Training horses for eventing or dressage is a lot like training human athletes for sports like gymnastics, track or figure skating. Actually, I’d say that training a horse to event is a lot like training a person to do all three of those sports.
Think of yourself as your horse’s coach, because you’re trying to teach him skills and develop the fitness he needs to be able to perform those skills better. On the flat, we do things like leg-yields, shoulder-ins and transitions to develop communication, coordination and strength and suppleness. We jump a wide variety of exercises for the same reasons. And we do trot sets, gallop sets and hills to develop muscle and cardio-vascular fitness.
The work you do with your horse, the exercises you do with him or her, requires strength—strength that doesn’t come from just standing around in a stall or in a 20’ by 20’ paddock. It comes from months and years of training, most especially from progressive training over that period of time.
I’m going to describe to you briefly how I’ve been working to develop strength in three young and promising horses I’m currently competing. We bred two of them—Phoenix Amani, 7, and Phoenix Bellisima, 5—and our farm manager, Roxanne Rainwater, has owned the third, Bravo’s First Class, 6, since he was a weanling. So I’ve been training “Amani” and “Bella” since they were 2, and I’ve been training “Boogie” since he was 3.
Amani and Bella had basically the same program: At 2 I ponied them twice a week, mostly walking and trotting up the fabulous hills we have, and I longed once a week. I did this for about six months, then turned them out for the winter and started them again in the spring under saddle.
Boogie was a stallion until 13 months ago, so I couldn’t pony him. He only got longed until he was going reliably under saddle late in his 3-year-old year.
The three of them have had few similarities in the types of strength I needed to develop or in their other strengths and weaknesses. But I’ve discovered since the middle of last year that my work with all three needed to concentrate a lot more on building power, but that realization came about in very different ways and for rather different reasons.
Amani, a Thoroughbred/Irish Sporthorse mare, progressed nicely through eventing’s three lowest levels as a 4- and 5-year-old, and last year, at 6, she completed six preliminary events with no cross-country jumping faults. But her dressage scores were only middling; she’s a very careful jumper, but we’d lower one to three show jumps; and she seemed uncertain about jumping galloping fences at speed on cross-country.
So in mid-October, my wife, Heather, rode her for the first time and declared her insufficiently responsive to the driving aids and weak behind, particularly in her right hind. So she had three months of dressage boot camp with Heather, concentrating on throughness and on lateral work, on turns on the haunches, and on crisp, correct transitions to develop her physical strength and mental willingness to use it when my driving aids tell her to.
I would also trot her up our hills once a week in draw reins to make sure she was really using her hindquarters and back to push herself up the hill. And in February I started jumping Amani again, emphasizing gymnastic exercises and a lot of trot or canter a jump, halt or walk, do a turn on the forehand or on the haunches, then trot or canter immediately and in balance back to the jump.
The result? Amani now looks like a body builder, and I’m looking forward to her first start of the year in late May.
I’ve always worried about Boogie’s fitness, because he’s warmblood (with no Thoroughbred in the first two generations) and because of the limitations his being a stallion placed on where I could ride him. But I didn’t think of him as weak, because of his compact build, because of his big, springy stride, and because he was basically jumping over the standards.
But his stallionness prevented me from riding him outside the ring at home until we cut him 13 months ago. It wasn’t that he was crazy for mares (he hardly looked at them), but the testosterone coursing through his body was telling him he had to fight the geldings, so I couldn’t ride him anywhere but in the ring, the only place where he wouldn’t encounter geldings he thought he had to charge.
For the last year, though, he’s been a joy to ride and condition outside the ring, and what a difference it’s made. We’ve done scores of repetitions of trotting and galloping up the hills, and I discovered that the strength he was missing was the strength he needed to hold himself. Boogie had no shortage of pushing power, but he lacked the ability to control his push. So he couldn’t keep a rhythm at the canter—because his stride length varied with each stride—and he was jumping so big because all he could do was push off. He couldn’t control himself in the air.
And he would also be nearly exhausted by the third day of events. On two occasions, on cross-country, I felt as if I suddenly had no gas in the tank, no brakes at all and no power steering, forcing me to try to carry him around the course. And that, of course, didn’t work at all.
I’ve also augmented this fitness work with work like we’ve been doing with Amani, and the result is that last week he completed a novice three-day event, feeling full of run at the end of the cross-country course and then completing his first faultless show jumping round. It was a great feeling.
Neither Amani nor Boogie was a horse who cried out to me, “I need to be stronger.” They’re each medium-sized horses (Amani is 16.0 hands and Boogie is 15.3 hands), and they always seemed to be in command of their bodies. But it’s always been obvious with Bella that strength would be an issue.
Why? For starters, she’s a hand or more taller than the other two, with four of the longest legs I’ve ever seen. When she was younger, she actually looked kind of like a pinto spider, and only in the last few months has she started to look mature, not like a baby. (She’s a Thoroughbred/Dutch Warmblood-cross.)
So armed with considerable experience developing strength in big horses, and with the strength-building experiences of Amani and Boogie fresh in my mind, I’ve been treating her like a body builder.
Bella was out of work last November and December because she had a nagging cough, and when I put her back to work, she felt like I was riding a string bean with a dead weight on the front end. She simply could not push with her butt or put it underneath her for down transitions.
But in the last few weeks I could feel her getting stronger and stronger, and last week, in her first event of the year, she did her best dressage test ever to place third in a big novice field. She felt light and supple, and she trotted into the ring like she owned it.
Boogie and Bella both made me feel rather pleased about the strength training we’ve been doing—and excited for the future.