Question:

There is a lot of information on getting your horse as fit as a fiddle and what we should be doing week in and week out in training. Like 2 days dressage/lateral work, trail riding days and then what to do for fitness. Just walk and trot them till they are tried. How do you measure their fitness?

My Answer:

Ok, so firstly other than what the rest of the world things how do you feel about their fitness? What are the signs you are seeing that makes you think ‘I need to address this?’ 

Reply:

So I feel my horse comes behind my leg and comes onto the forehand, but this is becoming less frequent. Last weekend we did two tests and then bringing him back out for a third was a struggle. So I’m thinking this a fitness issue rather than anything else… or should I not expect that much in one day?


gwttD4O

 

Frankly this is a bloody hard question to answer, and I feel really the answer I give will be no answer at all, more a gathering of thoughts about what potentially could be happening.

The short answer is this: It could be that your horse needs to be more physically fit and that will fix all your problems, it might also be that the faults lay in your training system and no amount of fitness training will fix them…

The long answer is I really can’t answer you question because you and your horse aren’t in front of me and I can’t ride your horse and have a feel of what is happening. If I sat on your horse (based on your description of the problem) the first thing I would be looking for is; How reactive is he to my leg? How reactive is he to my hand? If either of these responses are dull when he is fresh than the problem doesn’t lay in his fitness is lays in the training. As he gets more tired he will become more dull, getting him fitter will lesson this… but not remove it of course…

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So for what they are worth these are my initial thoughts:

  • Making a horse fitter will often enhance what you already have. For example if he is already on the way to becoming very light and obedient the fitter he becomes the lighter and more obedient he should become as his body is more physically able to deal with your questions. Alternately if he is difficult to stop or to leg yield for instance, he may become more difficult in these aspects as you have made him physically even more capable of NOT doing these movements in the way you want…
  • I remember asking Nick Roe my course director at Marcus (and 4 star event rider) if I should work on my horses fitness for the coming eventing season (I was just aiming to start my youngsters at Intro). His advice? If you are working your horse correctly on the flat and over jumps that should be all you need, and he was right… my horses flew around then and they still do now. I rarely do any specific fitness work until they are ready to go Pre-Novice and even then only on horses who require a little more TLC (like the more heavy, WB types…)

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Now lets talk about the three tests in 1 day thing. Again this is a non-answer answer, because it totally depends on the situation. If my horse is attending his first show (as a side note a horses first show SHOULD NOT be his first outing…) I would expect to be able to put together two tests on the day. I would very very rarely (never say never!) go for a third. Why? Well as I see it there are only a few possible outcomes available:

  • First test OK, second test better – quit while you are ahead (why push for a third test when he is already a champion in my eyes?)
  • First test shit, second test equally as bad – the problem is big and will not be resolved by riding 1 more test, go home and go back to the drawing board.
  • First test shit, second test better – quit while you are ahead
  • First test AMAZING, second test average – horse is tired

Now keep in mind when I say ‘test’, I am actually drawing on the whole gambit, warm up and test. If the warm up was great and the test terrible, that is generally you not the horse. If it is the horses first show, then you get a pass, some horses do take a few rides in a ring to get the hang of it, but if you have gone to more than 5 (and I’m being super generous here) shows and your horse is still great in the warm up ring and shit in the actual ring; your fault…

So back to the story, young horse, first show, two tests and go home, plain and simple. Review the day on the drive home and make the game plan for next time.

Can a horse do 3 tests in 1 day… Yes… Have I done it? Yes. Is it something I recommend… hmm upon thinking about it, not really. Possibly only if you are on a horse that you are retraining because it does have issues that are ring specific and/or you are retraining yourself because you are a nervous test rider and need the practice.

Primarily because it does come down to fitness and most horses aren’t fit enough or well trained enough to do 3 tests in one day. If I was going to do 3 tests in one day it would look something like this:

  • 1st test: Do a normal standard warm up for that horse (this generally involves me pushing all the button the horse has) but as the horse has 3 tests ahead of him I won’t be going for max effort. 70/80% is enough.
  • 2nd test: Very simple walk, trot and canter (15 mins max). I wouldn’t press anything much until the horse before me was in the ring. Then I would pick him up to ride the test
  • 3rd test: Same as the second but perhaps shorter, 5 mins walk, 5 mins trot and canter and perhaps wouldn’t pick him up until it was our turn.

