How much fitness work do I need to do? It’s a question I get asked a lot as an instructor and when people ask me they are normally referring to their horse. I also get asked if I still do the same amount of fitness work on my top-level horses now that the CCI events are short format.
Everyone has different ways of getting their horses fit (and themselves for that matter) and people are often limited to what they can do by the available facilities they have at home or where they agist their horses, and time! If you work full time and keep you horse an hour from home and also have a spouse and kids you don’t have much time!!
So I’m going to try and give you some helpful hints on how to get you and your horse fit for the level you compete at. If your horse has been totally turned out for a couple of months you will need to “leg him up” before you start too much schooling and jumping work. And if you have had the break as well, you will feel stiff after your first ride, so you will understand the need to start slowly.
Legging up involves 3 to 5 weeks of hacking out, starting at the walk only, and with 20-minute rides, then slowly increasing the time and rides per week, and including trot.
If he is likely to be too fresh to take out on the roads or in the paddock in the first week, you can just walk around the arena within the safety of the arena fence. Your horse will need to harden up his body before real work starts.
If he has had 3 to 4 weeks off you don’t need to spend as long legging up, maybe a week, but if he has had 6 months out, you will need to spend a good 5 to 6 weeks legging up.
You need to use your precious time when riding to strengthen your horse and yourself, especially if you only ride one horse a day. You also need to be riding fit, to do this you need to be able to multi task, and no this does not mean you need to master using a skipping rope while practicing rising trot. It means when you are warming up for jumping, or hacking out, you should use that time to work on your fitness by using a lot of two and light three point seat position especially while warming up over poles or using cavaletti. This works your legs and helps stretch your calf muscles so you can get more weight into your heels.
Also to be able to trot in a two point seat for say two to three minute intervals is actually very tiring on your whole leg and lower back. But it’s a very good exercise to build up some fitness for a five or six minute cross-country course. Once you have the strength, the correct balance is easier to find and you won’t find it nearly so tiring on your body, but it does need continual work each week.
For the horse competing up to Pony Club Grade 1 or Pre Novice level, you really don’t need any specific fitness program that includes “gallops” like you would if you were competing One Star or Novice and above. But you and your horse do require regular work each week.
Okay, there are seven days in a week and your horse will need at least one day off, and if it is a young horse, like a four year old, he will need two days. So you need to make a little plan of what type of work your horse needs to do each week to acquire a level of fitness that makes the competition fun for the horse and not totally exhausting. And the plan should be progressive in its education and intensity if you intend on continuing up the grades.
At introductory level you will get away with only four rides a week, but once you above that, you need to work you horse more if you intend on pushing your horse to get time on cross country or want to progress further.
With green horses or riders I think they need to do some kind of jumping twice a week, one show jumping session using a lot of pole work and gymnastics and one cross country session, one hack (on hills if you can) and three dressage sessions.
The cross country session does not need to be any longer than 1 hour and that includes walking from the stables (if you’re lucky enough to have a training course at home) or from the float, warming up, doing what you want to get done and cooling down, walking home. It doesn’t mean galloping around on hard ground and breaking the young horse down. It is lots of walking on and off banks, into and out of water and over small shallow ditches. Work that will keep them interested, quiet and rideable.
Most cross country courses have some kind of hills, so use the hill up to help build strength and it will get your horse’s heart rate up as well. For the young horse and green rider, a good exercise – if the ground is not too hard – is to do a slow trot down the hill with lots of quiet responsive transitions from trot to walk and when the horse is balanced enough you can do the same with canter to trot transitions. This is great for getting both rider and horse balanced going downhill and strengthening the rider’s lower leg position. As you will be jumping downhill when you compete it’s probably best you master the downhill balance at home.
Jumping cross-country fences is also part of your cross-country schooling session but don’t thrash your horse by jumping 100 fences each session. If it is really hard to get to a course then you should do some cross-country type exercises at home with show jumps and barrels. Make apexes and arrow heads, funky angled lines, use black plastic to simulate a ditch and put a show jump over it, leave the hose on and make a large puddle and put a jump in front, in the middle or behind it like a little water jump… get imaginative.
