Fitness to Perform
All athletes need to undergo some form of training programme in preparation for their chosen sport. Horses are, fortunately, natural athletes with capabilities far superior to most other mammals. However, to unlock all this potential there must still be a planned training programme to achieve the desired results. This is where skill becomes involved in producing a horse fit enough to do its individual job whilst subjecting them to minimal wear and tear on the way and avoiding injury or breakdown.
Whatever the chosen discipline a training programme must include some or all of the following:
- Increased Stamina
- Increased Speed
- Increased muscular strength
- Delay the onset of fatigue
- Reduce the risk of musculoskeletal breakdown
- Improve biomechanical skill and neuromuscular co-ordination
On top of all this it is imperative to maintain the horse’s willingness to work.
Remember, however, that you can only ever optimise your horse’s natural potential. If the horse is inherently unsuited to the job it will never be an Olympic champion!
The following pages aim to expand on some of the general principles and ideas discussed in the talk to suggest some possible training programmes for individual disciplines.
- How long will it take? – depends on your starting point
- How fit does the horse need to be? – depends on the desired end point
- Where do we start?
Long Slow Distance
Whatever the horse’s eventual occupation and whatever the starting point all horses should undergo a period of long slow distance (LSD) work.
This can take anything from 3-12 months when starting with a young horse that has just started work reducing to 1 month for a horse returning to work after an injury free rest period.
Long slow distance also plays an important role in rehabilitation after injury with slow progress and specific consideration for the injured area.
The basis of LSD is hacking and work in an arena, ideally a combination of both. Other exercise can be used in the form of horse walkers, treadmills, swimming and lunging but in limited amounts.
A young horse will start with 3-4 days a week for 10-15 mins at a time, mostly in walk and some trot. Over time the duration and intensity should increase keeping the heart rate less than 140 beats/min. Gradually the time can be increased up to one hour with canter introduced as well. The aim is to achieve an hours work in walk, trot and canter at an average speed of 6-8km/hour.
Older horses may well reach this point much sooner. It is then time to move on to more discipline specific training.
LSD – avoid arena work only. It is vitally important that the horse is introduced to a variety of terrains and the use of gradients as part of their training programme.
The aim is to improve the dressage horse’s ability to perform for longer, i.e. longer tests, a long arena or more tests. This involves increasing the amount of time spent in trot and canter with the walk work in between as rest periods i.e. a form of interval training. As the amount of time increases the trot/canter work can include increased impulsion and length of stride for periods as well as use of transitions. Walk work can obviously include suppling exercises.
As the horse progresses up through the levels and the tests demand increased intensity of work the training should include some “speed play” such as extended canter work. This needs to be increased progressively to improve the cardiovascular fitness and done once or twice a week to maintain the same level of fitness.
Particularly important as the horse progresses through to medium work and needs to be repeated once or twice a week. Discipline specific work would include repetitions of collection and change of pace. However, it is also very useful to include work on gradients and gymnastic jumping over low fences (60-70cm) – increase the loading /number of fences not the height and include bounces. Gradient work should include up and down at slow speeds ensuring the hind limbs are always engaged. Perform highly collected exercises downhill and halts/transitions which works to improve the flexion in the hind legs and make the work that much easier when the horse returns to the flat as well as improving strength and balance.
This is the main part of a dressage horse’s work using turns, circles and lateral work. However it is also important to include cantering up hills, gymnastic jumping and the use of walking and trotting over raised poles.
LSD – can be expected to take 6-12 months with a young horse and note that a warmblood will take longer than a thoroughbred to achieve the same level of fitness.
A novice show jumper will perform predominantly aerobically but as the length of course increases and the height of the fences increases or it is a speed class the horse may need to perform anaerobically. In addition a jumper needs energy to overcome inertia and lift off the ground.
Hence interval training 3 times a week, predominantly in canter, as this is the sport specific pace, is required to improve the fitness level. Initially use a 1:1 ratio of canter: walk starting at 2mins of each and gradually increasing the time and speed. Also as the time of each interval increases use acceleration/deceleration speed play within the canter period.
