Lila Gendal: Fitness beyond the box

Lila explains how working outside the arena has made her horse a better athlete inside the arena.

Top: Skybreaker and Jumbie’s first 10-miler (Green Mountain Horse Association)

From Lila:

So much of riding revolves around fitness, regardless of your discipline. My horse can’t do this, or my horse struggles with his canter, or my horse can’t walk down a hill. Equine fitness is a tremendously important topic–how do we turn our horses into strong and agile athletes? How do we trade in their fat for muscle? How do we really get our horses fit and powerful? Here are a few things I have learned over the years.

Like most things in life, fitness takes time. Fitness cannot be rushed and fitness cannot be disguised. Your horse is either fit, not fit, or on its way to becoming fit. Really, this takes time. I am an event rider, therefore my horses are jumping, flatting, hacking and doing harder conditioning work on a weekly basis.

I used to think that my horses needed to do the actual work (like jumping exercises or dressage) in order to get stronger. I used to think you started with the “work” and went trail riding in between “workouts.” Now I have a totally different understanding when it comes to fitness. If you start with a solid base, meaning you take your horse out trail riding and do a little bit of dressage and jumping in between the hacks, your horse will become stronger. I’m not saying it’s my way or the highway, but rather I’d like to shed some light on my situation and how I have turned my horses into stronger athletes.

This spring both my horses came out of an indoor and were a bit unfit and a little rusty, like so many horses can be. I was trying to jump and have dressage lessons earlier this year and it was definitely a struggle. I realized both my horses needed to get out of the ring and start climbing some mountains to get stronger.

sb fall hill

A couple months passed by and all of a sudden my flat work and jumping was starting to piece to together and I felt like I had two powerhouses. Where did these beasts come from? How did they all of a sudden turn into actual horses that could sit and lift and actually canter without petering out after a half an hour?

This was no accident. My horses were able to do what I was asking them to do because I spent the time getting them fit. I took them out for trail rides this summer (and still am). They climb mountains and trot through fields and trails and they have turned into rugged creatures.

THF spring

Without abandoning ringwork, I have done a fair amount of hacking this summer which has allowed my horses to jump and do dressage with a greater amount of ease than before. If you never do dressage, obviously your horse will never be broke on the flat, and the same goes for jumping. But how can you ever expect your horse to sit and lift when he or she can barely climb a tiny hill in the backyard? Fitness has to start somewhere. For me, fitness has started out in the mountains, on the trails and in the fields. Perhaps we could do dressage and jumping without hacking, but for me and my horses, getting them “out of the sandbox” has made all the difference in the world.

About the Author

My name is Lila Gendal and I am 27 years old. I am from Vermont and have been riding horses since I was 6 years old. I have been eventing since I was 10. I have been riding and training with Denny Emerson for the last 7 years. My goal is to compete at the upper levels someday. I currently have a 2005 Holsteiner mare, “Valonia” (Contester X Parlona), who is currently going training level, and I am riding one of Denny Emerson’s horses, a 2005 Selle Luxemburg gelding, “Beaulieu’s Cool Skybreaker” (Beaulieu’s Coolman X Une Beaute by Heartbreaker) who will be moving up to training soon! When I am not on a horse or in the barn I am likely working in my office on what I like to call Equine Media… or social media for equestrians and equestrian websites.

V aug jump school!

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