Book Excerpt: Basic Training Principles for Sport Horse Soundness and Performance

Learn about common equine injury risks and training antidotes that emphasize the horse’s fitness and physical training.

British Olympian John Whitaker believes in giving the horses a varied training regimen. Here he is on top show jumper Milton at his farm in Yorkshire. Bob Langrish

From experience, many top riders have a philosophy on training that fits very well with recommendations from human sport scientists to avoid six common causes of injury:

1. Doing too much too soon

2. Lack of continuity

3. Work that is too monotonous

4. Lack of rest and recovery (which includes combining high-volume and high-intensity work)

5. Sudden changes in demands or an acute overload incident

6. Individual weaknesses.

German show-jumping champion Franke Sloothaak has underlined that you, as a rider, must have a plan for your work with the horse, an analysis of how he should be brought on and prepared for the demands of competition. Most riders ride their horses only once daily, but it is necessary that the horses get to be active more than that and should certainly be outside.

“We must never forget that it is in the horse’s nature to be active,” Franke said. “The horse is not born to stand still in a stable. You notice that the more fit a horse gets, the more he wants to do! It is the same with people: The more they get stuck in front of the television, the less energy they get and the other way around.”

As suggested by Dr. Jonas Tornell, the Swedish show-jumping team vet from 1977 to 2016, many top riders of Swedish team horses have a philosophy of activating the horse in several ways daily. The training plan is not only about a riding session and then standing still inside or out in a small paddock. Their horses are led and grazed in-hand, go in a field or a paddock, are longed, go on a walker and/or for a light hack. At first glance, this can be difficult to copy for someone with a full-time job not with horses and who is looking after the horse herself. Also, a high activity level is more of a focus for top horses trained for maximum performance, such as international championships. Still, you can let yourself be inspired to offer the horse more variety in his work, for example by getting assistance from someone who likes to help out with the riding and grooming, leading the horse out for a walk and choosing a stable that offers facilities such as bigger and better paddocks, a mechanical walker and access to good hacking.

Variety is a training antidote to repetitive work that can cause sporthorse injuries, which is discussed on page 54. Additional causes of sporthorse injury and their training antidotes are described below as well.

Increasing the Workload Quickly

Antidote: Training Principle 1—Gradual, stepwise increase in demands

One common injury risk for both horses and fitness enthusiasts/athletes is doing too much too quickly. Rule Number 1 for all training plans is, instead, to increase demands gradually. Franke underlines that a first step in training must be to let the horse build muscles and get physically stronger—called general training or conditioning by Professor Gerhard Forssell, the Swedish Team vet at the 1912 Olympics and a pioneering surgeon, and Dr. Hilary Clayton, the Mary Anne McPhail Dressage Chair in Equine Sports Medicine at Michigan State University from 1997 to 2014. This requires variation in type, volume and intensity of training, including rest and recovery. Step by step the demands then need to increase, otherwise there will be no training effect. When top riders describe how they have developed different top horses, they again and again point out that the horse first needed a building-up period, when the body got the chance to build the strength needed for top performance in competition.

Lack of Continuity

Antidote: Training Principle 2—Be disciplined and make the training planned and regular

Training must be regular and have continuity to have an effect on the body and keep that effect. Occasional sessions at the gym make little difference in human fitness but they can increase injury risk. The same thing holds for horses. Without continuity, fitness and training effect will remain low.

One example of a regular training plan (plus variety, which we will look at later) is from an interview with Alan Davies, groom of Olympic gold medalist Valegro, at the yard of Carl Hester, the horse’s owner and trainer. When Valegro was competing in dressage, he worked in the arena four days a week: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. He was hacked and did other outdoor work two days and rested one day.

From visits, interviews and training diaries with elite show jumping riders it was clear that these professionals had a system and a plan for their horses. Even if the systems varied, almost all had a common thread in what they did during a week, a month or a season. They had a plan for each horse instead of being governed by the weather, lack of time or other demands. To achieve that, you need to set up a plan for the horse for the coming week and for the coming months. The exception to when changes should be made in that plan is if the horse seems off.

Repetitive Work

Antidote: Training Principle 3—Variety

To understand repetitive work, think overuse injuries in the workplace. This can be prevented by variation in training both in the type of work and the demands made (intensity and volume). This is also called periodization. I will come back to that in the next point about rest and recovery.

Variety is necessary to get a complete training plan. Depending on the discipline and the level you compete at, the horse needs different degrees of lung capacity, muscle strength, endurance, coordination and nerve-muscle skills, suppleness and mental preparation. This cannot be achieved by only one or two types of activities. Greek philosopher and horseman Xenophon recommended 2,400 years ago that the rider should vary the riding sessions based on length and location.

