Fit to Ride: Conditioning your horse, part II
Yesterday Biz Stamm showed us how to quantitatively measure our horse’s fitness and conditioning progress. Today, Lila Gendal shares an example of an effective fitness routine.
Biz notes, “Though Lila shares a fitness routine for event horses, it provides a fantastic framework that could easily be modified to fit any discipline. In fact, I’m going to try it out on my dressage horse!”
Quite honestly I use to know as much about horse fitness as I know about gardening. For anyone who has seen my yard, they would know that I have the opposite of a green thumb. Point is, I had a lot to learn about horse fitness, but after spending the last seven plus years with a legend in the eventing world, and someone who has done several 100-mile endurance rides, including the Tevis Cup, I am beginning to learn more and more every single day about horse fitness.
Currently I have a novice level horse and a training level horse. Both are large 8-year-old warmbloods that have taken years to really mature physically. Both horses I am hoping to move up next summer, but as far as this summer was concerned I think I had a very reasonable conditioning schedule for both of them because they both feel very fit and enthusiastic about working.
What I am about to share is not a program set in stone for all horses, but rather a schedule and a routine that worked very well for me and my horses.
Trail riding. On average I tried to take my horses out on a “harder” trail ride two times a week, and a lighter, easier hack one day a week. What does “harder” mean exactly? Well, for me, “harder” consists of climbing serious hills, mountains and asking my horses to really work. On the harder days I would walk primarily and occasionally trot on the flat or slight uphills. Really, I would walk most of the time. We are very lucky at Tamarack Hill Farm because we have access to hills and mountains everywhere. On a harder trail riding day, I would try and go out for minimally one hour. Sometimes two hours towards the middle, or the end of the summer when my horses were stronger.
Dressage. Aren’t we talking about fitness and conditioning? Yes, we are… which is exactly why I brought up the “D” word. On average, I would say I probably did one “harder” day of flatwork, and one easier, or lighter day of flatwork once a week. On the “harder” days I would push myself and my horse more. I would maybe ask my horse to sit and lift more, or ask them to be more engaged and quicker off my aids. I would canter them more. Both my horses are schooling about First Level dressage work. Dressage is very important and has really made all thedifference in both my horses’ ability to canter for longer periods of time without feeling like they are going to keel over.
Jumping. I jump my horses every third or fourth day. In other words, I jump both my horses on average one to two days a week. We always do a variety of exercises, from gymnastics, to cantering small jumps and working on rideability, to jumping actual courses. I also jump cross-country maybe once or twice a month, not including competing. Jumping my horses helps a lot with their overall fitness in more ways than I can count.
A typical week for Valonia and Skybreaker:
Monday: Harder dressage day (more cantering, more uphill work, more lifting and engaging)
Tuesday: Light hack
Wednesday: Jump (coursework)
Thurs: Lighter dressage day (deep, stretchy work… not asking very much of them)
Friday: Harder hack (1-2 hours of walking up AND down hills)
Sunday: Jump (gymnastics)
My most important piece of advice is to trail ride. If you have hills and mountains to climb, go at it! If you do not have access to great trail riding, perhaps you can trailer to a place that does. I rarely do trot sets, and I rarely gallop my horses for several reasons: 1) My horses are only going novice and training, and 2) When they climb mountains on a regular basis, I don’t think they need to be pounded on by trotting and galloping. Going to a competition is a true test for fitness. Does your horse feel like he or she needs an oxygen tank half way around cross-country, or is she or he bright and excited towards the end of the course? You absolutely can get a horse fit by walking, especially if you have access to hills!
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.
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