Peaking Your Horse's Performance

Three leading equine professionals weigh in on maximizing your dressage horse’s athletic performance with perfect timing.
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Knowing your horse and trusting your instincts are the best ways to ensure that your horse is at his peak exactly when you want him to be.

Knowing your horse and trusting your instincts are the best ways to ensure that your horse is at his peak exactly when you want him to be.

If you have plans to compete at a local year-end dressage show or a U.S. Dressage Federation Regional Championship, you are probably focused on working toward that goal. As summer gets underway, you’ll want to start thinking about the next often-overlooked step–getting your horse’s athletic performance to peak for that special competition.

There is no simple formula to peaking as all horses and riders are different, but knowing your horse and trusting your instincts are the best ways to ensure that your horse is in top condition when you want him to be. Playing with different strategies now will help you know the best path to take. Also, working closely with your coach, veterinarian and other members of your team is essential to success.

For this article, U.S. Dressage Technical Advisor Debbie McDonald, Olympian Allison Brock and veterinarian Omar Maher, DV, weigh in to provide insights on peaking your horse’s athletic performance to help you achieve your goals. We will discuss strategies such as timing an ideal break, balancing time in and outside of the ring and closely monitoring potential injuries.

Meet the Experts

Olympic and Pan American medalist, former USEF Developing Dressage coach and recently appointed U.S. Dressage Technical Advisor Debbie McDonald provides a unique perspective on how to help a pair find success in the championship ring. As the personal coach to many elite riders, McDonald is well-versed in preparing horses to perform at their best.

Allison Brock has competed in top competitions around the world and earned a team bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. As a leading U.S. rider, she knows firsthand how to strategically prepare a horse for big events.

Omar Maher, DV, is a world-respected expert in lameness and sports medicine and has practiced in four continents. He is board certified in Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation (ACVSMR), as well as in Equine Surgery (ACVS), and speaks regularly at veterinary conferences both nationally and internationally.

Dr. Omar Maher reminds riders not to overschool their horses in an effort to perfect movements.

Dr. Omar Maher reminds riders not to overschool their horses in an effort to perfect movements.

1. Figure out how much of a break your horse requires in order to peak when needed.

All three experts say that every horse needs some sort of break between the work leading up to the big competition and the competition itself. “Each rider knows his or her horse and will learn more about them throughout the season,” McDonald explains. “If you’ve done two shows with a week in between, did your horse feel really fresh again? Or were there two weeks between, and was that ideal?” Use that as a guide for figuring out when and how much of a break to give your horse.

Dr. Maher says he often sees a lot of riders give their horses a much lighter load of work in the weeks before a championship. At this point, the “horses know what they are doing, so the riders take it very easy on the horses and really try not to train too hard right before this big event.” He adds that “it’s a little trickier for young horses or new pairs because they might still be trying to get to that next step, and it’s hard to reach that point while also giving your horse a break right before a major show.”

In addition to the break itself, you want to figure out what kind of break is best for your horse. Most horses need to do some kind of work “because you have to keep the muscles going and it’s important mentally that they get out, not only in an arena,” McDonald says. At the Global Dressage Festival, “they can hack out on the roads in Florida because they’re all dirt, or you could take them out in fields and gallop them around just to keep their minds fresh and take them away from what they’ve been doing. You’ll find every time that when they come back, they’re ready. And I think that is the key to success and peaking at the right time.”

2. Ensure your horse is in his best physical shape for the competition.

While giving your horse a break is key, you also want to make sure he’s physically fit to do his job. Brock wants to know that her horse could easily run through the entire test he is showing two times without feeling spent or exhausted. “An unfit horse is a tired horse, and a tired horse gets injured,” she explains. “Some horses retain a level of fitness even when not doing a lot, though others require a stringent program of training and cross-training to get them into top performance. My FEI horses get out of their stalls three times a day at a minimum. We usually work them, turn them out, then power-walk them for 30 minutes. On their days off, they still get turned out and power-walked either under tack or in-hand.

“For younger horses, if they are hot, it may be easier to have them less fit, but for a Grand Prix horse, he needs to be extremely fit to get through the possibility of three tests over four days, in addition to the preparation necessary going into a major event,” Brock adds. She also explains that younger Grand Prix horses will gain fitness running through a show and it will get easier to maintain their fitness over time.

Several of McDonald’s horses use an aqua treadmill to build up stamina and strength without putting miles on the legs. Riders who don’t have access to equipment like this can do their arena work, but if they can ride in a field or large arena, they can then “get up in a two-point position and let their horses just canter around and just blow off some energy and get their cardio going,” McDonald says.

