As the winter from you-know-where wraps up (sort of) it is a truth universally acknowledged that most horses – and humans – are woefully out of shape. What is an equestrian to do? It’s time to create a spring conditioning program. Whether you’re headed to the show ring or hitting the trails this summer, you need to prepare your horse properly so that you can both be happy and healthy.
It is easy to think of a “conditioning program” as riding around at a faster gait to make your horse work up a sweat. That may have a place in your training program, but just trotting around the arena (or, when the weather is finally nice, out on the trails) might not be working to your best advantage. To get your horse in shape, you can work harder but you should also work smarter.
There are two related questions that you should ask yourself during each part of your conditioning program: “why?” and “what do I want to accomplish?” These may seem like pretty much the same question, but using them together helps you clarify your intent for each exercise. Every step of the conditioning program should have a clear intent. Understanding the purpose of each exercise will help you get the most out of each session while always moving your closer to your goal.
Let’s look at some examples to clarify the difference between the “why” and the “what do I want to accomplish.”
Situation #1: You decide to walk in the arena for 20 minutes.
Why? Because my horse is coming off an injury and is only able to be ridden walk right now.
Great. Does this mean that you will let your horse wander on a loose rein for 20 minutes, slowly moseying around? No. Mastering the slow gait is the basis for anything in the faster gaits. In the words of Mr. K, “you’re working at the canter at the walk.” This means that you should be feeling your horse’s feet at the walk, expecting a forward and engaged movement.
He should be responsive and between your aids. If you are truly riding and your horse is truly listening, then you should be able to turn, slow down, speed up or stop, all with very little effort. Your seat and legs should be able to quietly ask, and your horse should quietly respond. It only makes sense that if this is true at the walk, then it will be true to some extent at the trot and canter. And this is a skill and a relationship that is necessary for any kind of riding, from showing to handling any situation on the trail.
And that brings us to…what do I want to accomplish? A soft, responsive horse that is in tune with my aids; an engaged hind end and purposeful walk to ensure the proper muscles and way of going are developed.
Situation #2: You decide to trot for 20 minutes.
Why? Because I am building up my horse’s stamina so that we are able to trot for extended periods of time on the trail/in the show ring/during the heat of the summer.
Cool, good idea. Does that mean you’re just going to race around the arena for 20 minutes, strung out and holl0w-backed? Probably not. Working in the trot is a great workout for both you and your horse. In many situations, you will find that you need to trot more slowly or more quickly for one reason or another. So, practice your speeds within the gait. Trot slowly. Extend the trot. Spend time perfecting your working trot. Find out how many distinct speeds you can differentiate within the trot. How fast can your horse trot without breaking into a canter? How slowly can he go without walking? Knowing the answers to these questions will serve you well…like when the answer to the “why?” question is because my horse is has succumbed to spring fever and if he doesn’t work off some steam,
his head might pop off his body. Working with speeds within the gait can help your horse’s mind, too. They learn that it’s okay to move their feet and work off the energy – but they still need to listen and respond to their rider’s aids.
What do I want to accomplish? I want to build up my horse’s stamina while controlling speeds within the gait, in order to develop more sensitivity to aids and condition the mind as well as the body so that we are fully prepared for any situations that may arise in more high-pressure situations.
Without a clear intent, it’s hard to make any progress. Sure, your horse might lose the hay-belly, but without thoughtful reflection on why you are doing what you’re doing, you won’t make it much farther down the path to great horsemanship. With this in mind, it’s important to create an intentional training program that takes into account your horse’s physical fitness as well has his mental fitness.
You can also use these questions as a starting point to begin creating a conditioning program or if you’re not sure what to do during your ride on a given day. Once you’ve figured out your horse’s mindset, ask what you want to accomplish. If he is particularly unbalanced in one direction, then you may want to work on that. Why? To work toward a more balanced horse. What do you want to accomplish? To build his muscles on the weaker side and help him develop more strength on his weaker side. Then you can decide what exercises can help you do that.
As I’ve mentioned before, I am now working with a horse named Poe. He has been sitting in the pasture for months. He has also been for sale for quite awhile; however, with no one available to work him, he is not in the best shape to be sold. Fortunately, he has talent as a dressage prospect for someone who is advanced and is prepared to work him regularly. He just needs some attention, work and polish. Enter the Intentional Spring Conditioning Program.
Conditioning Poe: Phase 1
The first phase of conditioning Poe is all about muscle building and consistency.
What do we want to accomplish?
- Build muscle in the right places, specifically through his topline
- Achieve consistency and relaxation in the walk, trot and canter
- So that Poe can become balanced and supple while carrying himself properly
- So that Poe can be steady, confident and relaxed while being attuned to his rider
How do we get there?
There are a number of things we’ll be working on over the next weeks and months, including some of the exercises below:
- Groundwork: pivoting on the hindquarters and on the forehand to ensure he is in tune with body language and a rider/handler’s aids
- Longeing: to help Poe exercise and get the yah-yahs out with no rider on his back; to help build muscle and stamina without the added strain of a rider
- Sidereins: to help Poe carry himself properly and build muscle in the right places while reducing the potential for human error/bad hands
- Speeds within the gaits: to help Poe become responsive to aids; to help Poe learn that when he is afraid it is okay to move his feet – but where his rider says to go, which helps riders stay safer and maintain control
- Circles: to help Poe get off the inside aids without leaning, to help him become more balanced and supple
No, really. How?
- Plan workouts often – but build in days off, too
- Know when to quit riding on any given day (hint: it’s while you’re ahead)
- Don’t over-drill an exercise, give the release
- Be consistent – if you are, your horse will be
Being clear about your intentions will inform your decisions about how you work with your horse. This helps you work smarter, not just harder. That means that you’re being thoughtful and goal-oriented, and working on physical and mental fitness in the most efficient way possible. And in turn, working more intentionally will get you where you want to go more quickly and with greater success.
How do you plan your conditioning programs? What are some of your favorite exercises?