The showing season is about to get under way which means owners all over the country are starting to think about getting their horses and ponies fit and looking good ready to compete. Whether you're planning to compete at three day events, dressage or any other discipline, you and your mount need to be fit enough to take part not only so you stand a chance of doing well, but of staying safe too. The question is how do you plan getting your horse fit and ready for their first show?
The fitness programme you set out for your horse or pony, has to be tailored to suit the animal. This means you have to take certain things into account, which include the following:
The first thing you need to understand, is that building muscle and strength are the key to your horse getting fit. The all important part about a good fitness programme is to take things slowly at first, and then proceed one step at a time, much as people must do when they start out on a fitness regime to get back into shape.
In week one, it's important to walk your horse for around half anhour a day and then build up the time to one hour a day gradually up to the seventh day. During the second week you can build up the walking time from one hour to two hours – this is a crucial point in the training programme because it will offer a good indication of long-term health and the all important soundness of your mount. The thing to remember is a good rider will build up their horses and not break them down. Three weeks walking on roads will tighten up ligaments and tendons – ready for the trot work to begin.
However, constant trotting on roads is not the best method but trotting up hills is great. The reason being when a horse goes up the hill all the pressure is taken off their front legs and as such this helps your horse build up and develop their hindquarters – which is exactly what you want.
During the first week, you should include a little lunge work in a school. This is particularly useful if you are having to cope with a fresh or lively horse. Work your horse until they are just starting to get warm but not sweating. Once you have finished the work, then walk your horse off – this is really important after any schooling or exercise. Many professional riders believe it to be just as important as the lesson ofschooling itself. You should always avoid putting a sweaty horse back in their stables because it could mean you have a very stiff horse the next day because they will be suffering from achy muscles. After schooling or exercising you need to walk off your horse for at least twenty minutes if they have sweated up or not.
You'll soon notice and feel your horse getting fitter and in week four, you need to start thinking about canter work, and this needs to be done in the school. Horses tend to become more supple if they start canter work earlier rather than later in their fitness programme. However, it's never a good idea to push your horse too hard. Remember, by slowly building up muscle, your horse will be a lot fitter, healthier and more balanced.
By the fifth week, it's time to start on your flatwork schooling. Your horse should be made to work so they do break out into a bit of a sweat – like this you know they have done the work you asked of them – it's the same as when you work out yourself, if you haven't sweated, then maybe you have not done enough or pushed yourself as you should have done. This is the way to build up good muscle – but with this said don't push your horse too hard either.
During week six you can start doing more intensive flatwork schooling and it's time to put in a jump or two as well. Start off with cross poles that you build into your flatwork routine. You should also start to introduce shoulder-in as well as counter-canter at this stage of your training programme. This helps build up different muscles and gets horses aerobically that much fitter too. Don't think about the height of jumps, it's more important to get your horse “bouncing” - so just keep the jumps at the height you and your mount are comfortable with.
If you feel your horse has progressed enough and you have gallops near to where you are, then it could be the right time to introduce them to the gallops. Your horse will love it and so will you! This is a great way to get your horse in super condition both physically and mentally and it really does help open up their lungs.
By week eight, you should start thinking about going along to a few smaller local shows. This will help you and your horse build up competition fitness. It will also give you a good idea of whether or not your horse is indeed mentally prepared to compete. If your horse has not had a long “lay-off”, you might even be able to think about going along to shows as early as in week six. But if you are unsure then continue with your training programme and play it safe.
Real fitness doesn't actually come about until a horse has started competing. It is after a few events that you start to notice your horse is a lot stronger which means they are that much fitter. Professional riders consider their mounts to be fit after three months of training followed by competition.
Fast work is really important in a fitness programme but so is interval training. Think about doing three 10 minute bursts at canter which should be followed by at least three minutes at the walk. Taking your horse regularly to the gallops also helps open up their lungs and it's a great way to build up their stamina too.