Yesterday I covered exercises and a plan for your own fitness as a rider. Now here’s something else to think about ~ your horse. Yes, that has been done here as well, but there can never be too much of an emphasis on fitness and the conditioning of your horse. This time I'm taking the topic even further.
Every day, every ride, with every horse, I will spend the requisite grooming session making sure all is well and everything is completely normal. What’s considered normal for one horse, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean the same as what’s normal for the next horse, so I start by gaining an understanding of each horse as an individual. In fact, I have a whole rigmarole for preparing my horses for a day’s work, beginning with my "Daily Grooming Process” that I've also written about before. During this time I can make sure there are no obvious changes or differences, injuries or anything off about the horse from outward appearances. I’ll note any scrapes, cuts, dings, swelling keeping track of them for treatment and to see if anything worsens as well as when they heal or improve, because during grooming I have a chance to get my hands all over him.
With show horses, we all know (or at least we should know) the difference between a fit horse and one that’s out of condition. Nothing looks worse than an unthrifty, out of breath mount huffing and puffing around the show ring dripping in sweat. But there’s a simple way to prevent such a thing by making sure your horse is in shape long before he sets foot on that trailer bound for the showgrounds.
My conditioning program consists of longeing to start, then I’ll add in bitting while longeing and for some (most, actually) show horses I’ll move to longlining work ~ otherwise known as ground driving.
Assuming the horse in question was either recently pulled out of a back pasture or otherwise has had a long time off work, we’ll start with the very basics. First up, the grooming process where we can begin gauging normalcy for this individual horse. Longeing time will consist of two or three minutes of warmup time at the walk (a good, brisk walk at that, no lollygagging), then ten minutes of solid, forward trotting, five minutes each direction. I’ll finish up with another 2-3 minutes of walking each way to cool him out. If the arena, round pen or wherever you’re longeing him has nice, soft footing, that work time can be split between the trot and canter. After the first few days I’ll increase the longeing time in five to ten minute increments making my way up to a 45 minute workout per horse over the course of six weeks or so.
By the time I’m longeing for 30 minutes per work session and have been doing so for a good two weeks, I’ll begin following up with a little bit of light riding, consisting of large circles, bending and flexing, just an easy ten minutes of walking and jogging or trotting without asking for any collection or much of a headset at all. The idea is to give the horse’s body more of an understanding about why we’re fitting him, a little bit of a tuneup before launching into full scale training workouts.
After that first six weeks I’ll spend more time at the canter while longeing and pare down the free longe time, adding the bitting rig. For instance, and he’ll be fully outfitted with the rig from the start, I will free longe for five minutes each direction to soften his muscles and get him loosened up and ready for harder work, then bit lightly for another five minutes each way before finishing with five minutes both directions with the horse slightly bent toward the inside before saddling. Note that I do not counter bend my horses on the longeline, ever. With some horses, I’ll alternate working them in longlines rather than just bitting to longe, but for most owners, doing so would depend on their skill level and confidence in knowing how to ground drive a horse safely (another issue that I've covered here before).
Even once I’ve gotten the horse fit to my standards, I’ll spend 20 minutes longeing ~ my general rule of thumb is to free longe five minutes each way, then longe lightly bitted up to the saddle each way -- before I climb aboard. While each horse, like us as riders, will be different, some take longer than others, following a dedicated game plan is the only way to ensure you have a well conditioned horse who will shine in the show ring.
Knowing your horse, knowing his strong points and his weak points, will go a long way toward understanding what it’s going to take in order to be sure he’s as well conditioned as the rest of his competition.
Here's my quick "Must-Have Fitness & Wellness Checklist":
1) Groom your horse thoroughly to note anything abnormal such as cuts, scrapes, abrasions of any sort, heat or swelling, especially on the legs.
2) Begin each work session slowly and observe your horse’s gaits to notice any variation in his movement or any lameness issues.
3) Always start your work sessions with a well defined plan of action in order to optimize your horse’s level of fitness and follow it to the letter unless there is a specific reason to alter your plan.
4) Never ask your horse to do more than they are physically capable of or push them before they are ready, to prevent soundness issues.
Eat, sleep, ride and we'll see you in the show ring next year!