When I plan a jumping session at home, I use the warm up as another part dressage session, as your horse needs to be soft and on your aids before you start jumping. This way you really are getting two sessions for the effort of one. The jumping sessions should be fun and relaxing for the horses not just jumping heaps of fences with no plan. Decide before you get on what you want to do. I like to always start with trot poles and canter poles then some kind of exercise to keep them supple. Your instructor will be able to help you with suitable exercises for your horse and your level.
If you had a competition on the previous weekend, you would do only one jumping session during the week of either cross country or show jumping – whatever your weakest phase is – and the competition would serve as your second jump session for the week.
Your 30 to 40 minute hack session should be really casual and a bit of time out for you and your horse or if he is a bit fizzy in open spaces (like dressage warm up areas!) Use it as time to teach him that paddocks aren’t always for galloping sideways in and add a bit of schooling into the routine. Don’t forget to ride in two and light three point seat for some, if not all, your trotting. Your hack can be down the road or I use my cross-country field as it has hills and is free from cars.
If you are aiming for Pony Club Grade 1 or Pre Novice, you will need to use the cross-country session to get your horse’s heart rate up a bit and make him sweat. When you hack just add a few extra trot hills and a couple of canter hills. Doing some hill work is a much better way to get them fit as you can get the heart rate up easily without pounding their legs off on the flat hard ground.
Then your schooling sessions are pretty normal. I like to use some cavaletti work in my schooling as this good for building strength and also gets the younger horses totally relaxed with poles and keeps the older ones interested.
Now that we no longer have the long format three-day event, the amount of fitness work I do on my top-level horses is definitely less. I still do the same amount of gallop work, just less of the long long trotting work I used to have to do to prepare for the kilometres of roads and tracks.
I still run the same kind of program as the younger horses, however the workload is more intense and I add ”gallop” days to the program. I take my diary and plan the program in it. If I have a major Three-Day that I am going to, I would mark it in, then count back every fourth day from the cross country day of the event and those days are my gallop days. I mark these gallop days in the diary and I count back eight weeks like this, then I adjust it to fit around the events I would be doing as lead up events and use the cross country run as a gallop day. I obviously wouldn’t gallop on the day I leave for a long truck trip somewhere. Things like this you need to work around.
Then I want to school at least three days a week on the flat, jump once and do hills instead of just hacking out once. If I have a horse that is hard to get fit I will school for 40 minutes, then go and do hills as well. When I gallop, I use my hill – I generally trot up three times and canter three, the first time then increase the number of times I trot and canter every time. Some gallop days I will add jumping some cross country fences in as well.
I use a heart rate monitor so I know I am getting their heart rate high enough to get them fit. I like to get it over 165 and normally using my hill, it gets close to 200 when I get to the top. As the weeks go on, I like to work them at the higher heart rate for longer so I have to go a bit faster to do this. I go to the beach also to do some long slow canters every two gallops, just to cross train really. I ride on the hard wet sand, not the soft sand, I’m a little nervous of riding on any deep surface. I generally won’t jump the day after a gallop or gallop after a day off. And before this 8-week program starts my horses are already quite fit from lots of schooling, show jumping shows and hill work. I will always back off the program if my horse doesn’t feel right and re-assess.
As well as riding your horse, you should always give your horse a groom BEFORE you ride. Make sure you don’t miss some heat or swelling in a leg and go ahead and gallop or even work your horse and make a small injury worse. Never wear gloves when you are grooming or tacking up, as you don’t get a good feel of your horse, and you might miss something. I always ice after my horses gallop or jump just as a precaution and they all get the Equissage on after work.
As you can see there are no short cuts to preparing your horse and this has been a very brief overview. I think the best plan is to write your program in your diary, so you don’t forget that Wednesday is cross-country day. If you want to do well you have to put the effort in, no matter how good your horse is. So please don’t just drag your horse from the paddock, and take it to an event, it’s not fair. Both you and your horse need to be fit and ready, the last thing he needs is to be carrying a sack-of-potatoes rider around the last part of the cross country when he is tired too. Nothing looks better than a fit horse being ridden in balance around a cross-country course. It’s up to you.