One of the hardest questions to answer about training is, "How much exercise should I give my horse?" The only really correct answer to this is, "That depends."
I am not trying to get out of answering the question; it's just that we have to take many things into account to develop our answer. First of all, what discipline are you aiming for? Dressage? Show jumping? Eventing? You are going to need different types of horses and different training schedules for each discipline.
If you are an eventer, things get even more complicated. Now the question is, "How much exercise should I give my horse in each of the three disciplines eventers are required to do, and how do I integrate the three exercise plans so that my horse improves in all three phases?" You can see why I look a little nervous when this question comes up at clinics because there is not really one correct answer. However, I do think there is a good answer for each horse, if we examine him carefully.
First, I recommend you train according to the following schedule, which I would refer to as a four-day rotation:
Day 1: Dressage
Day 2: Show Jump
Day 3: Dressage
Day 4: Canter
Day 5: Repeat Day 1 and so on.
I also like for my horses to hack out every day they are not cantering or galloping half an hour for Novice and Training, an hour for Preliminary, an hour and a half for Intermediate and two hours for Advanced in addition to their technical work.
If you are riding at the upper levels or your horse is a little delicate in his constitution, I recommend that you ride on a five-day rotation:
Day 1: Dressage
Day 2: Show Jump
Day 3: Dressage
Day 4: Canter/Gallop
Day 5: Long Hack
Day 6: Repeat Day 1 and so on.
Because upper-level horses need more preparation for their wind, they have to gallop faster and longer. This means they need a little more recuperation time before they work hard again, and the extra day of long hacks provides for this rest period. Once my horse has attained enough fitness to be schooling cross-country and competing in horse trials, I do not give him a day off. The long walks that I recommend will keep him from getting stale, and daily exercise (along with pasture turnout) is a good way to prevent colic and azoturia (tying up). However, I do give my horse a day off after a competition, followed by a day or two of hacks before I start up with my four- or five-day rotations.
Tailor the Program to Your Horse
This program will work best if you determine the type of horse you have to work with. If he is a roly-poly creature who is off the charts for cute but is at the bottom of the chart for ambition, that's one thing. If he is an off-the-track thoroughbred (OTTB), that's a horse of a different color. Your riding needs to take into account your horse's personality. For example, roly-poly will need to spend a lot more time practicing medium trot and canter than the OTTB. On the other hand, it will take you much longer to establish the first elements of the Training Scale with the hot OTTB type than it will with a quiet horse. (The US Equestrian Federation/US Dressage Federation Training Scale is Rhythm-Relaxation-Contact-Impulsion-Straightness-Collection.)
Once you have determined your horse's general personality, you can plan the exercises you are going to use in his dressage training. Before you start riding, however, I want to make a general comment about the duration of your daily dressage work: If you can't get done what you want in 40 minutes or less, it is not going to happen today. That you may have failed with your horse is not as important as the lessons you draw from that failure. If you aren't able to improve your horse during your training period, pat him on the neck and take him for a hack while you plan how you will improve your approach the next time you practice dressage.
If you are riding that OTTB I mentioned earlier, your daily dressage school will go better if you take him for a hack before you start. Conversely, roly-poly might be better off going straight to the dressage arena. His attitude will usually be more active earlier in the work period. He can go "walkies" after he practices his leg-yielding.
Plan your dressage work carefully. Before you start training each day, know what you are trying to achieve. For instance, if your horse is getting low scores in his leg-yielding, you need to improve his response to your lateral aids. So you want to spend more time schooling turns on the forehand; once his basic response to lateral aids is better, you can practice leg-yielding.
But here's a tip: Before starting to train, I almost always (you never always do anything with horses) loosen my horse up on long or loose reins. His relaxation must come first. It is extremely difficult to teach an excited horse anything. Once I am sure he is relaxed, I will usually move to lateral work. This lateral work can include turns on the forehand, turns on the haunches, leg-yielding or shoulder-in. All of these movements are excellent suppling exercises and serve to put my horse to the outside rein, which is where I need him if the rest of my session is to go well.
Here again, it helps to know your horse. If you are riding roly-poly, instead of practicing your lateral work after your relaxation, go straight from your relaxing work to medium trot work. (This relaxation period won't take long with roly-poly, considering you have to hold a mirror under his nose to make sure he is still breathing.)
Everything we do in training our horses has good and bad qualities, and we need to be aware of both. Lateral work is wonderful for suppling, but it can make some horses lose impulsion. Medium trot and canter are excellent means to increase impulsion but can make some OTTBs agitated and irregular. You can train your way around these problems if you know and understand your horse and develop a training regimen that suits him.
The same holds true in your show-jumping work. Your OTTB needs a healthy dose of calm, poised gymnastic work from the trot, to improve his show jumping while maintaining his mental equilibrium. Roly-poly needs more work at the canter and will probably thrive if you jump several fences in a row. Jumping one fence at a time, or "stop-and-go traffic," will help an OTTB, but it can be difficult for roly-poly to deal with ?because it takes a moment for that type of horse to develop his rhythm.
Whatever your focus, avoid doing one thing with your horse to the exclusion of all else. For example, if you do nothing but gymnastics, your horse will not be well prepared to do a course at your next event. By the same reasoning, roly-poly will never realize his full jumping potential unless you expose him to some gymnastic jumping. It is up to you to develop training and conditioning programs that produce your particular horse fit and ready for the challenge of the next competition.
I mentioned earlier that I am asked, "How much is enough?" on a regular basis. And the follow-up question is usually, "How much/how often should I gallop my horse?" The answer to "how often" is usually to follow the rotations I explained earlier. My usual answer to how much your horse should gallop goes something like this: In general, I like my Novice and Training horses to be slow cantering a total of 12 minutes, usually broken into three four-minute sets, at 350-400 meters per minute. (See "Learn Galloping Speeds," page 25.) Preliminary horses should be doing 18 minutes of slow canter at 400 m/m, again broken into three sets. I like for my Intermediate and Advanced horses to do 24 minutes of slow canter every five days. I call these "maintenance works," and they will usually stay at this level of exercise throughout the competitive season.
About 30 days before an FEI destination event (e.g., Rolex, Jersey Fresh, Rebecca Farm, Fair Hill) I will usually shorten the duration of the gallops and increase either the speed or the incline. I prefer to increase the incline because it is a safer form of galloping exercise and helps to keep your horse sound.
Naturally, you have to develop your horse's cardiovascular capacity over time. It will take you at least six to eight weeks to build your horse up to doing 24 minutes of slow canter exercise. Here again, it's essential to understand your horse as you condition him. An OTTB can go to an FEI destination event with a minimum of wind preparation if he has competed two to three times at his level during the months before the event. Roly-poly might need some judicious speed work to make sure he is fit for the extra demands of international competition.
Training eventers is an endlessly interesting and absorbing task for me. The complexity of the sport and the endless variation of horses make for a lifelong learning process, and learning something new every day about horses is one of a horseman's greatest thrills.
The article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of Practical Horseman.