Once the horse moves onto open classes increase the speed play to include sharper acceleration/deceleration, more speed and gradient work. The walk intervals should include suppling exercises.
Gymnastic jumping as interval training will also increase the cardiovascular fitness.
This needs to be two to three times per week once the LSD has been completed. For a horse jumping up to 1 metre they only have to tuck up their legs. Higher than 1 metre they have to lift their centre of gravity. Hence use grid work/gymnastic jumping with smaller fences progressing to larger and varying the distances. Put the fences on a curve to help horses with a weaker side.
As strength training is a very sport specific part of this discipline even an experienced show jumper needs to be schooled over fences once a week to maintain strength.
Use gradients – slow uphill canter to increase propulsion and slow downhill canter for balance on gradual gradients. For horses with a weaker side work across the gradient with the weaker leg uphill.
Routine schooling work including turns/circles and lateral work. Bounding up steeper gradients – fast canter and gymnastic jumping all increase the ability to “snap up”, maximise scapula movement and supple the back as long as the horse performs these exercises with a rounded outline. Walk downhill steep gradients.
Unique problem as this involves multiple disciplines within one sport.
LSD – needs to take place over several months and probably 6-12 months for a young horse, including gentle gradients at the end. A sound horse coming back from a short layoff can complete the LSD in 2 months. If the horse does not have a complete break then there is no need for further LSD work. It is probably better for the horse’s long term soundness to not have the oscillations in fitness that occurs if the horse is given time completely off work.
It should take around 18-24 months to produce a novice event horse. Although the cardiovascular fitness can be achieved sooner it is at the expense of the strength training and hence is likely to compromise soundness.
An eventer has to canter and gallop so to increase the aerobic fitness work has to be done at canter and gallop. Interval training is ideal galloping initially at 400m/min with trot as the rest period in a 1:2 ratio of gallop: trot. Start initially at 3 times a week with 2 sets of 2mins:4mins. Increase the distance not the speed. This can then increase to 3 gallop sets of 5 mins each at which point you can incorporate sprints up to 600m/min within the set using the acceleration/deceleration as part of the work.
To improve the ability to overcome inertia gradients, steps and banks can also be incorporated into the routine in a 1:6 ratio.
As the horse progresses to intermediate and advanced the work programme has to increase further to include 3-4 workouts over a 2 week period. It is important to vary the speed, distance and load but studies have shown that gallop periods of more than 8 minutes are not beneficial.
At all times with this sort of work be very aware of fatigue and consider the use of heart rate monitors to help monitor progress.
Cross country training involves hills and gradients so it is important to include this. Gradients using the uphill as the work part of the interval training in canter and the downhill in walk as the rest as well as grids needs to be done 2-3 times /week initially and then once a week for maintenance. Gymnastic jumping needs to be once or twice a week to maintain strength. Down and immediately up a step introduced gradually is very good strength training as is steps up.
Dressage movements are an obvious part of the suppling process as well as specific training and are good preparation for the variable ground met on the cross country course. Walk and trot work over raised poles is also very useful.
During the competition season conditioning should be at maintenance between competitions. Integrate different types of work and vary on different days so as to avoid the risk of overloading.
Peak and Taper
The horse cannot be kept at the same high point throughout the competition season especially at the higher levels. At the lower levels reducing the workload 5 days before competition is adequate. At higher levels reduce the amount of slow galloping done and increase the speed play in the 2-3 weeks pre-event with the last serious piece of work done 5-10 days before competition.
Post competition rest for 2-3 days then drop the conditioning off for 2-3 weeks before rebuilding.
LSD – should take approximately 6 months and include riding and driving. Ridden work can eventually include cantering. Towards the end of the period include gradients initially under saddle and then progress to harness.
