A good program for the Western Horse Fitness will improve his athleticism, by strengthening his muscles while developing balance and self-carriage. Another important aspect is keeping him alert and happy in his job.
Each training session should start with loosening and warming up the horse correctly before moving onto exercises which work different areas of his body.
Loosen Up Your Horse
Purpose of Loosening-Up
Jec Ballou is nationally recognized as an educator on equine conditioning and gymnastic development. In Western Dressage Exercise – Controlled Wandering, she stresses the importance of warming up the horse properly before asking him to perform more strenuous movements.
She points out that when a horse is at rest only 15% of his blood flows to the muscles that move his limbs.
During exercise this percentage rises dramatically to 85% as blood is transferred from his organs and metabolism to the larger skeletal muscles. This provides them with the power to move more energetically.
But this transfer does take several minutes. The horse’s body first needs to be loosened up slowly and gently to increase the blood and joint fluid circulation.
This will keep your horse supple and easier to ride as well as reducing his risk of injury.
Your horse can also relax at the beginning of every ride, knowing that he has time to ‘chill’ before more exacting work is demanded of him.
How to Loosen-Up Your Horse
Ms. Ballou suggests riding your horse on the buckle when you first start out. She calls her system “controlled wandering” and it consists of moving leisurely around the arena “in creative loops and turns,” riding figures and patterns not normally included in your daily work routine.
Remember, this is his time to take it easy. Relax in the saddle and allow the horse to amble comfortably with guidance from your seat and legs rather than your reins, and don’t try to get him ‘on the bit.’
Ms. Ballou also advocates loosening the horse up with “calisthenics (backing up, carrot stretches, stepping over ground poles).”
This phase should take five to eight minutes, but an older horse will benefit from even longer. After this, the rider progresses to the warm-up.
Warming-Up Your Horse
Purpose of Warm-Up
Ms. Ballou emphasizes that this is a separate phase from loosening-up. Its purpose is to increase the horse’s body temperature and makes him suppler.
How to Warm-Up
Warm-up consists of steady, energetic exercise and “should be plenty active—brisk jogging, lope transitions, circling, transitions.”
Once your horse is moving happily forward, supple and ‘engaging his back’ he is ready for the day’s training routine.
Dressage Training Can Get Your Western Horse Fit
Dale Rudin notes that regularly riding basic dressage movements will increase your Western horse’s athleticism and fitness, while making him more flexible. It will give him “greater endurance and resistance to injury.”
He reminds those who are intimidated by the term ‘dressage’ that it simply means ‘training’ in French and says: “Just do it, and reap the benefits in enhanced performance.”
First Bend Your Horse
Purpose of Bending Your Horse
Mr. Rudin explains that bending your horse creates softness and suppleness in his entire body, which must be achieved before performing any other exercises.
The horse’s body should be “perfectly aligned from head to tail, mirroring the shape of the arc, arena corner or any other curving path that he travels.”
How to Bend Your Horse
He should be ridden in a snaffle, with you sitting balanced in the saddle. Your contact should be the same in both reins: the inside rein bends the head and neck of the horse, and establishes the degree of bend.
Your outside rein provides the outer limit of the bend to stop over bending. The horse should move between a channel formed by your reins.
Figures of eight ridden at different speeds, sizes and gaits will stretch and supple your horse’s muscles and make them more flexible.
See The Bending Horse and Rider for more on how to correctly bend your horse,
Two-Tracking aka Leg-Yielding
Purpose of the Leg-Yield
This is one of the lateral movements which build the horse’s topline and hind end. As Mr. Rudin explains, the horse uses the muscles in these areas for the slow, collected paces. Thus lateral work is “indispensable” preparation for “tasks such as lope transitions, pivots on the front and hind ends, and lead changes.”
He describes the leg-yield as “like a sidepass on the go” where the horse has to move sideways and forwards at the same time. It is more easily performed in walk and trot, but a well-balanced horse can leg-yield in canter.
In addition to strengthening his back and hind end, this exercise loosens up the horse’s shoulders and his front end becomes lighter. The result is better balance and longer strides, and the horse moves with more expression.
How to Leg-Yield
The leg-yield should be performed in a snaffle.
For a leg-yield to the left, ride your horse down the center line, flex his head to the right, keeping outside left rein contact, and nudge him over with your right leg just behind the cinch. His right front and hind legs should cross in front of his left legs while he moves forwards and laterally.
Ask your horse for a gentle sideways line of travel with his body straight. If his quarters trail, stop the movement, straighten him out for a few strides, and ask for leg-yield again.
Purpose of the Shoulder-In
The shoulder-in is another great way to strengthen and loosen up your horse, and make him more flexible. This movement shifts weight off his front end and transfers it to his hind end.
The result is improved self-carriage, which is a pre-requisite for collection. Without collection your horse will be unable to perform – among other things – his lead changes.
As Ludvik K Stanek explains in Collection: Balance/Energy, collection is achieved when the horse is in balance under his rider, who ‘collects’ his mount’s energy (containing it with his seat, legs and hands) thereby creating the impulsion the horse needs to perform difficult tasks with greater ease.
Collection requires strength in the horse, and the shoulder-in targets the muscles he uses to achieve it.
How to Perform the Shoulder-In
This is usually ridden on the rail. The horse shifts his shoulders inwards and moves forwards on three tracks.
His inside foreleg is on one track, his outside foreleg and inside hind leg are on a second track, and his outside hind leg travels on the outside track.
Maintain your horse’s bend, and bring his shoulders in by moving both reins inwards. In the beginning your outside rein will probably lie on his outside withers while your inside rein stays next to his withers.
Your seat should be parallel to the line of his shoulders, your inside leg applies pressure on the cinch, and your outside leg is slightly back to keep contact with the center of his ribcage.
Don’t make the angle of the shoulder-in too steep (otherwise the horse will be working on four tracks in a virtual leg-yield) and ensure that he stays bent round your inside leg to get the maximum benefit from this exercise.
The Western horse needs to be athletic and strong, balanced and in self-carriage to do his job happily with the minimum risk of injury. The above exercises will increase his fitness, enabling him to work efficiently in relaxed co-operation with his rider.
Resources & Further Reading
A series of articles about Western Dressage training