Now that spring is here, some of you may be considering showing. As horse owners, there is an important question you must ask yourself: What discipline is your horse physically and mentally suited. We all love our horses dearly, but truthfully, is he suited to what we really want to do? To answer the question, we must first determine if your horse will require speed, collection, or a combination of speed, collection and skill to properly execute the chosen tasks of the equestrian discipline. In addition to the physical demands, you must be honest and look at your horse's mental and emotional state to see if he can perform these tasks. I have an amazing Hanoverian, who is both physically suitable for dressage and is most athletic, but unfortunately, he doesn't have the mental capacity to even walk into the show ring, so why put him through the rigours of training if he will have a mental collapse looking at the judge!
Once you have decided on what discipline you want to pursue with your equine partner, you now must create an individualized training program, "conditioning training" tailored specifically to your horse.
Conditioning training consists of three basic stages, that being the initial stage, the developmental stage and then the maintenance stage. The length of time it will take your horse to get to peak performance condition depends on many variables, such as your horse's breed, genetic disposition, age, mental state and the demands of the discipline you have chosen for your horse.
No matter the equestrian discipline, research has shown that initial training should begin with long slow distance training (also known as LSD) which gradually increases your horses physical exertion. Working your horse over a large variety of terrain (hills, flat, water), if possible, provides the excellent groundwork for your equine athlete. The objective of this stage is to increase the exercise from a walk and trot averaging 4-5 mph to a canter of 10-12 mph. Not only will your horse's cardiovascular system be strengthened, it will also increase the durability and elasticity of the muscoskeletal system thereby reducing the chance of future injury.
The second stage of conditioning focuses on the aspects that are important in your chosen discipline. This stage in the conditioning program focuses on the coordination, balance and skill of your athlete in that equestrian field. Whether it be reining, hunter/jumper, dressage, or racing, initially all these exercises within this field will be done at half the rate of duration of what is expected during the actual event. But once your horse has developed the sufficient skill and coordination, you'll be able to put your horse through strenuous workouts which will then target the specific muscle groups required in that discipline.
Most trainers suggest a 5-day week training program where the horse is ridden at an aerobic level on days 1 and 5 and then on days 2, 3 and 4 more intense exercise is added to the regular workout routine to increase the physical demand. The horse is at rest for 2 days.
However, another newer, non-typical approach is interval training which consists of a 6-day week workout applying the concept of "overload" which is to exercise your horse to the point nearing fatigue. Just as the traditional training program, this new approach puts your horse through an aerobic exercise on days 1 and 4 followed by intense workouts on days 2 and 5 and on days 3 and 6 horses are ridden very lightly for a very short period of time of about 15 minutes. The horse is at complete rest for one day.
During the intense workout days (2 and 5), your horse must be closely watched and monitored as this workout ends just as your horse's heart rate elevates over previously recorded times, which is considered to be the verge of fatigue.
What is very important, no matter what method you use you must watch how your horse responds to both the physical and mental training and this will determine whether his workload should be increased, decreased or maintained at the current level.
How do you know when to increase to the next phase of training? To determine this, you really must monitor your horse's heart rate. You need to know your horse's normal resting rate and be aware of the length of time it takes for your horse to recover to a normal rate following exercise. As a rule of thumb, your horse would be ready to move on to the next stage of development when he has a solid heart rate recovery within 5 - 15 minutes following an hour of steady exertion, or when he can maintain a heart rate of under 150 beats per minute at a long gallop.
However, as an owner, you MUST be able to recognize the signs of stress and fatigue. If your horse's pulse recovery rate is longer than 15 minutes, your horse was put through too much of a challenge than he was physically able and MUST be brought back down to a lower level of exercise. At any time if there is a sudden increase in heart rate, it can be suggested that your horse is in pain and must be checked for injuries before you continue with further training. Signs of stress can include but not limited to changes in gait, irritability, weight loss, attitude dullness, a decrease in appetite or lower leg edema.
Keeping your horse in peak condition for the entire length of the show season can be difficult and time consuming, but you can maintain that condition by bringing your horse to, or just under, their peak then tapering the length of exercise by half (holding pattern). Just prior to the event, your horse can rest. Following the competition, your horse should be allowed time to recuperate before bringing him back into an exercise routine by taking him to near peak condition again and then to that holding pattern before the next event. Please be aware that for any amount of rest time given will require an equal amount of reconditioning time for your horse to ready for competition.
Not only must you be aware of the physical demands placed on your horse, but mental preparation is just as important to any conditioning program. A ring sour horse may signal discomfort or an issue with the conditioning program and training must be addressed. The mood or attitude of your horse is an excellent gauge to how your horse is handling the stress of training. Look for the signs: ears pinned back, tossing of the head, swishing of the tail, difficulty in catching your horse. These are all signs that show you that something is wrong. It is extremely important that your horse be evaluated as an individual throughout the training process. Not only must you be able to produce a physically fit athlete, but one that is mentally and psychologically prepared for competition. If you are wanting to compete throughout the lengthy show season, you'll need a horse that is ready and willing to complete along side you and you must incorporate a well laid out and thoughtful conditioning program which will FULLY prepare your horse for the rigours of competition.