Most horse owners rarely think about their horse’s fitness level or try to actively improve it. Most of us just go about our ride working on training the horse to do his job. However, most of the training we are doing is asking the horse to carry himself better, which requires a significant amount of fitness.
For example, I have one lesson horse that can pack 3 beginners around for 45 minutes each in a day without breaking a sweat if I ask him for that. Yet I ride him for 30 minutes and he is dripping sweat and exhausted. He has a big fitness issue when he is asked to work properly.
Therefore, it wouldn’t be very fair if I asked this horse to do two lessons where he had to carry himself, right? Instead, I need to make sure that he has a lighter work load when he is being asked to work correctly and I can give him a heavier workload when he can move however he pleases. His beginner lessons keep him with a base fitness level so that he can be pushed to carry himself, but they do not keep him in shape to carry himself..
In general, I try not to ask a horse to do a new skill or do a skill better and also push their fitness. Teaching or asking a horse to carry themselves better is improving on the skill of self carriage, so I wouldn’t want to do that while pushing the horse’s fitness.
In order to accomplish this I try to do a combo of “learning” days and “conditioning” days. I am conscious of where to horse is physically and work to build the horse’s fitness and then I wait to ask them for the difficult task when they are fresh. Days when I ask the horse to carry himself a bit better I keep the sessions short and easy. These rides might only last 15 minutes depending on the horse’s fitness, but I would rather quit when the horse is moving to his potential and not feeling the need to compensate anywhere than ride the clock. Days when I want to build fitness I allow the horse to stretch and stay long and low through most if not all of the ride and push them a bit harder. I will ask the horse to keep worker a little bit past the point when they feel tired and their feet aren’t as quick of the ground to build strength and stamina. This system keeps the horse happy and keeps the difficulty of the work to a minimum.
If you push the horse to carry himself better and also ask him to work for a longer session to build fitness the horse can easily become resistant. Tired horses learn to brace through their bodies in order to compensate for the degree of difficulty of the work. This is why I never like to ask a tired horse to use themselves correctly. It is a losing battle.
Imagine that you had to do a bunch of pushups. The first few you can probably do with decent form and have success. Unless you do pushups regularly by 50 pushups you would probably be struggling. For me, I would be unable to drag myself back up by then. In order to attempt to perform the task, i.e. do a pushup, you would need to use different muscles than you started out using because those muscles would be too fatigues to perform the pushup. You might start straining your back to try to pull yourself back up into the plank formation. Maybe you try to use your fingers to give you some sort of lift. All you are accomplishing really is you are getting good at doing pushups incorrectly, right?
Since we don’t want our horses to ever move incorrectly, why would we want to teach them how to compensate? Horses already have a ton of compensations from past injuries, incorrect training, and conformational weakness as it is. They don’t need more encouragement to do the wrong thing.
Therefore, I try to keep “work” time to an appropriate length that the horse can move correctly without straining and looking for compensations. Horses just learning to stretch tend to get very light rides in the arena mixed in with conditioning around the property or out on trails. Horses that can stretch easily and willingly build up their ability to collect some days and push fitness with stretch work other days. The work gets increasingly challenging so that the horse continues to progress without becoming mentally or physically overwhelmed. This conditioning plan helps the horse improve without causing setbacks along the way.
I encourage you to pay attention to your horse’s fitness next time you ride. Are you pushing your horse too hard? Are you careful to do the hard work while the horse is fresh and mix it in with easier days to maintain stamina?
Leave a comment down below with your fitness plan for your horse or if you even have one. Next week we will dive into some classic conditioning methods that you could add into your weekly routine.