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Everyday Conditioning: Fitness work for the lower-level horse

You’re not headed to Rolex, but you still want your horse fit enough to gallop a novice x-c course or make it through a dressage test without gasping for air. Katie Passerotti can relate.

From Katie:

For me, living in PA, halfway between the top and the bottom of the state on the Ohio line, spring has sprung.  The days are getting up into the 60s and the nights are only getting as cold as the low 40s.  I’ve bravely made the decision that my body clipped horse (clipped in November) can go naked and he is certainly making full use of the available mud to help exfoliate his skin and prepare for the upcoming show season.  We’ll still have a few more days and nights where I’ll panic and make sure I get out to the barn to put on his mid-weight blanket to keep his muscles warm, but all in all, riding weather is here.

I’ve got less than five days until the opening date for our first event and just over two months until that event is actually here.  I haven’t evented since 2006 and the anticipation is killing me.  My entry form is filled out, the check is written and its pinned to my corkboard just staring me down every morning while I make my lunch to take to work with me.  Especially since my last two recognized events did not end so well, as in I was eliminated in dressage, both times.  Each one was on a different horse: Horse A was a mental case and freaked out, rearing and trotting right out at A despite my attempts to steer him otherwise; Horse B was a saint and I had too much inside leg on at A, so she did a very nice leg yield out of the arena.  Ever since then, I’ve been a bit shy of the opening at A and will sometimes cut off the end of the arena a bit too much if I think my horse is having thoughts of escape.

A lot has changed since that last fateful event.  Some for the worse, some for the better.  For one, back then I was still young and invincible.  Now I am 32 and pretty sure that there are monsters hiding in the flower boxes of the jumps… but I am an eventer, we will soldier on.  I was still in college then, and working just one job, at the barn.  Now I work three jobs, one full time and two part time and I still somehow manage to make it out the barn three or more times a week.  My hectic schedule has made it crucial that I have some sort of conditioning and workout plan in order to succeed.

I’m lucky enough to have a FABULOUS indoor to ride in all year long, no matter what the weather outside decides to do.  So Bastian and I have been plugging away all winter long working on some basics (like making it from one side of a fence to the other, together) and working on basic fitness.

This is where it starts.  Fitness.  Throughout my lengthy riding career, I’ve seen a lot of riders who come out and work their horse for about 20-25 minutes, then stop and get off because they had one super nice stride of trot, or the perfect down transition from canter.  So they enthusiastically pat their horse’s neck and hop off saying how proud they are of him and that they don’t want mess it up by asking for anything else.   Okay, I kinda get it and I think this is really important thing to do when you are training a youngster or learning something difficult like flying changes (the bane of my existence) and your horse gets one for the first time and you make a huge fuss and let him off the hook for the day.

But the next time, you had better bet that I am not quitting until I get a few flying changes, no matter the quality because at this stage of the game, I would be more worried about is he listening to my cues and responding than I would be wondering if it perfect and relaxed and etc. etc. But for the most part, 20 minutes of a hack where you never actually make the horse work isn’t going to get you ready for the show ring.

I like to pair big achievements like this with super easy fitness work.  The other day I was jumping and we had a new fence in the ring, it terrified me, but thankfully my Bastian didn’t even look twice at it.  We warmed up,  jumped the fence five times and I said that was fantastic, we’re done.  However, it had only been about 20 minutes.  So instead of doing more stressful jumping or working on something difficult, we did a 5 minute gallop and a 4 minute trot.  It did not stress him mentally (and barely physically, he was raring to go when we were finished) but it was a nice cap to a tough mental day and I worked on the basics: was my body in the right place, was he forward, was he falling onto his forehand, etc. etc.

Over the past six years I have taken up serious dressage, as in dressage is now way more than that funky phase I have to get through before I can jump XC.  A typical dressage test is about 6 to 10 minutes depending on the level–I have my warm up down to a science and it takes us about 15-20 minutes depending on how he feels when he walks out of the stall.  So this means that I am riding at a show for about 30 minutes.  Add all the show nerves and adrenalin to that and it feels like you just rode 6 horses for about an hour each by the end of the day.  For me, this means that the minimum amount of time I ride my horse is 45 minutes, I try to shoot for an hour, but sometimes with time constraints, 45 minutes is all I get.

