Conditioning the event horse
Every year it gets to the three day and I’m shocked by the number of horses that just look tired and stiff at the second trot up. And I don’t think it’s that riders don’t care about getting their horses fit and conditioned, I think it’s because a lot of them just don’t know what is required.
Firstly, just because a horse is fit, does not mean that it is conditioned to do the task required of it. Fitness means “the condition of being physically fit and healthy” but being conditioned is “to bring something into the desired state for use” and involves not only being fit but creating a process whereby a response becomes more frequent or predictable in a given environment as a result of reinforcement. In eventing this involves not only aerobic and anaerobic fitness but muscular conditioning, bone density training, behavioural conditioning as well as making sure that your diet, feet, teeth etc have the ability to also support the horse.
With eventing it gets a little bit more difficult then dressage or show jumping as the horse is required to complete three different phases. The event horse is unique in that it must possess the finesse to complete gymnastic moves in dressage tests, the endurance and skill to perform long-distance gallops over cross-country obstacles, and the dexterity to negotiate show jumps in an arena. These horses are multitalented and must integrate both aerobic and anaerobic energy pathways to fuel their muscles.
When conditioning the event horse, you should have their daily work schedule and then a tailored schedule 6-8wks out from the event. This schedule with target aspects of the individual competition that you are aiming for, such as is it a short format or long format, are there hills, what are the ground conditions like. Every event is not the same.
Even when starting at the bottom level it is important to condition your horse right from the start. Long walks and trots peppered with short canter stints is a great way to start, plus the incorporation of hills is integral if you are wishing to compete on non flat surfaces.
The same is to be said for gallop training and jump schooling. If you want your horse to ace the cross country, then you need to know before the competition, that it can canter for the length of time required whilst jumping the required number of obstacles with a gallop stretch in the middle and be able to have a reasonable recovery in terms of heart rate and temperature. Learning this at the event is not enough.
Even in the 65cm, if all you do with your horse is flatwork and SJ lessons, then how do you expect it to go XC for 5mins and jump 21 obstacles and be completely ok. Because what we see on the outside, doesn’t mean that we have not caused some sort of damage on the inside, whether it be small bleeds, micro tears of muscles, ligament strains etc
In order to support your horse through their conditioning, you also need to make sure that their feet are looked after properly with appropriate shoes for all three phases, that their diet is adequate to support them in terms of protein, energy, fats etc and that they are well muscled and a healthy weight.
The likelihood of injury and health concerns is massively reduced when the horse is fit and conditioned. And if you don’t know where to start there are heaps of resources on the internet about good fitness and conditioning programs for horses at every level.
The fundamentals of fitness for eventing are simple though:
- Endurance-building “roadwork.”
Strengthening bones, muscles and other soft tissues requires many miles of long, slow distance work. The bulk of this should be done at the walk, both in the lead-up to the competition season and during it. I recommend walking a total of at least 20 to 30 minutes daily four days a week, in part depending on your horse’s turnout situation. The more turnout he has, the less walking is necessary. If your horse is stabled or in a small paddock then walking six days a week is a must.
This “roadwork” can be done on trails, roads, pastures and even in the ring, incorporated into your regular training rides. Start every schooling session with at least 10 minutes of walking on a loose rein and finish with another 10 to 15 minutes, giving your horse time to relax and think about what he just did. You can even do it on a walker for the non riding days.
This is one of the best ways to strengthen your horse’s muscles, improve his balance and increase cardiovascular fitness. If you’re lucky enough to have access to hills, gradually incorporate hillwork into the walk/trot sets. Again, work with your trainer to determine the suitable amount and frequency of hillwork for your specific horse. Use common sense. If your horse is struggling on the hills in competition, consider increasing the frequency of hillwork sessions at home.
Walk, trot and canter both up and down the hills, you won’t get the opportunity to come back to walk at a competition. Even go across the side of the hill if you can.
- Speedwork, or “gallops.”
Incorporating this into your horses program is essential for developing your horse’s cardiovascular fitness and getting both of you accustomed to the cross-country speed you’ll be traveling at in competition. Before initiating any jumping or speedwork, your horse must have a solid foundation of at least three to five weeks of walk/trot/canter sets under their belt. Most trainers use intervals: galloping at a precise speed for a certain number of minutes, then walking for several minutes, then repeating the cycle. As with walk and trot sets, gradually lengthen the gallop sets as your horse’s fitness improves. For example, you may start with three one-minute canter sets with two minutes of walking in between, then eventually progress to three two-minute sets with one minute in between. My horses gallop once every five days but, again, this frequency should be customized to suit your horse’s specific needs.
All event horses should school on the flat and over fences regularly to keep the muscles and coordination required for those skills in tune. How frequently you school either discipline, depends on what most needs improvement. This can vary from week to week or competition to competition.
One of the goals of both dressage and jump schools is to improve your horse’s rideability. There’s a difference between having a fit, rideable horse and one who runs away with you. Rideability matters even more when your horse begins to tire on course. Being able to get him in front of your leg and in a balanced shape is essential for safe jumping, and having the horse be able to complete the movements of the dressage test with little effort will reduce the stress at test time.
During your workload, pay close attention to how your horse feels. Do they tend to swing their haunches to one direction or the other? Is it hard to keep them straight, are they favouring one side more than the other, or struggling on hills. Discuss any concerns with your therapist and/or veterinarian.
- Time off.
Last but by no means least, and one of the most important things all event horses need is breaks, for both their mental and physical health. If possible, I recommend giving your horse at least an entire day off every week.
I also recommend giving every event horse a holiday at the end of the season—at least two weeks for lower-level horses and longer for upper-level horses. In just two weeks, your horse won’t lose much fitness, but it will do their brain a lot of good. They’ll come back to work fresher and more enthusiastic about the job.
If your break is longer than two weeks, use common sense easing back into your conditioning program. Just as you wouldn’t run 10km’s on the treadmill after a holiday, don’t ask your horse to do any intense dressage, jumping or speedwork right away. Start with a 20-minute walk trail ride, then gradually build on that over time.