English Riding: The Dressage Horse Fitness Program
All equine fitness training should be carried out slowly and with consistency, and this is especially true for the dressage horse.
In her excellent book Equine Fitness, Jec Aristotle Ballou stresses that it can take as long as 12 months for a horse to become fit enough to be ridden in walk, trot and canter for a full hour. And yet most riders expect their horses to perform this long after only a few months.
Schooling Does Not Equal Conditioning
Schooling a horse may teach him dressage movements, but it doesn’t improve his physical ability to perform them.
Without incorporating proper strength and conditioning exercises into every work session, your horse will never become strong enough to go up the levels of dressage. Instead he will become stiff with tight neck muscles and a weak back.
Ms. Ballou believes in the 50/50 rule for every session. Half the time should be spent on schooling and the other half used for conditioning work.
From Zero to Fitness in Three Phases
When conditioning the completely unfit horse, allow 4 months as a minimum and up to 7 months. Think about how much time you’d need to get into shape if you were starting from zero fitness! A horse is no different.
The First Two Months: Acclimation
If a horse has not been ridden for a long time, start with exercises on the ground for a couple of weeks. Calisthenics such as backing the horse uphill (beginning with a few steps) coupled with leg and neck stretches are useful.
Equine Stretches should be performed on muscles that have already undergone a short warm-up routine, or after a workout, according to Dr. Christine Woodford of Veterinary Integrative Performance Services. This is “because the soft tissue is more elastic, easier to stretch, and less likely to be damaged.”
If you have access to a horse exerciser, you can warm him up on it before you begin his stretching program.
Dr. Woodford advocates starting slowly and gently. Never force the horse to stretch if he resists: “Simply stop and ask again.” Overdoing it can injure him, so don’t go beyond what he’s comfortable with.
Stretching exercises are a good way to improve the flexibility of your horse over a period of time. Dr. Woodford’s instructions for neck stretches, front and back leg stretches and back stretches are accompanied by photos.
Perform these for 10 to 15 minutes on alternate days for at least 3 days a week, then start riding for 25 minutes at a time beginning with walk. Every 10 days gradually increase the duration and intensity of the exercise. Add short trot sessions after the first 10 days, and finally some canter after the second 10 day period.
You will begin to notice your horse shedding his extra pounds and becoming more muscled.
The Next One to Three Months: Cardio
The basic cardio workout for your horse usually takes 4 weeks but can require 12 weeks or even longer. It focuses on building stamina, so plan to ride 4 or 5 days per week.
Gina Krueger, in Conditioning the Dressage Horse by Gina Krueger explains that “Cardiovascular fitness is derived from repeated muscle contractions that increase the use of the oxygen provided to the blood stream via the lungs. Cardiovascular training is thought of in terms of Heart and Lung capacity.”
She advocates riding cross-country – especially cantering – as “the best cardiovascular exercise you can give your horse,” as well as “two shorter workouts per day (which) also increases significantly his cardiovascular reserve.” His cardiovascular fitness will increase if you frequently change direction and perform transitions “because the horse must overcome forces of inertia.”
This avoids the problem of lactic acid building up in the muscles, which adversely affects the horse’s performance.
In Is Your Horse Fit for the Task? Ray Geor, BVSc, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM explains in detail how to assess your horse’s fitness level. This will tell you when your horse has completed his cardio conditioning program.
Ms. Ballou emphasizes that your horse should “carry himself properly in the correct posture” by the end of this phase before moving onto the strength-building exercises. He must be “stretching his back, pushing nicely with his hind legs and carrying his spine in good balance.” Then he will get the most out of his conditioning and strengthening work.
The Final Two Months: Strength-Building
By now you’ll be schooling your horse in dressage for 2 to 3 days a week, devoting 1 day to maintaining his cardio-fitness. It’s now time to add strength training for an additional 2 days a week.
In Building a Stronger Dressage Horse, (The McPhail Chair Report #9) the McPhail Equine Performance Center states that simple lack of strength is the reason why many horses don’t reach their full potential. “Improvements in muscular strength not only enhance performance, but also prevent injuries by reducing the risk of muscular strains and through stabilizing the joints more effectively.”
Interval training works well for the dressage horse by having him perform “different types of exercise on successive days and by allowing easy days between strenuous workouts.” This avoids specific muscles being overloaded and causing injury.
The report suggests a ratio of work to recovery time of between 1:5 and 1:6. After executing high-stress dressage movements, the horse recovers by performing easy or suppling exercises for five to six times as long as he worked hard.
This allows the heart and lungs to partially recover, while dispersing some of the lactic acid build-up.
Specific strengthening exercises for your horse at this stage include:
- Hill work: walking and cantering uphill (not trotting) as work, then walking back down for recovery.
- Gymnastic jumping over fences of 18” – 24”: jumping a grid of bounces or one strides (work) and walking or trotting back to the start (recovery).
- Repeating dressage movements which require strength, such as the canter pirouette, for a short time, followed by trotting on a large circle while suppling the horse with shoulder-in or travers before repeating.
- You could perform this on alternate days, three times a week, adding more intensity/repetitions to the exercise each week until the horse is strong enough to perform the required repetitions of that movement.
Keeping Your Horse Fit
You will have now reached the phase in your horse’s conditioning where you simply need to maintain his fitness level.
Ms. Ballou advocates riding for at least 3 days a week, but preferably 4 or 5, to achieve this. At the same time stick to the 50/50 rule of working half the time on your dressage movements and the remaining half on your horse’s conditioning.
This will lead to a fit horse that is able to fulfill his athletic potential.
Resources & Further Reading
Equine Fitness by Jec Aristotle Ballou
This excellent book contains exercises for achieving total fitness in your horse.