Here is what my 45-60 minutes entails: 15-20 minutes of warm up, a 3 to 4 minute walk break and then another 20 minutes to 30 minutes of work with minimal breaks.  I keep it as non-boring for Bastian and I  as I can, lots of figures, changes of directions, shoulder in, leg yield, transitions, lengthening, etc.  and things just flow from one exercise to the next.  I firmly believe that 15 to 20 minutes of trot work should be able to happen without you or your horse getting out of breath and without taking any breaks.  If you can’t trot for fifteen minutes without stopping to take a break, that is your first fitness goal.

When I moved from doing the Training Level Dressage tests to First Level, I found a huge fitness hole that I hadn’t even realized I had.  I couldn’t maintain my horse’s canter for more than a few minutes and he was always super quick to drop into a trot if my leg came off for even a split second.  My first time showing first level we must have broken from the canter about 8 times, it was horrible.  So I started adding  “canter” sets to my workout every other day.  I didn’t worry about the quality for the first few times; all we did was maintain the canter for five minutes each direction.  It would start out nice and first-levely, then it would take a dive and he was on his forehand and strung out.  But we eventually got it and now I can get great canter work and guess who doesn’t break gait in his tests anymore? (If you said Bastian, you’re right!)

So the first move you have to make is to up the ante for you and your horse.  If you want to be successful competing, you need to do twice as much work at home as you will do at a show.  If you event, this means that you should make a day every week where you ride your horse twice.  Flat him for 30 minutes, then a few hours later pull him out of his stall and jump a few jumps and go for a trail ride.  Not only will this help his fitness, but it will help him mentally prepare.  I know the first few times I pulled my horse out again for a second ride at a dressage show he was like, “ah, I think we already did this, you have the wrong horse” and he proceeded to be a bit grumpy.  Since then I’ve incorporated double riding days into our schedule here and there and now he’s like, “Okay, I’ll come out again, but we better be doing something fun like jumping!”

Your second move is to wear a watch.  Keep track of how much time you spend walking, trotting, cantering, or chatting with your friends in the center of the arena.  Look at the discipline you compete in.  If you are a serious Western pleasure competitor, you had better be able to jog or lope for long time periods.  Some of those classes at Quarter Horse or Paint shows are insanely huge and the judge will have you on the rail forever.  So you need to be able to maintain that wonderful, consistent jog for the duration of the class–if your horse says forget it after 3 minutes, keep practicing.  Figure out how much time you actually spend riding at a horse show and double it for what you do at home.

Obviously, there are a lot of factors here: the age of the horse, the age of the rider,  the breed of the horse, his conformation,  how that horse or rider is feeling on a particular day and so many more.  This is what I feel should be at the basis of a competitive horse and rider’s riding routine, I’m speaking in generalities–there will always be exceptions and there will also be different ways to be successful, this is just one idea.  But at the heart of it, it comes down to you as the rider making the decision to be aware of what your horse needs to do to be physically fit for your chosen discipline.   Not only will it help to improve your performance in competitions, but the more fit both you and your horse are, they less prone you are to injury.

As Bastian and I move towards our goal of completing our first event in two months I’ve added two new, but hugely important things to our workout regiment: No stirrup work for me (which I’ll discuss in a future article) and galloping in two-point.  Galloping in an indoor ring that is as long as a small arena and just about 20 feet wider is not fun, it is downright boring.  Having to do it while dodging beginner lessons or crazy jumping horses, even better.  I recommend an iPod if you can pull it off–nothing motivates like some good songs.   Nonetheless, it is still extremely challenging.  The basic time frame of a BN or N XC run is 5 minutes give or take, so that has been our base line goal, to gallop for 5 minutes with me in two-point.  I refuse to be one of those riders that does a posting gallop while on XC.  So I hauled my butt up and out of the saddle and for the past two months have spent the last 3 minutes of our gallops holding myself up by taking a super firm grip on his mane.  Yesterday though I can proudly say that I stayed up all on my own for the full 5 minutes and when we reached our goal my legs did not feel like jelly.  Oh, accomplishments, how you make me happy.

Photo: Amelia Grubbs on Hang On Snoopy

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