Gearing Up for Spring

A horse can lend its rider the speed and strength he or she lacks, but the rider who is wise remembers it is no more than a loan. ~Pam Brown

In the summer of 2011, I had my first opportunity to instruct a student on the art of conditioning a sport horse. I had torn the tendons in my ankle and needed someone to keep Doc in peak condition so that we would be ready for the winter foxhunting season together. My student, Libby, earned the job and she commenced learning about trot sets, gallop sets, rest days, hack days, dressage days, and pace. You might think that conditioning a horse is easy, but getting the most out of this training method requires a lot more planning than most people realize.

I myself did not truly learn the in-depth nature of conditioning a horse until I began eventing and foxhunting. Before that, conditioning a horse was no more difficult than showing up at least three times a week to ride in the arena and practice our lessons. An occasional break to hack out was a welcome mental vacation for both of us, but not a time meant for building endurance or strength. More than even eventing, foxhunting changed all of that. A drag hunt is a fast-paced event that can require a horse to work over varying terrain for as long as three hours. The majority of that time will be spent covering ground in a trot or gallop and will include jumping for anyone riding first flight. The poorly conditioned horse will not only be winded and lathered after only the first run, but is also more prone to injuries as it tires. This was all the motivation I needed to get in gear and learn about conditioning ASAP!

Base Line

The most important step to getting started is knowing your horse’s base line fitness level. Your fitness level is important too! It will be hard to perform 30 minutes of trot/gallop sets three days a week if you’ve only be riding once a week up to this point, after all.

To get started, ask yourself these questions:

  • How often are you riding?
  • What are you doing during these rides? Arena work? Trail riding?
  • How often do you take a break during your work, and how long is the break?
  • Do you work hard enough to make your horse sweat? Elevate his respiration?
  • How long does it take for your horse to recover?

Once you have these basic questions answered, you’re ready to get started. If you and your horse have been couch potatoes all winter, a good starting point is being able to do 15 minutes of continuous arena work without taking a break. This can include some walking, so long as it has purpose and is only intermittently interspersed with your trot and canter work.

Getting Started

Conditioning can benefit anyone, but is especially beneficial to serious trail riders, eventers, foxhunters, western gamers, and endurance horses. Conditioning is not about galloping for stretches and stretches at a time. It is about building your horse’s endurance, aerobic capabilities, and strength (and yours!). You will begin by doing short trot/walk sets and building from this point. You also won’t condition every riding day. Your horse needs at least one day of rest between conditioning days in order to recover and build strength.

First, you will want to evaluate how fit you want your horse. We all know that an unfit horse can be a hazard to himself and his rider once he becomes over-tired, but an over fit horse can be his own kind of hazard. Over fit horses can become difficult to handle and maintain. It is not necessary for a Novice level event horse to be as fit as an Advanced level event horse, or even as a Preliminary level event horse. Then, you’ll want to draw up a schedule and be ready to stick to it. Do not commit to more riding days than you can reasonably manage in your schedule! In years past I have always ridden my horses six days a week and so have developed a schedule for that kind of work. This year, as a new mother, I have less time to ride and I will be scaling back my conditioning schedule and my expectations for my horse’s fitness.

On a six day schedule, my riding week looked like this:

  • Day 1: Conditioning-trot sets
  • Day 2: Dressage school
  • Day 3: Conditioning-trot and gallop sets
  • Day 4: Dressage school
  • Day 5: Conditioning-trot and gallop sets
  • Day 6: Jump school or trail ride
  • Day 7: Rest

On a three day schedule, my riding week looks like this:

  • Day 1: Conditioning-trot sets
  • Day 2: Dressage school or jump school
  • Day 3: Conditioning-trot and gallop sets

Obviously, it will take much longer to achieve a certain degree of fitness on the three day schedule than it would on the six day schedule, but you must adjust your schedule to something that is reasonable for you.

What Does a Conditioning Day Look Like?

When I do my trot atrotnd gallop sets, I use our farm’s 3/8 mile race track to mark off sets. If you do not have a per-determined distance like this, you will do best to use a watch with a stopwatch and alarm features. When I first begin conditioning, assuming that my horse is not terribly fit, I will begin by walking with purpose and getting Doc to stretch over the top line. We complete one lap this way as a warm up, and then I begin the trot sets. In the very beginning we trot once in each direction and then walk out to cool off. The distance covered at a trot this way is 3/4 of a mile, and total distance covered is  1.5 miles. In this phase, I won’t even introduce gallop sets because I don’t want to overtire my horse. On a three day a week schedule, I will have to repeat this pattern for two to three weeks before adding distance. In my case, I try to add distance by multiples of two so that I can balance out going to the left and going to the right–this is important: be sure to condition your horse in both directions, on both diagonals, and both leads! Failure to do so will result in an uneven horse!

So, in phase two I am ready to trot two laps in each direction after a one lap walking warm up. If my horse seems to be tiring after the first two laps I allow him a walk break somewhere between one full lap and half a lap, decreasing the walk break as he becomes more fit. Once my horse is able to perform this set without any walk breaks, I am ready to move on to phase 3 where I will add gallop sets. Again, I personally add gallop sets in multiples of two so that I may go one lap in each direction.

Phase 3 consists of one walk lap, a trot lap, and gallop lap, reverse, a trot lap, a gallop lap, cool out walk. At this point I will walk until my horse is no longer winded. It is important to take note of how long it takes your horse to recover. Ideally, I want my horse’s respiration to return to normal in one lap or less. When this happens, I am ready to add more distance and sustained sets in both trot and gallop.

If you are using a stopwatch rather than mile markers, a good starting point is trot for two minutes at a forward pace, walk with purpose for one minute. If your horse struggles with this format, make the walk set two minutes long and work toward getting it down to one minute. Once she can complete this phase, you can begin adding canter or gallop sets. That phase would look like this:

  • Trot two minutes
  • Canter/Gallop two minutes
  • Trot two minutes
  • Walk two minute
  • Repeat for 30 minutes

If that is too strenuous for your horse, take a walk break after the first gallop set and begin again from the top after that. I’d also like to point out that the stopwatch method can be useful if you are stuck indoors or in your outdoor arena due to inclement weather or poor footing.

How About Conditioning After an Injury?

Well, glad you asked! *grin*downsized_0502091257 As it so happens, Doc strained his suspensory ligament last September and now I am cautiously easing us back into a conditioning schedule. I began my schedule with purposely walking over hard surfaces such as roads and gravel. I did this so as not to hyper-flex that tendon. Then I began taking longer and longer walks over varied soft terrain. Once he felt totally sure footed over this, we began trot sets on the track. Our first day of conditioning on the track, we did not even trot an entire lap. I would trot up a long side of the track, walk the short side, trot down the other long side, walk the short side. On the second track day, I added a second lap like this.

I also put support boots on his legs, give him a generous walking warm up and cool down, cold hose his legs for 10 to 15 minutes after the ride, and then rub the leg down with Sore No More.

In a month’s time, you and your horse will be considerably more fit than when you started. If you are following the six day schedule, you’ll be well on your way to show-ready fitness, if you aren’t already there (it will depend on your fitness level coming in to this program). If you are following the three day a week schedule, it will probably take another month before you’re ready to tackle tougher tests, but you’ll be laying a good foundation for your horse.

What plans do you have for your horse this spring? Will they include distance conditioning?



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