good back up helps create a stop,” he says. “Backing up properly needs to be trained into a horse so it strengthens the back muscles and the hindquarter. The better a horse backs up, the better it stops in my mind.”

Mills doesn’t back for 10 feet or more, or back repetitiously in one session, he checks to see the horse wants to respond to the cue to back. If his horse stands “like his feet are in concrete,” then Mills only requires one or two steps before he stops, and moves the horse forward. 

He says that while riders have expectations, it’s important to remember there is always another riding session tomorrow. A healthy, mentally sound horse is more important than getting 10 back steps. 


After the ride, whether it is a hard training session or a light conditioning check-in, Mills uses ice boots to provide more relief to the horse’s legs. It may seem like a small or simple step, the increased attention to the horse’s legs can make a difference in the long run. 

“I’m a big user of ice to prevent swelling on the front legs,” he says. “Reining horses put so much weight on the front end. We will ice a horse about 20 minutes after we ride.”

Overall, Mills spends about 30 to 45 minutes riding and 20 minutes icing, which is a short timespan to ensure a horse is physically and mentally ready to show. However, when a show is coming up that requires the horses to have more endurance, Mills will increase his riding time. 

Whether a reining horse or a cutting horse or a versatility horse, one that is physical fit enough that will bend and flex, back up and move around in a cadenced gait is important. 

“When a horse is stressed mentally, it seems like the injuries always follow. Overall, the goal is to have a happy, healthy horse,” Mills says. “Using common sense and intuition, we can figure out when something is going on with the horse. Sometimes we overlook the signals the horse is trying to give us.”

About Matt Mills

Scottsdale, Arizona, trainer Matt Mills counts the 2006 World Equestrian Games Gold Medal with Team USA at the Aachen, Germany, games as one of his top accomplishments. In addition, he recently passed more than a million dollars in lifetime earnings and has wins at the National Reining Breeders Classic, the High Roller Reining Classic, and was the National Reining Horse Association Intermediate Open Futurity Reserve Champion in 2000. 

Mills conducts clinics around the U.S., Mexico and in Europe. He launched Team Matt Mills, an online training portal that offers more than 100 videos to members, in 2018. Mills and his wife, Karen, have three children, Ryan, Alec and Emma. For more information, visit