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This time of year is very miserable and if you’re a horse owner this is, probably, the worst time of year for you. Every day you’re cold and wet, your horse is fresh and every ride is wild and the fields are no longer fields, they’re swamps.
However, the light at the end of this miserable tunnel is the event season (if you said summer you have your priorities wrong!) Come March all the hard work will be worth it.
Although officially the event season starts in March, for many eventers the season began last year in November. Getting event horses fit is an arduous task and can be daunting and sometimes a bit boring. It can also be difficult to know where to start so I’m going to offer some advice on how I get my event horses ready for the season, to hopefully help you to know where to start!
A bit of background; my horses finish the event season at the end of September and get to have just over a month in the field, enjoying the last of the autumn sun and having a good break. They come back in from November and begin their fitness regime. My horses are all relatively young so don’t take as long as an older horse might to get fit, but this isn’t to say it can be rushed. Building fitness is not just about building aerobic fitness to make it round the cross country it’s also to strengthen and build muscles, tendons and ligaments, particularly in the legs to prevent injury.
Im very lucky to have a horse walker that is invaluable in helping the fitness routine. During the first week they all begin their day in the field if the weather allows and then they come in to have 30 minutes of walking on the walker in the afternoons. For me this is to take the edge off after having over a month off so they are less likely to be completely wild when back under saddle. From the second week they begin their ridden work alongside turnout and walker. We try and keep the walker work to 30 minutes as any more is very boring for the horses. Under saddle I begin with stretchy work, rather than picking them up straight away. The ridden sessions last between 30-45 minutes of basic walk, trot and canter. All long and low but still powering from behind. Transitions are your best friends during these sessions, they don’t need to be a direct transitions even half transitions (within gait transitions) are really helpful. This is to ensure you have the basics; such as suppleness and balance. It is also really helpful to build muscles, especially top line. The most important thing to remember during this time is that it DOESN’T need to be done in the school, this can be done on the lunge or hacking (don’t canter on the road) and different scenery is so beneficial for horses and it keeps them from going sour! It’s very important to gauge the footing if working in fields or tracks, you don’t want to do fast work if the ground is too hard or too wet, always be safe and sensible.
From week 4 I start introducing pole and cavaletti work. There are so many different pole work exercises that you can do and they all have very different purposes to help your horse (pole work exercises will be in a separate blog). My personal favourite type of pole or grid work is anything on a bend, anything on a bend really gets the horses core working well. Again, even though you’re introducing pole work doesn’t mean you can abandon hacking and lunging. A varied programme is physically and mentally beneficial to both you and your horse!
From week 6 I start introducing jumping. This does not need to be big. Focus on rideability in these early sessions. So can you make it from one fence to another in a nice rhythm and on the right stride? Again, there are so many different jumping/grid work exercises you can do.
From week 8 I begin introducing gallop sessions (this doesn’t mean galloping blindly up a gallop track). During my gallop sessions I spend time walking, trotting and cantering the length of the gallop. If they are on an incline this is even better. During these sessions I ensure the horse is working from behind and not just pulling themselves along with their front end. Again introducing half transitions are brilliant for ensuring the horse is working properly and keeping them on the hind end. Letting the horse have a brief ‘sprint’ session while on the gallops is a great way to burn off excess energy and also check you have breaks and your horse is rideable. Always have your end goal in your head. “On the cross country I have to be able to push the horse forward between fences and also hold back between a combination of fences” the gallops are a great place to test this without any fences of slippery ground getting in the way.
You can also begin introducing competitions into your routine. I like to get the horses out to some dressage shows to begin with, it gives me a base to work from after reading judges comments and adds some further direction into my training routine. Then I begin taking horses to showjumping competitions so they can start seeing courses and stringing multiple fences together. If any of the horses are particularly young or inexperienced I begin with arena hires first to get them used to a new environment. But this is personal preference for you and your horse.
I don’t take my horses cross country schooling until 2-3 weeks before the first event. Usually because the ground isn’t good enough and I also like my horses to be fully fit before I start taking them on harder ground. But again, this is personal preference to you and your horses experience and confidence.
Some very important things that you should consider before and during the fitness process:
Getting horses into shape can be a bit dull as it is a lot of walking and slowly building the horses up, so having a friend to do it with you, or even a brilliant playlist on Spotify can really help! Don’t be tempted to rush it or skip steps because it slows you down in the long run.
The biggest thing to remember is variety is key; don’t stay in the school all the time, mix it up a bit. Making a plan in a diary or a calendar can help ensure you’re not doing too much in the school and adding variety, it can also help with focus.
Enjoy the fitness process and make sure you have a great team of professionals (physio/chiro/nutritionist/saddler etc) around to help you!
Some of my recommended helpers: