Horses must become athletes first, and only then become dressage specialists. Many horses end up stuck in a training rut because they lack basic physical conditioning, which predisposes them to compromised muscle patterns, soreness, and burnout. Rather than become more efficient and powerful, they become stiffer and shorter in their movement. Riders are often tempted to combat these ruts with further skill refinement or dressage schooling, erroneously assuming they can fine tune their way to progress. But more often than not, horses need more conditioning instead of more schooling.
Drilling dressage movements fails to improve the horse’s conditioning beyond a certain point mainly because of the repetitive movement involved. The neurosensory system dulls if a motion is repeated too frequently.This is why I urge riders to follow what I call the 50/50 rule: 50 percent of riding time gets spent on refining skills, 50 percent gets dedicated to physical conditioning. When planning your riding week, ensure that you do not set about skill refinement only. An equal amount of time should be set aside for fitness and conditioning.
What counts as conditioning?: Anything that taxes a horse’s joint range of motion, or exercises outside his usual schooling routines. These include, but are not limited to: gymnastic ground poles or jumping, exercise on slopes and hills, riding on different footing surfaces (hard ground versus deeper sand), speed play intervals in the arena, galloping, rein-back.
The dressage horse’s skeletal muscles have a remarkable ability to adapt to our demands if properly conditioned. When riders commit one to two days each week solely to improving their horses’ fitness, they help the horse make physiological adaptations like more power output,, resistance to fatigue, and speed of recovery from hard efforts. These changes enhance the precision of locomotion we seek in dressage horses.
Higher degrees of coordination and power develop in the gaits due to more efficient muscle fiber recruitment and also to habituated patterns of motor neurons.
Bear in mind that in orderto gain these physiological adaptations happening at the level of cells, organs, and tissues, an appropriate amount of conditioning stress must be applied consistently over a prolonged period. A horse receiving fewer than four days of training per week lacks the amount of positive stress to create changes.
Riding only two or three sessions per week does not allow the horse’s muscles, nerves, and connective tissues to thoroughly adapt to training at every level, including enzyme changes, muscle fiber conversions, bone remodeling, and more efficient aerobic capacity.
Without all those transformations occurring and the strength to move on, a dressage horse will plateau or get stuck at a certain level of training. Some riders prefer, or only have time, to ride once a week. This is fine so long as, in fairness, they do not expect their horses to improve measurably with such infrequent exercise. Others riders misjudge their horses’ physical state by relying too much on his sweating or respiration rate. While these do play a role in how hard he may or may not be working, it is a small role and an inaccurate marker of fitness. Respiration in particular owes more to shedding heat (due to weather, hair coat, excess weight, or discomfort) than to indicating a horse’s effort or fitness level.
When wanting to increase the rigor of workouts to increase fitness for dressage, avoid making exercises more strenuous. To date, physiological studies have shown that the most effective way to improve aerobic conditioning (the type necessary for dressage), is to increase duration and/or frequency of exercises instead. So, for example, if you already perform a 20-minute workout riding hills each week, you could either add a second day to your schedule or make your existing workout slightly longer. These options will be more beneficial than making your existing workout more intense by riding steeper hills or at faster speeds.
As a general guideline for the duration of workout, aim for a suitable length of time to stress the horse’s muscles but remain at a level of sub-maximal effort (where the horse is not struggling and works with a low heart rate). An average guideline—for horses that have been in a regular exercise program– is to ride for 35-60 minutes. Strive to make oneof your weekly sessions “long workouts” (90 minutes and over).
One of my personal favorite conditioning exercises follows below. Exercise on sloped terrain encourages a horse to use his back as well as shift/adjust his balance without the interference of a rider’s cues. On the descent portion of a sloped circle, the horse’s abdominal muscles engage to balance him. On the ascent, his hip and back muscles engage. Sloped work is also beneficial for asymmetrical horses or ones with a stiff limb as it causes the hind limb on the uphill side of the circle to flex more.
EXERCISE ON A SLOPE
To do this, you will need to find a 20-meter-diameter circle area where the ground rises several feet on one side and slopes downward the same amount on the opposite side of the circle. The footing must be stable and smooth.
How do I do this? Begin by longeing your horse (no side-reins or other restrictive apparatus) at the walk to ensure he is managing his footwork on the uneven ground.
Once he is moving comfortably, pick up a trot around the circle. Keep the tempo slow.
Encourage your horse to stay in a steady rhythm and bend to the inside of the circle.
Be sure to keep the geometry of your circle. A lopsided figure will detract from how the horse uses his body.
Alternate between three minutes of trotting, followed by three minutes of walking, then three minutes of trotting again, etc.
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