This can take the form of interval training about 3 times per week with one ridden and 2 in harness. Aiming for trot work at 7-9mph in a 1:1 ratio walk: trot initially for 2 mins each then gradually increasing the time and eventually increasing the speed. Eventually should be aiming for 1 longer and 2-4 shorter periods in harness over a 2 week period with 9mph trotting for 15 minute periods.
It is important to vary the terrain such as sandy, muddy and in water for short periods once in each 2 week cycle. Gradients are important but beware too much downhill.
Ridden work can include some periods of slow galloping on gradual inclines.
This is best achieved whilst the horse is being driven and is mainly accomplished by increasing the weight of the vehicle pulled. Ensure the vehicle is balanced correctly with the weight being increased to 30-50% more than the weight pulled in competition. Hills are also useful and strength training should be 2-3 times/week.
Predominantly achieved by dressage movements both under saddle and sport specific in harness
Beware one sided adaptation in horses that are driven in pairs or teams – the ability to work equally on either side is very important especially in a reserve horse.
Endurance Riding / Racing
Almost any horse can be conditioned to compete in endurance rides up to 50 miles in a day. Beyond this less suitable types struggle with the increased speeds and the required recovery rates especially in hot humid conditions.
Cardiovascular training over a period of 3-4 years is required to produce a horse to do a 100 mile race ride in a day with good aerobic fitness critical.
LSD – this is therefore the mainstay baseline of work for an endurance horse and as the level moves up to longer faster race rides this then includes the more intense aerobic work such as interval training and speed work.
An endurance horse never needs to train over the equivalent miles as human marathon runners.
As for eventers it is best not to stop work in the off season totally.
Initially ride every other day in both walk and trot, gradually increasing the amount of trot and introducing canter. Limit the total mileage in one ride to 45km in the first season. There is a high incidence of suspensory ligament damage if the mileage level is built up too quickly.
Increase the amount of both up and down hills although care with too much downhill. Working towards 5 work periods in a 2 week cycle including one longer slower ride. At this point start to increase faster gallop periods.
When the horse can do 30km at 13kph then he is ready for the first 40km ride.
Hill work is ideal in an interval training format but beware too much trot work uphill. Initially this should be twice weekly and then once per week to maintain, interspersed with cardiovascular training. Use the downhill as the rest phase with the work to rest in a 1:6 ratio.
Schooling, lunging and pole work is excellent suppling work, an often neglected part of an endurance horses training.
Polo / Gymkhana Sports
These are all fast moving sports requiring speed and agility with frequent acceleration/deceleration and change of directions. Hence the cardiovascular training is critical after LSD.
LSD – produces a pony that can work for 50 mins including 2-3 min periods of canter at 350-400 m/min and will take approx. 6 months starting from scratch.
Aiming to increase the intensity of the work done to include interval training 3 times /week. This is done with a canter: walk ratio of 1:1 using canter at a speed of 350m/min initially for 2mins each. Initially the time is increased then the number of sets and then the speed until the pony can do 3 sets of 3 minute intervals at 400m/min.
At this point short 100m sprints are included in each set increasing to 3/set and then varying the distance of the sprint.
From this point move onto standing starts up to 200m with a walk rest on a 1:6 cycle with suppling exercise in the walk periods. This would start with 2 moving up to a maximum of 10 in any one work period.
Inertial drills with change of directions included as well as variation in speed also critical for conditioning as it strengthens bones/ligaments/tendons to withstand the forces applied during play.
Critical for improving acceleration and the ability to withstand competition in a ride off. Steep uphill gradients used in an interval training format generally good in a 1:6 ratio canter uphill: walk down.
This is critical for this type of work as animals have to be supple to be able to withstand injury. Plenty of circles/turns and lateral movements are required initially at slow speed and then at faster paces to encourage athleticism.
FOR ALL DISCIPLINES NEVER FORGET ALL COMPONENTS OF ANY DAILY WORKOUT:
- Warm up
- Warm down
- Cool down
Finally remember that conditioning/fitness programmes are not a one size fits all.
Be guided by your own horse and how he is responding and if in doubt back off and re-evaluate progress.