English Riding: Show Jumping Horse Fitness
A show jumping horse faces multiple physical challenges: he needs sufficient speed and stamina to navigate the course, explosive take-off power, and good technique over fences.
To be successful, a conditioning program for the show jumper has to address the horse’s overall strength and fitness while improving his jumping style.
Brief Outline of the Fitness Program
The first stage is aerobic training, where the horse’s heart, lungs, muscles and other soft tissue are slowly strengthened.
In Fitness Training for a Show Jumper, Ellen Whitaker, Silver medalist for the United Kingdom (and niece of famous show jumper John Whitaker) stresses the importance of reducing the risk of injury and keeping the horse happy in his work: “For this reason I like to give my horses plenty of time to achieve the necessary levels of fitness and always keep their training varied.”
Mark Sellers quotes Hilary Clayton, a professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Michigan State University, who says this phase can last between 6 and 12 months before the young horse is ready for the next stage, which is anaerobic conditioning.
For the older, trained horse, regular jumping can be incorporated into the later part of this phase. The young horse should be introduced to obstacles once his aerobic and anaerobic training are complete. When they also incorporate correct flatwork, both types of conditioning build his muscles properly and bring his body into balance under his rider.
Being ridden at working trot and canter form the exertion part of the horse’s aerobic training, while walking serves as his rest period. Professor Clayton recommends a work to rest ratio of 1:2.
Ms. Whitaker advocates “plenty of trot work to improve overall fitness and also to build up muscular strength.” She adds that “hill work is great for building the hind quarters,” and stresses the importance of riding in a correct outline all the time to work the right muscles, even when out on the trail.
The horse is gradually asked to travel over greater distances, while keeping his heart rate lower than 150 bpm.
This phase develops the horse’s lung capacity and teaches his body to utilize oxygen more efficiently.
After approximately one month of aerobic work, the horse moves onto anaerobic interval training.
Mr. Sellers explains that the heart rate should be brought above 150 bpm by working the horse at higher speeds for brief time spans: “periods of acceleration and deceleration (to) move the heart rate above 160 bpm for short periods.”
Ms. Whitaker points out that one minute of intense power is needed to complete a round of show jumps, unlike most other horse sports. The “intensity, duration and frequency” involved in interval training are useful to the show jumper because they “simulate actual competition demands.”
Interval training incorporates frequent “high intensity exercise for short durations” which develops the “efficiency of the anaerobic energy pathways,” says Ms. Whitaker. She explains that “The powerful muscular contractions involved with each jumping effort rely totally on anaerobic energy pathways.”
A study on the effects of interval training on show jumping horses concluded that while all types of interval training “improved parameters of fitness,” the gallop and jump interval exercises were more beneficial than bouts of sprint work. Interestingly, the gallop work improved the horses’ jumping techniques just as much as actual jumping did.
More Experienced Horses
Ms. Whitaker includes gymnastic jumping in the anaerobic phase for “improving fitness, rhythm and co-ordination.” In gymnastic jumping the horse goes over a line of jumps and ground poles in various configurations. This is an excellent way to build the horse’s confidence over fences, whether he’s had time off or is just beginning his show jumping career.
Her “main focus is always gymnastic ability and power, although not forgetting speed which is just as important in some classes.”
It is important not to over-jump the horse. Training over obstacles for approximately 20 minutes at a time, twice a week, should suffice “to develop your jumping to the required standard” and allow time to practice over a full course of fences.
Once the competition season has begun, Ms. Whitaker doesn’t normally jump her horses between shows “to give the muscles etc. time to recover after strenuous work.”
The Young Horse
A young or inexperienced horse needs to be trained with patience and understanding. Karsten Huck, German Olympic Bronze Medalist, advises taking it slowly, “and never, never push a horse too hard or overwhelm it.”
The horse must be properly schooled on the flat, able to accept the rider’s aids, forward going and straight. He is not ready to jump until he is balanced underneath his rider.
Herr Huck always begins work with one ground pole then moves up to cavaletti. He asks the horse to trot over them until the animal can “stay in balance in front, as well as on the landing side, of the jump.”
Cantering over the obstacles is introduced only when the horse’s back and hind legs have developed sufficient muscle.
This slow, methodical approach is essential to the horse’s chance of a successful future in show jumping. Herr Huck says, “My saddest moments are when I come across a talented horse that has not had the privilege of receiving appropriate education.”
Patience, the Essential Training Tool
There is no set time period for conditioning the show jumper: each horse has individual requirements. Some horses need more time than others to get fully fit, and their training must be adjusted accordingly.
Setbacks are inevitable: your horse may injure himself or the weather may not co-operate with your intended schedule. Prepare to be flexible with your competition calendar should your horse not be ready for the show you originally planned for him.
Whether bringing a seasoned campaigner back into work or starting a young horse, it’s important to start with aerobic exercises to strengthen the horse then progress to anaerobic work to prepare him for producing sudden bursts of power. Together with practice over fences, this methodical approach will afford him the best chance of success in his show jumping career.