‘A horse is an athlete’: grand prix rider Lara Butler on keeping older horses in top form

  • It’s one thing training a horse to grand prix level. But keeping them there long-term and maintaining their fitness and form as they enter their senior years is another challenge altogether. Lara Butler is a top rider who has plenty of experience when it comes to training older horses – her international grand prix winner and Olympic reserve horse Rubin Al Asad (Rufus) was retired earlier this year at the grand age of 18, while his successor Kristjan is now 16 and in the form of his life. 

    “Kristjan doesn’t really have the classical body for dressage so we have taken our time building up the strength in him,” explained Lara, who recently triumphed in the grand prix and grand prix special at Keysoe CDI with the Polarion gelding, who was bred by the Bechtolsheimer family. 

    “Every horse is an athlete and we want them to last as long as possible; the philosophy with the Bechtolsheimers is not to push a horse too fast. Kristjan has needed time to grow into his body,” said Lara, on episode 79 of The Horse & Hound Podcast

    “Kristjan and I have a very good relationship – he has been a bit of a challenge along the way but he is flourishing in his slightly older age. Now Rufus has retired he is top dog and he makes sure you know it!

    “The older the horses get, the more you as a rider get to know them both inside and out, so you know if they need a tweak here or there. The extra years with them allows us to spend even more time with them.”

    So how does Lara go about training older horses to keep them fresh, fit and loving life?

    “We try to give them as much variety as possible, including hacking round the fields. I think it is great for dressage horses to get onto a different surface. We do polework – not jumping, but cavaletti work that helps strengthen them and also keeps their mind occupied. Kristjan is so intelligent that he needs something to occupy his brain at all times otherwise he gets bored. 

    “Kristjan is similar to Rufus in that they both need suppling work, but Rufus was easier to take out for a canter in the fields – Kristjan has got quite a big buck in him! But with both of them, I don’t do movement after movement; it is all about keeping their reactions quick and keeping them soft and supple over their backs. 

    “As older horses they know their job, so it is all about keeping them interested in the job so they still want to go out and do the best they can.”

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