Protecting our horses is a big part of our responsibility as riders and trainers. Because "fitness" is our best defense against injuries to them, we need to study it.
Webster's Dictionary is not much use in defining fitness, and Wikipedia is no better. In the absence of any help from these sources, I define fitness to mean our horses are physically and mentally capable of performing their tasks without undue stress or fatigue.
I will talk about the mental preparation of your horse in future columns, but this month I want to discuss his physical preparation. I am old-fashioned about this; I do not think there are any shortcuts to fitness. Physical fitness takes a long time to develop, and it involves a great deal of effort. At the same time, if you make the effort, I promise you will never feel such a sense of pride and satisfaction as when your horse completes the cross-country at your destination Classic and pulls up obviously thinking, "Is that all you got?"
Along the same lines, my father used to say, "A good horse, well trained, will jig home from a three-day event." I have seen it and I have done it, and to this day I remember my elation at feeling my horse after a serious competition, still well and obviously full of himself. These are worthwhile goals, and we need to start now to produce fit, sound, healthy and cheerful horses.
Plan Your Season
I hear from riders a great deal at this time of year saying, "I am so bored, I can't get out of the indoor, the footing is not suitable yet," and so on. My reply is usually, "Are you kidding me?" The winter months (and to a lesser extent the shorter summer break) are my favorite parts of the calendar. This is when I have time to sit down, evaluate my results from the past competitive season and plan the next. The main part of my planning is developing my horse's conditioning schedule for the upcoming season, which I do by working backward from a season-end "destination event."
I know having a "season" with my horses is hopelessly old-fashioned, but it works for me and, more importantly, for my horses. One of the reasons it works is that I do not ask my horses to stay at, or near, peak fitness for extended periods of time. Once I arrive at the destination event, my horse needs a break—win, lose or draw.
As an example of a destination event, I might want a particular horse and rider to wind up at the U.S. Eventing Association Area Championships. Obviously, your goal needs to make sense for you and your horse. If you are a first-time Preliminary rider, then "ride at Rolex" is a worthy long-term goal, but not yet.
Once you set your end goal for this coming season, you want to determine how many competitions you need as preparation for it. There is no single right answer to this, but there is a correct answer for your horse at this time. If he is very experienced and you know him well, then you may just need to plan for only a couple of preparation events before trying to win the destination event. If you and your horse are green at the level at which you plan to compete, then you need more mileage before you wind up your season.
I think competing every other weekend is acceptable at the Novice and Training levels, if you and your horse need additional competitive mileage. If your area calendar requires it, you can run back-to-back competitions, depending on your horse's age and soundness. I have occasionally run Preliminary horses on back-to-back weekends, but I made sure they had a week off after that. However, this should not be a standard practice.
Make a Conditioning Schedule
By now, you should have your kitchen table covered with writing pads and old conditioning schedules from past seasons, and have the USEA Omnibus pulled up on your iPad. Once you have determined the number and dates of your competitions, it is time to plan your conditioning schedule.
Due to the importance I place on conditioning, I have written about it several times in the past.
Once I know when and where my first competition of the season is going to be, I then plan my conditioning canters. You can do this by counting back four days from the cross-country day of your first competition and planning your last canter for that date, then count four more days back and schedule your next-to-last canter before the competition for that date, and so on.
As a rule of thumb, I think your horse is probably fit enough for Novice and Training competitions if you can slow canter twice the distance (or a little more) of your cross-country course. If you are aiming at a cross-country test that will take five minutes, build up your horse gradually until he can slow canter a total of 10-12 minutes. Once you have asked him for this amount of work, he should tolerate it easily. His temperature should be almost normal, and his pulse and respiration should return to near his personal baseline within seven minutes.
Work in Sets
Do not do the canter work all at once. If you are starting to build your horse's cardiovascular fitness for the next season, break up the exercise into smaller segments, what I call "sets" of trot warm-up and conditioning canter work, interspersed with brief periods of walk. Horses can tolerate more exercise with short walk intervals.
For example, if your horse has been walking and trotting for a couple of weeks during his down time, and he is not recovering from any debilitating injury, it should be well within his capabilities to start a conditioning program of the following trot and canter sets: Warm him up with three, five-minute trot sets: After a five-minute trot period, let him walk for about two minutes, then trot again for another five minutes. Repeat this a third time, which means you will have given your horse 15 minutes of warm-up at the trot, but you have broken it into sets. Then ask your horse to slow canter for a total of nine minutes (remember we are starting out gradually and progressively): Canter three sets of three minutes, with brief periods of walk between each set.
Build up to slow cantering a total of 12 minutes, cantering three sets of four minutes each, with brief intervals of walk in between the sets.
If your weather is still unsuitable for outdoor work, you can do these sets indoors. Regardless of whether you are indoors or outdoors, however, make sure your footing is suitable for this type of work—not too soft or too hard. Cantering in deep footing presents a real risk of soft-tissue injuries. If you are outdoors, you should be able to walk out into the field you intend to use and kick your heel into the grass. If you can make a mark in the ground and the field provides consistent footing, you should be OK. At the same time, rock-hard stone dust in your indoor arena can make a horse just as lame as if you had been cantering on frozen ground outdoors, although the risk is more in bruising and articular injury. It is up to you to protect your horse, and good footing ranks at the top of your list of things to take care of before you start to train him for the next season.
While you are conditioning your horse, make sure your galloping position is correct. (See my August 2011 column for the latest scientific research on the correct galloping position.) Be sure to give your own physical system the same chance to adapt and strengthen that you do your horse's system. For example, in the galloping position, you'll ride with shorter stirrups than you do for regular flatwork; however, shorten them gradually, because you will find that riding with shorter stirrups is surprisingly fatiguing.
Your horse should be able to easily slow canter a total of 12 minutes, broken into sets as above, before you consider him physically fit to compete at the Novice or Training levels. Horses who can achieve this workload without stress are usually in sufficient condition to compete safely at these levels.
Riders sometimes make the mistake of continuing their conditioning work even after their horses are already fit for the planned level of competition. Getting a Novice horse fit enough to make the time at a Preliminary event, however, is asking for trouble. One of the most interesting challenges you will face in the training of event horses is keeping all the aspects of a successful event horse in balance. Overemphasis on any of the parts of the process for example, all dressage and no jumping, or galloping fast every second day and no dressage is a recipe for failure.
Another point I should make is that as your competitive season begins, you need to continue to monitor your horse's fitness. After one or two events, your horse will become fitter. Especially if he is a Thoroughbred, or Thoroughbred type, chances are that at the Novice and Training levels, your horse will not need as much conditioning work during the competitive season as he did when you started.
Most of us are riding at these lower levels of eventing due to the competing demands of school, jobs and family—that whole reality thing. However, I would like to point out the enormous workload that horses can be trained to easily tolerate when their level of competition warrants it. During their preparation for a four-star event, my horses will slow canter three sets of eight minutes each, or a total of 24 minutes. I do not mention this because I want you to condition your horse to that level of fitness, but rather to reassure you that my recommended canter sets above are well within a normal horse's capabilities if you take the time to do it gradually.
This conditioning process is likely to produce a cheerful, capable, enthusiastic and most importantly, sound horse. Take the time to do it right, so you do not have to do it over after your horse's rehabilitation from a preventable injury.
This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Practical Horseman.