The days are getting longer, horses are shedding hair and everyone is thinking about summer riding sports! Before we can start competing, it's important to evaluate our horse's fitness(...and yours...) and improve it!
Every Spring when I see jumping clinics and barrel races advertised I just cringe. Though some of us ride all winter, the vast majority of riders in colder climates put their horses out to pasture in November and don't ride again until March. When Spring arrives, they are anxious to get out and ride, as we all are! The problem is asking horses to do things they are not fit to do. Injuries in the Spring and early summer are a common occurrence due in large part to horses being ridden too hard for their fitness level.
At Heart T Ranch, we strictly adhere to the rule of one week of conditioning for every week a horse is off to bring them back to full fitness. For horses off longer than 90 days, we do a minimum of 90 days of systematic conditioning before asking the horse do anything too taxing. For example, last year I traded Sydney Anderson a nice warmblood gelding for the large pony she had outgrown. My year got crazy and "Faye" was off work for almost 8 months. I brought her back to condition her last October. I rode through January, about 3 1/2 months of good conditioning work. I had jumped twice through some very small gymnastic lines when the weather turned ugly in February. She had 3 weeks completely off. I have now been riding her again for 3 weeks and am just starting back with those low gymnastic lines again. She will not exceed 2'6" in height until at least June. Some may say this is overkill. Maybe they are right, but I'm not about to risk my horse's soundness to find out!
Trot Sets - the Basics of Good Conditioning
Trot sets are the basis of a solid conditioning program. Paired with a lot of walking on varied terrain, you have a full-body workout! Unfortunately, not everyone has access to hills to walk up and down or varied terrain of any kind. That's where we add things like cavaletti to supplement the conditioning. That's a topic for another Blog. Let's talk about how to do Trot Sets!
For the purpose of this article, let's say your horse has been off for 90 days through the winter. Walking is a fantastic way to build fitness and most riders don't do much of it. Alternating periods of walking with gradually increasing periods of trotting are the best way to systematically strengthen your horse and increase endurance. The walk periods also give you a chance to evaluate your horse's respiration and determine how well he is coping with the amount of exercise you are doing.
(An Endurance Horse passing pre-ride inspection in Pisa, Italy 2019.) I had the pleasure of working the World Youth Endurance Championship in Pisa Italy in September 2019. Endurance horses are the most fit horses you will ever encounter. Horses competing at this level undergo rigorous inspection before and during competition to ensure their welfare. There are some great books written on endurance fitness training that are well worth the read for all riders! Two of them are:
1) Go the Distance: The Complete Resource for Endurance Riders Hardcover – September 1, 1997 by Nancy S. Loving https://www.amazon.com/Go-Distance-Complete-Resource-Endurance/dp/1570760446/ref=sr_1_5?crid=3TIHCOL88DQEE&dchild=1&keywords=endurance+riding&qid=1584652462&s=books&sprefix=endurance+riding%2Caps%2C282&sr=1-5
2)The Complete Guide to Endurance Riding and Competition (Howell Reference Books) Hardcover – April 1, 1998 by Donna Snyder-Smith
All Trotting is not Created Equal...
In the western world, you'll hear people talk about "long trotting" their horse. Let me translate that for you..."I'm going to trot my horse on a slack rein, unbalanced and hollow in the back until he sweats." I was raised on a ranch, grew up in rodeo and have shown a lot of reining and cutting. I'm no stranger to Western disciplines. What I can tell you is that we do not "long trot" our Western horses to condition. We ride the horse in BALANCE at a consistent tempo in order for the horse to use his body CORRECTLY, building the muscles he needs to do whatever sport he is in training for. Conditioning is one place where Western riders can learn from English riders. We'll talk later about things English riders can learn from Western riders...
For now, let's talk specifics about fitness sets!
90 Day Fitness Outline
There are entire books written on the topic of fitness, but here is an idea of what a 90 Day fitness/training program might look like for a horse that is coming off a winter break. Always begin your season with a wellness exam by your Veterinarian and consult them on appropriate dental care, vaccination and worming. Also keep in mind any physical or health related limitations your horse has when developing a fitness routine. Your Vet is your best resource when making decisions on these issues!
- Day 1: Walk 45 minutes (outside in the field or mild terrain if possible)
- Day 2: Walk 10 minutes then do 1 minute trot, 1 minute walk sets (10 sets, 5 on each diagonal)Finish with 15-20 minutes walk
- Day 3: Repeat Day 2
- Day 4: 45 minute Walk (add in some walk leg yields during your ride)
- Day 5: Repeat Day 2
- Day 6: Rest or Ride at the Walk
- Day 7: Rest
- Day 1: 30 minutes Walk, Trot sets of Trot 2 minutes, Walk 1(10 sets, 5 each diagonal or 3 each diagonal and 4 sets in half seat) Finish with 10 minutes walk
- Day 2: Repeat Day 1
- Day 3: Walk 45 minutes-60 minutes on varied terrain if available or in the field. Walk lateral work, turn on haunches, turn on forehand, etc.
- Day 4: Repeat Day 1 with all Trot done in half seat
- Day 5: Repeat Day 1 with 3 sets on each diagonal, 4 sets half seat.
- Day 6: Walk 45-60 minutes or Rest add in walk lateral exercises, walk,halt, walk, other obedience type work.
- Day 7: Rest
- Day 1: Walk 15 minutes then Trot 3 minutes walk 1 minute (10 sets, 5 on each diagonal) cool out walk 15 minutes
-Day 2: Walk 10 minutes to Warm up, Walk/Trot Circle Work with some trot lateral work and transitions, walk cool down
- Day 3: Walk 10 minutes, Repeat Day 1 with half the trot sets in half-seat
-Day 4: Walk 10 minutes then Repeat Day 2, walk cool down
- Day 5: Repeat Day 3
- Day 6: Ride outside at Walk 45-60 minutes or Rest
- Day 7: Rest
- Day 1: Walk 10 minutes then Trot 2 minutes, Canter 1 minute, Walk 1-2 minutes (5-6 sets) Walk cooldown
-Day 2: Schooling (very little canter)
- Day 3: Repeat Day 1
- Day 4: Schooling (Very little canter)
- Day 5: Walk outside 45-60 minutes
- Day 6 Repeat Day 1 or Rest
- Day 7: Rest
- Condition 3 days per week, increasing sets to 3 minutes Trot, 2 minutes canter. Increase weekly as fitness allows. Continue to add half seat for YOUR fitness!
- Add schooling figures in 3-5 days per week, but maintain focus on developing fitness
- As the horse becomes more fit, Continue to increase the difficulty of schooling exercises and fitness sets. Consult a professional trainer for more detailed lesson plans or subscribe to The Unfiltered Equestrian Insider for detailed plans!