Fit and raring to go: how you and your horse can hit the ground running in tip top shape

  • If fitness levels for you and your horse have been on the back burner, hit the ground running with these exercise plans, advises Andrea Oakes

    After a year of stop-start activity on the competition front, we’re again getting the green light to go. But to what extent has a triple whammy of lockdown, bad weather and Brexit border chaos derailed preparation? When the starting bell sounds, will we be ready?

    Without the certainty of a show schedule, dressage riders have been wondering whether to keep their top horses at full fitness or bubbling under.

    “We had a plan with the international horses and built them up, then everything stopped and we let them down a bit,” says Team GBR dressage rider Gareth Hughes. “The experienced ones do develop greater endurance over the years and tend to come back to fitness a bit quicker, but those who’ve not done much at top level or travelled abroad take longer to recuperate. In a grand prix, the last centre line can seem so far away.”

    At all levels, he explains, it is difficult to replicate the intensity of a real test.

    “At home, you can always do a circle or a transition,” says Gareth. “Competing is very different, mentally and physically. You do get rusty and even a bit anxious when you haven’t competed for a while, so you can’t go straight out to a big show. You need something smaller first.”

    Improve your riding skills with Horse & Hound’s new online rider confidence course. Learn how to overcome low confidence and gain a positive mindset

    International dressage rider Lara Butler agrees that both sides of the partnership can lose momentum.

    “We’re training at home, but we’re out of the competition rhythm,” she says, explaining that shows sharpen both fitness and reactions. “But our horses are still where we need them to be. The younger ones should catch up very quickly, if events restart and run regularly, although it may be a bit of a shock to their system.”

    While some showjumpers travelled south to tours in mainland Europe earlier this year, amateur rider Sarah Lewis was dissuaded by the border issues.

    “We did go to Vilamoura in October and then felt ahead of the game at Pyecombe in December – the only show we’ve done since,” says Sarah. “We’ve kept the horses working with lots of hacking, which has been good for their heads, along with some gridwork and flatwork for suppleness and rideability.

    “They don’t need to jump and jump, especially the ones jumping big fences, and I don’t like drilling them as it can make them tired, sore and cross,” she adds. “The fitness is there. After a couple of training shows, I think they’ll be away.”

    For many event riders, the usual pre-season build-up has been affected.

    “This lockdown has not come without its struggles,” admits five-star eventer Tom McEwen, whose Tokyo prospect Toledo De Kerser spearheads his Gatcombe-based team. “We’ve been battling the weather, so less turnout has been available, and we’ve been limited to schooling in my arenas as opposed to being able to use the park.

    “With amazing facilities and hilly, off-road hacking, however, the horses’ fitness has not been compromised,” adds Tom, who has used a small selection of cross-country fences to focus his horses’ minds before their first event. “They’ve not become bored and sour towards work; in fact, they’re ready and raring to go. They must be wondering what the hold-up is.”

    Irish eventer Padraig McCarthy would ordinarily kick off the season at the Barroca International Horse Trials in Portugal, in early March, but the event was shelved due to the recent equine herpes virus outbreak.

    “We don’t have gallop facilities and we’ve not been able to box up and travel to any,” says Padraig. “But fitness requirements depend on your goals. The cancellation of Badminton, the early five-star, takes the pressure off, and the seasoned campaigners are easier to bring up to speed.

    “It does take some match practice, though,” he adds, explaining that both horse and rider benefit from the pressure of competition. “With Tokyo still on the cards, we need those runs.”

    As high-profile events have been scrubbed off the calendar, top eventers have been faced with a training dilemma.

    “Some who were going to Badminton have backed off a bit, because you can’t sustain that level indefinitely,” says eventing coach Caroline Moore FBHS. “Once you’ve taken a horse down to short-format fitness, it takes six weeks to bring him back for long-format.”

    According to Caroline, fitness is a concern across the levels.

    “We’d normally use grassland or gallops for fitness work, but it is tricky when you can’t travel,” she says. “On top of that, bad weather and poor ground conditions in many areas have limited hacking.

    “To build stamina, I advise fartlek training [Swedish for “speed play”; a form of interval training] – long, slow periods with some sprint work, or jumping with a bit of sprint work on a circuit,” says Caroline. “This is possible in a reasonably sized arena. The aim is to push up the horse’s heart and respiratory rates, so another option is to work slowly on a steep gradient. Nicola Wilson would do that with [her multiple Team GBR medallist] Opposition Buzz, walking him up and down embankments to make him really puff.

    “Some riders may try to select flatter, less punishing courses for the first few events and use these as part of a fitness regime,” she adds. “But they will have to be aware of any fitness deficit at the start of the season and not go out all guns blazing.”

