Training your horse is only half the job. The other half is conditioning, as we discussed in the editorial on page 2. A horse won’t be able to work at peak form or for sustained periods at shows if his conditioning doesn’t match his training and talent. When you aren’t schooling, do more than just walk on a long rein. Make time in the ring more productive for your horse.
To many riders, conditioning means trotting up hills or interval work, but there’s a lot that can be accomplished in the arena. First, you have to consider the space you have to work in. Is it clogged with jumps or equipment' How consistent is the footing' Do you work mostly by yourself, or is there a traffic jam after school and in the evening'
Take a look at the jumps that are always set up in the same place, limiting the types of lines that can be ridden. How many horses in your barn really need to be riding a course all the time' Most horses that jump only need to school an occasional line of gymnastics to keep them fresh, and it can be set up or piled in one place quite quickly. Also, if your ring is sprinkled with jumps, it can’t be dragged regularly or evenly. This leads to one line around the rail pounded hard by too many hooves.
If your ring is clear enough so you have a 20-meter circle, diagonal lines, quarter lines and/or even a centerline, you’re in business. At the least, the jumps should be set in enough from the rail so that two horses can ride side-by-side or pass head-to-head. Here are some ideas to help build fitness in the ring:
• Deliberately post on the “incorrect” diagonal on a circle. You want to relieve the strain of pushing with the inside hind leg, so therefore you usually post as that leg comes forward. But if you want to influence the other hind leg you can post on that diagonal instead.
When you find your horse can do a bending line on the “incorrect” diagonal on each side without feeling uncomfortable, you know he’s reaching well under his body with each hind leg.
• Watch the clock. Guess how long you think you’re riding and then note how much time you actually spend working. In an hour, you may be walking or standing around for 45 minutes. Or you may be trotting much of the time and only cantering for a couple of minutes. Or you may be working more to one side than the other without realizing it. If you don’t want to watch a clock, set up a boom box with a tape you’ve timed and keep riding until the tape ends.
Here’s an interesting test. Without any advance planning, just ride your normal session, but keep track of exactly how many laps you work to the right and the left in each gait. We all know that we should work our horses equally on each side, but our horses have a subtle way of getting us back to the side they prefer, usually their stronger side.
We may do five laps to the left, then virtuously switch to the right — the stiffer side, for example — but because it’s a little less comfortable we switch back to the left after a couple of laps. We think we’ve worked both sides, but we haven’t.
In order to overcome a weakness to one side, it’s not enough to work 50/50 on each side because that will just maintain the status quo. You have to spend a lot more time on the stiffer side, but it’s just not as much fun. The same thing holds true for a gait you don’t enjoy. If your horse’s canter is unbalanced and scares you a bit, you may spend most of your time trotting, but that won’t help the canter to improve.
Another test along the same idea: Go from sitting trot to posting trot several times on a 20-meter circle in each direction. Don’t try to post on the “correct” diagonal, but just note which diagonal you start out on each time you post. If your horse manages to put you on one diagonal most of the time, then he’s clearly pushing with one hind leg more than the other, and you need to plan more trot work that will strengthen the weaker hind leg.
• Work with a friend. Horses like equine company. Work in pairs so that the outside horse has to stretch his gait on corners and curves and the inside horse has to collect. Or “draft” each other, following nose to tail. The horse in back especially benefits from keeping pace with the horse in front. It’s also a good way to get input on riding position, with the rider in back coaching the rider in front.
• Set up trotting poles on a bending line instead of a straight line. Set three or five poles on the track of a 20-meter circle in a “wagon-spoke” arrangement. The center of the rails should be the horse’s normal stride. If you ride toward the outside of the rails, your horse will have to extend. If you ride toward the inside, your horse will have to collect. It’s useful to have a ground person to adjust the rails if necessary.
• Transitions. Transitions. Transitions. It’s one of the most efficient ways you can build your horse’s strength. Aim toward using less hand and more seat and leg. Go from trot to one stride of walk and immediately back to trot. Try trot to halt to reinback to trot. If your horse has enough balance to do counter-canter and canter-walk transitions, try three (or five) strides of true canter to three strides of walk to three strides of counter-canter and repeat. On a circle, ask for a lengthening for three strides, and then return to the working gait and repeat.
• Circles. Besides the good, old 20-meter circle and the figure eight, try circles in new places. Do a complete circuit of the ring with a 10-meter circle in each corner. Or ride down the long side with a 10- or 15-meter circle in the middle. Ride a serpentine, but add a circle in each loop. Turn the jumps into a slalom course and ride a circle around each one.
• Leg-yielding. Find new places to leg-yield besides on a circle or from the quarter line. Stair-step across the arena with three strides of leg-yield and then three strides of straight, three strides of leg-yield, and so on. Ride straight across the diagonal but turn onto the centerline halfway across and continue in leg-yield.
• Chart your horse’s progress. This week maybe he’s able to do only one four-minute canter set before he starts to puff. Next week he should be able to do two three-minute canter sets and the week after that two four-minutes sets, and so on. Or he progresses from short leg-yield sets to longer shoulder-in sets over a period of days to weeks.
Take your glove off several times in session and, depending on the weather and whether he’s clipped, note how much work he can do before he starts to get warm or damp. If he gets a couple days off, you need to take a step or two backward in the number and frequency of sets.