A student in our Video Coaching Program has observed that her horse found the exercises more strenuous than she had anticipated. He seemed to be a little tired the next day and perhaps a little muscle sore. So she asked me how she should structure her training from now on in order not to overface the horse while at the same time giving him enough physical exercise during a time of year when the weather conditions limit her turnout and trailriding options. This is a problem that many riders and horses face. That’s why I want to share a few thoughts on this subject here.
It is true that the exercises bring the horse into a different balance, a different posture. This means that different muscles are working now than up to this point. Muscles that didn’t have to work in the past now suddenly have to participate to a much larger extent. Other muscles that used to have to do more than their fair share and that used to be permanently tight are now finally able to relax. It can therefore happen that the horse fatigues mentally and physically sooner, needs more breaks during the workout, and perhaps also more rest days. Over time the new muscles become stronger and develop more stamina so that this kind of work is no longer exhausting.
I would experiment with the structure of the workout and include days in which I only longe the horse or give him the day off completely.
You can also make the workout less intense on some days by spending more time riding larger lines on a single track and including the lateral movements only in the walk for suppling purposes. I would, however, always insist on keeping the horse balanced and straight, so that he moves correctly, and I would avoid “riding around” on a horse that is left to his own devices because covering “empty miles” would only make the horse stiff and crooked and strung out. This would destroy the training progress that you have achieved so far.
What has proven very effective is to longe the horse a little (10-20 min) before riding in order to balance the horse (round circle in a steady tempo with a steady contact on the longe line) and to establish a certain state of mental collection. At the longe line you can see very well how the horse is feeling on that particular day, how much energy he has, how supple or how stiff he is, and how he is moving. You can incorporate some trot poles in this work.
Then you can add a few minutes of work in hand to improve the balance further and to mobilize the hind legs, so that when you mount you have a pleasant horse that is already warmed up and relaxed and focused on the work.
It is worth tinkering with the structure of the workout regularly, in order to prepare the horse in such a way that when you mount he is as balanced and supple as possible so that the horse’s joints and tendons and the rider’s back are protected from hard, jarring gaits as much as possible during the ride.
On some days we may stop after longeing and work in hand because the horse isn’t in the right frame of mind or isn’t feeling well enough. On other days we may cut the longeing short and get on sooner.
Sometimes we may decide to skip the work in hand, depending on the impression we get while we are grooming the horse in the barn and while we are longeing him. There are days when it is better not to rider and others when you can get on the horse “cold”.
Another strategy that has crystallised in my work over the years is to ride a complex exercise at the walk first that makes the horse think and that develops (and challenges) his body awareness, balance, and coordination. After this reprise you ride 20m circle and whole school in the trot (or canter) in order to give the horse and rider time to reflect about the last exercise. Since these exercises change the balance profoundly, the horse may need a little time to get used to this new posture with the new muscle configuration that is at work now. Trotting on larger lines gives him time to digest what he just learned and to experience the new feel of his body.
The rider also has a chance to think about how well or how poorly the exercise went, and how it has affected the gait and posture afterwards. The gymnastic result of an exercise often becomes visible only when you are riding straight ahead in a higher gait afterwards.
Now you can think about whether it’s worth incorporating this exercise into your repertoire, or whether you need to put it on the back burner for a while. If you decide to include it, you can think about whether you want to modify the exercise in order to make it even more effective, as well as how you could modify your seat and aids next time to be able to guide the horse even better through the exercise. Finally, you make a decision on how you want to proceed from here.
Simultaneously, reprises in a higher gait on simple lines give the horse a cardiovascular workout and improve his stamina.
Next, you may want to ride a complex exercise in the trot, followed by a canter on large lines, etc. until you can ride complex exercises in the canter that include half passes, flying changes, and pirouettes. This structure has proven to be very effective. It gives the horse enough physical exercise as well as a “mental workout” so that body and mind are trained equally.
The horses tend to change very quickly with this type of work, so that they may seem different every day for some time, to the point where you feel like you don’t even know your horse any more. So you need to get to know your horse all over again. It is therefore helpful to ride with the same mindset as if you were riding a new, unfamiliar horse. It is important to stay flexible and to adjust to the new reality instead of wondering why the old way of riding, the old seat, and the old aids are no longer working.