    If your personal fitness plans have fizzled out during the mid-winter lockdown, you’re not alone.

    “Many of us have been more sedentary, sitting in front of a computer,” says Ashleigh Wallace, head of athlete health and lead physiotherapist for British Equestrian, who laments the fact that gyms – a lifeline for many in the dark months – have been forced to close. “It is really hard to stay motivated and committed when it’s raining and muddy.

    “Riders are generally pretty active and usually retain strength, but what drops first is cardiovascular fitness,” she adds. “The competition restart is a good target to work towards. What’s important is to focus on exercise that will make the biggest difference before then.”

    AEHF4W Mountian biking biker cycling through Kirroughtree Forest part of the 7stanes Scotland UK. Image shot 07/2007. Exact date unknown.

    Ashleigh recommends a varied strength and conditioning programme.

    “High-intensity work that raises your heart rate is really effective in kick-starting your cardiovascular system,” she explains. “The key is to push yourself, within safe limits, and to intersperse these timed sprint bursts with low-intensity periods or rest.

    “This interval training can be done by cycling, running or skipping, or in circuits,” adds Ashleigh. “Cycling is especially relevant for riders as it targets the leg muscles and lumbar spine, so spinning sessions are ideal. Even better, take your mountain bike out – bouncing about, with frequent changes of direction, carries over well to riding.

    “Hill running develops the calves and glutes, which are important for riding, and will have a big impact on cardiovascular fitness,” she says. “Or try eight fast walks up a steep hill, recovering each time on the way down. With three to four days’ training a week, you should notice a difference within a fortnight – and feel real changes within another month.”

    In addition, strength exercises that work multiple muscles at once will deliver superior results for the time you put in.

    “Whole-body exercises beneficial for riders include squats, lunges, deadlifts, push-ups and pull-ups,” explains Ashleigh. “Two weekly circuit sessions combining these exercises will have a beneficial effect in just four to six weeks.

    “But rest days are vital, along with sensible nutrition,” she adds, pointing out that riding is a weight-sensitive sport. “Protein builds and repairs muscle and also satiates us, keeping us fuller for longer, while low-GI carbohydrates such as oats provide a slower release of energy.

    “Include good fats – avocado, seeds, olive oil and nuts – for their anti-inflammatory properties, and eat fruit and vegetables in a rainbow of colours. Importantly, rehydrate with two to three litres of water per day.

    “The better fuelled and hydrated you are, the more impactful your exercise regime will be.”

    WR5D3P Woman jogging on Benone Beach with her dog, Northern Ireland, UK.

    Is he fit enough?

    Check out your horse’s fitness status, with Caroline Moore’s at-a-glance guide…

    Dressage — medium level

    Requirements: ability to work for sessions of up to one hour, with up to three-minute canter periods within this, plus two short warm-ups.

    Training: 10 circuits of a 20x60m arena equates to one mile. An average workout at this level comprises five miles in walk, trot and canter, with some fairly muscle-strenuous exercise. If hacking on gradients, complete less mileage.

    Tip: a circuit-training session with a range of exercises will allow the horse to rest a certain muscle group while using another – small circles, for example, then lateral work, moving on to raised poles and then simple transitions.

    Showjumping — three Discovery rounds

    Requirements: ability to work for up to one-and-half to two hours in sporadic sessions, performing in one- to two-minute bursts of power – almost a sprint-type effort.

    Training: slow hill work for strength and stamina, with long, slow canter periods and short bursts of work at a faster pace to challenge the cardiovascular system – either on the gallops or within jumping work.

    Tip: after a round, when the horse wants to stop, keep cantering for two minutes to improve his stamina.

    Eventing — BE100/novice

    Requirements: ability to perform three warm-up sessions, amounting to approx 1hr, plus a 4min dressage test, a showjumping round of approx 14 fences and a cross-country round at 520m/min for up to five-and-a-half minutes.

    Training: a varied schedule. Fitness work should include twice-weekly sessions in jumping tack, comprising flatwork, strenuous transition work, some longer canter periods (up to six to seven minutes) in collected, working and medium canters, plus polework and an occasional quick-reaction sprint.

    Tip: when you do get to the gallops or cross-country training, increase the length of work before the speed. Use a stopwatch to time faster work and chart progress.

    Across all disciplines, signs that a horse is not coping include uncharacteristically poor performance, a lack of forward intention, a general reluctance to put effort in and coming out stiff the following day.

    After faster work, an increased respiration rate should drop within the first minute of walk and return to normal after five minutes. Delayed recovery or a deterioration in performance might warrant adjustment of the programme or a vet check.

    This feature was first published in Horse & Hound magazine, out Thursday 25 March 2021

    You may also be interested in…