Olympic show jumper Jos Lansink and his Belgian colleague Ludo Philippaerts both bought land to build their equestrian centers close to a forest to allow hacking and canterwork. Brit John Whitaker, on the other hand, was brought up in Yorkshire countryside that is ideal for varied riding. “When my brothers and I grew up, we did not have anything except the hilly country around us for riding. We had only a small outdoor arena and it was on a slope, so we mainly hacked out and used the hills and realized that it worked,” Whitaker said. The Swiss Olympic and World Cup Champion Steve Guerdat said in an interview that he found a way to vary his training. In the same way as some people load their horses on a lorry to get to an indoor, he took a few of his horses to an area with excellent riding terrain on a weekly basis.

The advice of Great Britain’s Olympic gold medalist Carl Hester includes not always riding in an arena: “Don’t practice dressage exercises the whole time because that will mean wear and tear on the horse. Incorporating variety to their work is also good for their mentality. Fitness work is important. We have hills at home where we work them to develop muscles and cardiovascular fitness.”

U.S. Olympic gold medalist Beezie Madden’s advice on training variation is very similar to Carl’s, John’s and other colleagues: Hack out in varied terrain, let the horse go in the field, do flatwork and have him on a walker.

Lack of Rest and Recovery

Antidote: Training Principle 4—Periodization

Lack of recovery time—combining intensity and volume—is also on the list of common injury risks. One antidote to a lack of recovery time is called periodization in sports science. It means varying between harder and lighter work and including breaks for rest and recovery. Lack of recovery and too much hard training will, in the end, lead to overtraining or burnout.

“Do not be afraid of including rest days in the training,” Dr. Clayton said. Rest days should be included in all training plans, as they are necessary to help the body respond and adapt to training. Dr. Clayton has also advised against doing strenuous work two days in a row.

Remember: It is very important to differentiate between planned rest days as part of a training plan and the horse losing a training day when he was meant to be in work because you were tired or short of time.

Rest is not just standing still in a stable or small paddock, but also being led out in-hand or light hacking.

To focus further on the principle of periodization, it means that you must vary the demands in training over the year and ration your competitions.

One important example is not to combine lots of work and a high difficulty at the same time (so balance volume and intensity of work). This is important to remember when planning fitness work: It should be planned in preparation for important competition periods and not during them. Both Dr. Tornell and Franke suggest winter as a time to start building fitness:

“In the summer, there will be competitions. Then you do not have time to develop the horse physically. Instead, use winter for that and also to get the horse stronger and more supple through gymnastics. The better prepared the horse is before the season starts in earnest, the better he can perform,” Franke said.

One example of periodization is interval training, known from human sports training but also for racehorses. It can be applied in most types of intensive training. For example, instead of doing a 1,000-meter canter you let the horse do two, 500-meter canters with a short rest in between. Gridwork jumping can also be a type of interval training—for example jumping one grid, a rest and then jumping the grid again or doing eight jumps in one go and then eight again rather than 16 without interruption. Interval training has the advantage that the athlete or horse does intensive work but with recovery periods, which prevents the fatigue that accumulates in a nonstop session.

Even though it would not count as interval training as such, you can also use the idea in a flatwork or dressage session by giving the horse plenty of mini-breaks at walk. Do not tire the horse with long uninterrupted trotting or cantering work.

Sudden Change in Demands

Antidote: Training Principle 5—Specific training or practice competition demands

A sudden change in demands on the body is closely related to the dangers of a fast increase in training. This point includes sudden overload, which may result in an accidental sprain.

One example of a sudden change in demands is if the horse has not performed in training what he is expected to do in competition. While a training program should be varied, it must also include the specific demands in competition (after first having the building-up period discussed in Training Principle 1). Specific training does not, however, mean that the show-jumping horse should jump courses at competition height day after day or that a Grand Prix dressage horse should be doing piaffe and passage day after day at home. The UK racehorses who do so-called fast work at home (to practice race speeds) do it at shorter distances than in the actual race and a maximum of twice
a week.

Individual Weaknesses

Antidote: Training Principle 6—Pay attention to the horse’s individual response

In all training, it is important to remember that every horse will respond differently to the same training regimen. This means that it is important to observe how the horse responds to the training—what signals he gives—and adapt your plan to that.

There are many factors that influence the training response, such as genes (breeding), previous training, temperament and motivation. Do remember that previous injuries are an important risk factor for new injuries. Every horse benefits from having his own plan: Not all individuals can be worked in the same way.

Some 90 years ago Professor Forssell said it was important to pay attention to the horse’s signals in training and respond if the horse, for example, showed resistance. 

Adapted from Sport Horse Soundness and Performance by Dr. Cecilia Lönnell with permission of Trafalgar Books. Paperback, 160 pages, $29.95. Available at www.equinenetwork

Cecilia Lönnell is a veterinarian who presented her PhD at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences at Uppsala, Sweden. From 1998–2001 she was a research assistant at the Royal Veterinary College in London, conducting a field study of training and skeletal adaptation in Thoroughbred racehorses. Cecilia is also an equestrian journalist who has covered six equestrian Olympics.

In Sport Horse Soundess and Performance, she relied on her veterinary background, in-depth research and conducted several interviews with top riders and trainers.

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