Getting out of the arena helps keep both your horse’s body and mind fresh.

Getting out of the arena helps keep both your horse’s body and mind fresh.

3. Avoid pushing your horse for perfection.

In working toward keeping your horse fit, you don’t want to overschool him, especially in one particular area. One mistake that Dr. Maher sees is riders trying too hard to perfect a movement before a big event. If you don’t see the improvement that you want but keep pushing your horse and schooling him, he might end up riding that movement worse than when he started, or he may end up getting injured. Instead, it might be better to take a break. “I think that people have to not get lost in what is one little hiccup in the training and end up doing way too much of it,” Dr. Maher says. For example, your horse might get his tempis, but you want to perfect them, so you keep practicing them and he gets worse.

From a training point of view, you have to be disciplined and know that even if there is still that one little part of the work that you don’t feel you have 100 percent, you can’t “get too stressed about it or continue to do the same thing over and over again,” Dr. Maher says. “You still need to give your horse the chance to mentally and physically be at his best for that show.”

“Knowing your horse is the most important thing you can do,” adds McDonald. “I have unfortunately seen some people lose sight of the long-term in pursuit of the short-term and, in the end, they have a horse that is possibly injured for quite some time. If you get on the horse and something doesn’t feel right, it is important to listen to yourself; your first instinct is usually the right instinct.”

4. Monitor your horse’s health closely to catch and treat any issues early.

As you prepare your horse for the big day, you need to work with your veterinarian to stay on top of his overall health. Dr. Maher says during a competition season in Florida, he’ll watch the horses on the ground every week, seeing how they flex the joints to make sure “that if there is anything starting, we can catch it really early on and prevent anything big from happening. We keep an eye on their shoes, we keep an eye on the training, we keep an eye on their legs, joints, notice any changes to the soft tissue such as swelling or heat or changes in the horse’s gait.” Riders can watch these areas themselves to catch any of these changes, “so that we can take care of it as soon as possible,” Dr. Maher says. “The sooner, the better.”

“Whenever there is a team event, the horses in contention are checked over regularly by both the team’s vet and the rider’s personal vet,” McDonald says. For elite horses, there is a lot of maintenance that goes into helping them stay at that level, such as a physiotherapist who works on the horses. “They are athletes and they need help, especially when you consider that we are sometimes asking them to do things that they really weren’t designed to do,” McDonald adds.

5. Try new therapies well before the big competition.

As you work toward helping your horse be the best he can be, make sure that you try any new therapies well before the big day. Brock tries to figure out what types of therapies work best for each of her FEI horses, including the aqua treadmill, acupuncture, icing after a workout and massage therapy. “The one thing I really try not to do is try a new therapy the week of a show. If for some reason the horse doesn’t like the new program, it can really backfire. I try to figure out a formula for each individual and then adapt accordingly,” she says. She might modify a horse’s plan at a competition, maybe icing his legs twice a day instead of just once, but she introduces completely new therapies well ahead of a competition.

When it comes to creating a plan for your own horse, Dr. Maher emphasizes that it will depend on each unique situation, but you can start by asking three questions: “Does your horse know his job, or is he still learning the necessary skills? Is he a really solid horse, or does he maybe have a few holes that we need to patch or monitor closely? Will the rider need to gain experience and confidence over the season?” Depending on these three parameters, he says, the season’s plans may be really different from one pair to another.

Tips for During and After Competition from U.S. Dressage Technical Advisor Debbie McDonald

  • At a competition, McDonald doesn’t like her students to work their horses hard for more than 30 or 40 minutes, including walk breaks. “I always say if you get the job done and you get it done right, there’s no reason to repeat it. It’s a matter of you and the horse being connected at the right moment and the rider being incredibly accurate.” As a rule, if the rider is warming up for a competition, 20 minutes is ideal.
  • If students have to compete in late afternoon or early evening, McDonald has them ride their horses in the morning long and low so they don’t sit too many hours before the competition.
  • After every big competition, McDonald says their horses are checked and jogged for soundness to see how they fared.
  • McDonald will also give breaks after a major competition. “I usually continue to ride lightly—hacking out, basic walk, trot, canter work. I tend to give my horses up to a week off after a big show and even longer after a championship.” Sometimes that means just turnout, or if they don’t like to be turned out for long periods of time, the horses will be ridden lightly. 

This article was originally published in the Summer 2019 issue of Practical Horseman. 

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