This is why I say most horses ‘aren’t well trained enough’ to do 3 tests in one day. The responses needed aren’t established enough and most people ride around at shows ‘training’ their horse right up to the moment they enter the ring. It shouldn’t be like this. When you go to a show you should simply be touching on responses that are already well established and well understood by the horse, then when the atmosphere kicks in and you loose some quality it doesn’t matter; your 100% at home turns into 80% at a show and everyone is happy. When you only have 80% at home and suddenly have 60% at the show things get tricky…

Generally when you show a horse you should actually be punching below your weight. And when you go to a show you shouldn’t be aiming to actually do well at this show, you are setting yourself up for 3 years time… When you get the balance right on a young horse it actually goes like this:

  • Warm up and ride the first test. Don’t press all the buttons fully fully. Just touch everything, make sure it is clean and responsive. Pony does a nice honest test, comes away relaxed and happy. Rider also happy. Bingo.
  • Warm up for the second test. Really play and press everything. See how much gas is in the tank. Ride the second test and don’t hold back, leave it all in the arena.

When you ride like this you get a lot of feedback (not from the judge mind you, from yourself…) as to where your horse is really at, where his weaknesses are and his strengths. Also the cool thing is often (if you do your job well) the horses get a little power boost to the next level. They have actually IMPROVED at the show (as in posted a PB) and when you drive home you actually have a better horse than the horse you drove to the show. And then at home you continue on from this new level…

And riding like this is what creates reliable show horses, even if you do this for 1 season, next season you have a horse that you know super well and can come out and ride both tests at 100%.

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Finally to answer what I do each week and how do I measure their fitness…

Well, again this is very dependant on where the horses are at. But lets look at a 5 yr old say that has been under saddle 2 years. I would be aiming to do 2 days on the arena, 2 days out and maybe 1 day on the ground/jumping/or out depending on what that horse needs to be more focused on at the time, maybe he needs more exposure going out, maybe he needs a little more focus on the flat, maybe he needs to nail his cavaletti. The two arena days may not always be flatwork, maybe 1 jump, 1 dressage. The two days out may involve a very simple day; just walking or some loose rein, trot and canter and a more specific day.

Frankly it really varies from week to week and horse to horse, it is totally dependent on where the horse is at and where I feel we need to put in more work. It also depends on how I am feeling; am I really focused today or am I feeling a bit tired, even if I am feeling tired (like right now) and I know my horses need arena work (like they do today) I will still ride on the arena and just focus on 1 point, and keep my goal really simple.

Do I measure my horses fitness. No, not yet. If I end up hitting the higher levels of eventing (and perhaps even for the dressage or jumping horses) I will look into heart rate monitors etc more closely. But due to experience I know what one of my average horses should be able to churn out in 1 ride and also how quick their recovery should be. Even after around 5/10 mins canter they should be back to normal in 1/2 mins (I have never measured these times, but are rough guesses… sorry.). Again though you have to keep in mind I work my horses harder than most people, the only other people who work their horses as hard as me are other professionals… what stops most amateurs from achieving the fitness needed in their horses is actually their own… they get tired and need a rest before the horse does.

As a side note I measured the forest trail that I ride the other day, it is a 2.1 km loop. My current horses do 1 loop trot 1 loop canter then change direction 1 loop trot 1 loop canter. Then walk home. That is a continuous run with only about a single 50 m walk break when I change direction (primarily just to check that the ‘walk on a loose rein’ button is still in action). Its about 100m walk out of the forest and they have their breath back by the time they hit the road to home… Initially though after 2 laps they were knackered and the Irish Draught struggles the most, especially in canter. She is improving but finds the whole situation much much more difficult than the two cross breds…

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So last point… Consider the type of horse you are riding. Like I said the Irish Draught I am riding currently really struggles because lets face it; these horses are not designed to be light nimble riding horses. They are tanks. The two cross breds are thankfully much much more modern types and although in the beginning also struggled majorly this was due to the fact that they had never ever in their life been in any sort of constant work, so they were like riding a breaker fitness wise. Now after 6 months they are pretty normal. I would struggle to make them ‘tired’ doing their current day to day work. But when I start cavaletti work with them they will struggle again for a little while as their muscles build and develop to cope with the additional and changed work load.

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And last but not least, as well as competing and riding multiple competition horses; I have ALWAYS BEEN COACHED by professional, experienced, competition riders and piggy backing off THEIR experiences… don’t underestimate the difference this can make…

So… no clue if that actually makes any sense to anyone but me, but hopefully that leaves you with some food for thought.

If you have a question – hit me up!

Namaste :)

gwttD4O