Getting the Event Horse Fit to Compete
Event horses are all-round athletes. They must be skilled in the three separate disciplines of dressage, stadium jumping and jumping cross-country, and have the stamina to perform in all three phases within a short space of time. In addition, they require endurance for galloping up and down hills while negotiating rustic obstacles.
Appropriate fitness training is therefore essential for the eventer to perform comfortably and be a real contender in competition.
World Champion Blyth Tait, event rider and Olympic gold medalist, writes in Eventing Insights that it’s a good idea, when drawing up your horse’s training schedule, to work backwards from the day he needs to be fully fit.
For the animal which has been off for a while, he suggests allowing seventeen to eighteen weeks for bringing him back. He aims to achieve peak fitness in his mount one week before a big event.
This time frame gives enough leeway for any unforeseen setbacks or, if the horse gets fit early, to maintain that level of readiness.
First Phase – Weeks One through Five
He believes in steady roadwork and riding on the trails in walk to start with. In the online edition of Horse & Hound, Josephine Carr writes that the professionals usually build up from half an hour on the first day to one hour on day seven, working towards two hours at the end of the second week.
Then he adds trotting on tarmac (where safe) as this “can help to assist in the hardening of the hooves and strengthening of the bones.” He is careful to maintain a slow pace to reduce jarring on the legs.
He also introduces some “simple flatwork sessions a few days a week.” This gets the horse listening to his rider, develops muscle tone and makes him suppler before the work becomes more arduous.
Now is when he begins giving the horse hard feed, if he was previously out at pasture.
Second Phase – Weeks Six Onwards
It is now time to introduce more canter work, including interval-training.
In his book, Cross-Country Masterclass, Olympic Champion Leslie Law says that he starts this fast work gently in a ‘strong working canter’ over four to five furlongs uphill twice a week. “It does help to work some horses together, as they seem to draw inspiration and encouragement from company.” However, he doesn’t advocate this with strong, excitable horses!
He lets the horse walk downhill again between bouts of galloping, building up to a combination of walk and trot downhill when the horse is fitter. By maintaining the horse’s heart and respiration rate before he gallops again, exertion is gradually increased which “builds up lung and heart capacity.”
Interval training begins with alternating short periods of stress with recovery times. He gradually increases the periods of fast work but allows the same recovery time.
Tait plans these canter sessions every fourth day, with the intention of minimizing potential injury or giving minor stress issues time to repair before the next time. He begins by alternating three five-minute sessions of steady canter with three minutes’ walk recovery time. The length of canter time is gradually increased, but the recovery phase remains at three minutes in walk. A large flat field is used for this work.
His three-star event horses maximize their canter spurts at nine minutes. That time will be less for those riding in the lower levels. Horse & Hound suggests a once a week session of two five minute canters with three minutes’ walk recovery for novice one day eventers. These horses need fewer weeks to reach the necessary level of fitness than upper level equine athletes, and will usually be ready within three months.
Between the interval training days, the horse’s flatwork continues, becoming more intensive, and jumping over fences begins. British show jumper William Funnell “starts with some cross-poles built into the flatwork” and includes bounces to “build and maintain the jumping muscles.” He doesn’t believe that high jumps are necessary to get the horse fit.
Training also includes trail riding (or ‘hacking,’ as it is called in the U.K.) which both conditions the horse and relaxes him. Exercising on off days on a horse exerciser also helps conditioning at a low stress pace.
When Is Your Horse Fit?
As the horse becomes fitter and his heart becomes stronger, his heart rate decreases.
You can buy a heart monitor to record the improvement of his recovery rate between canter sessions. Dual Olympic Gold Medallist Jill Ralton explains how to use this to determine fitness. “Careful monitoring of heart rates will help you to assess the horse’s fitness by giving you an indication of just how hard he is working and how quickly he is recovering from that work.”
She explains that the heart rate should be between 130 and 150 beats per minute (bpm) after canter work, and the horse should “recover to 80 bpm before setting off again. This recovery should take around 3 mins.”
Your horse’s heart rate should be below 100 bpm after that time. If not, he is being pushed too hard and the horse should not canter again until it reaches approximately 80 bpm. If his bpm are less than 60 after the three minutes’ walk you need to toughen up your program!
Blyth Tait takes a more relaxed approach: “I do not worry about being overly-technical in analyzing heart-beats.” He prefers to note whether the horse’s breathing is “excessively heavy or if he is taking a prolonged time to recover.” This takes into account what is normal for each horse and he “notices improving recovery rates.”
Event horses have arguably the most arduous yet varied lifestyle of all the English riding disciplines. They must train to a high level of fitness to meet the demands of the three phases of a one or three day event.
This involves developing strength and suppleness for dressage, and combining it with stamina for the stadium and cross-country phases. A horse coming in from a long period of down time at pasture will require between three to four and a half months of training to bring him back to peak fitness.