Horse Training Goes Better If You Add Variety

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Imagine this: Every day at school, all your teachers attempt to instruct you in math, science, history and foreign language the same way ? read the book, listen to a boring lecture while you take some notes, then take a test. it's all memorizing facts and repeating them. They never do anything that makes you to think critically or that encourages you to do anything for yourself.

And then one year a new teacher arrives to teach biology in a whole new manner, giving students individual projects to design and make on their own and taking them on field trips. And ? wow! ? you get excited about frogs and genetics, you and

Hill work addresses more than competitive challenges.

Hill work addresses more than competitive challenges.

your friends sign up in droves to go to science fairs, and several earn scholarships to major universities.

Well, the situation isn?t that much different for your horse. If every day you walk him 50 yards to the ring, where you do circles and go sideways or you jump the same six jumps that have been in the same place for months, are you really surprised that your horse looks bored and acts lethargic' Are you surprised that you either have to kick him like mad to get him to trot or that he explodes when you ask for the trot' Are you surprised that he rushes those fences He's jumped 500 times' Wouldn?t you do the same, if you were in his shoes, just to do something different'

Think Of It As Cross-Training

Ask yourself, why don't you ever do anything different with your horse' Is it because you have limited time' Is it circumstances or logistics, as in the only place you could possibly ride is in that ring' Or is it really because you're afraid to try something new'

These are certainly all challenges, but if you?d like your horse to be something other than a bored robot or a cantankerous beast, you have to figure out ways to put variety in his life ? and yours. If you want him to be willing and eager, you need to both stimulate and relax him mentally, just as a teacher must to deal with school-age boys and girls. Teachers (including anyone who teaches riding) should also instruct their students on how to think, how to cope with changes or the unexpected. And the best way to do those things for your horse is to put variety into his educational program.

If you want to successfully compete your horse, you need to treat him like an athlete, and good athletes (and their coaches) don't just do the same thing over and over and over again in training. They do exercises to develop specific skills and specific muscle groups, they do drills to develop coordination, they do other exercises to sharpen their focus and mental skills ? and they do some exercises just for fun.

But if every day you work on the same 20-meter circle, jog slowly around the entire arena for 10 minutes, or jump the same tired set of jumps again, you haven't done any of that. You?ve just worked the same muscles (including the brain) in the same way for the 100th time ? and your horse feels as bored as you felt in school years ago.

Balancing Act

Balance and fitness are essential components of any athletic performance, and neither of them will progress fully if a horse's training doesn't develop them.

How can your dressage horse develop the strength to carry himself ? or even the desire to do it ? if he only ever works in a confined, flat ring' His balance and strength will improve exponentially if you and he navigate inclines and hills while going around fields or across the countryside. Changes in elevation and ground will require him to hold himself up, will teach him how to rely on himself to maintain his balance.

Hills and changes in the ground will do the same for the show hunter whose rider has trouble keeping him balanced before the fences, a horse who just gets lower and longer as the course progresses.

If you have an incline or hill to work on regularly (once or twice a week), in several weeks You'll see muscles develop in your horse's back, hindquarters and gaskins that he didn't have before. And You'll feel a stronger, more confident balance.

One reason You'll feel that difference is mental. While there are a few horses who thrive on repetition and actually do get anxious when you change their schedule, 95 percent of horses thrive on doing different things, on seeing different sights ? and a good 25 percent perform poorly if they don't get a break from drilling in the ring. For the vast majority of horses, getting out of the ring makes them more eager to work, more eager to try.

Why' Certainly variety is a proven antidote for boredom, but presenting horses with new challenges to their balance, strength and expectations engages their brains and encourages them to think for themselves, to solve problems on their

Trail riding is a refreshing change of pace for both horse and rider.

Trail riding is a refreshing change of pace for both horse and rider.

own. Horses are like children (and some adults) in that they generally won?t do more than they have to. If you're always holding their heads up or telling them where to put their feet, then they?ll usually stop trying to do it themselves.

Competitive performance is the result of the horse obeying your aids and working with you to do more than simply clear the jumps or execute the movements. A successful performance doesn't happen if the horse merely acknowledges, ?OK, I'll do that now.? He has to be fully able and eager to do it. He has to want to do it.

Out Of The Ring'

Unfortunately, riding your horse somewhere other than the ring is easier for some riders than others, either because they literally have nowhere else to conveniently ride or because they?re afraid to try it.

We've talked about fear previously (September 2008), but logistics can be just as daunting if you have no easy access to places to hack or trails. Can you at least ride around the pastures, even if you can only walk' Or can you put him in a trailer and drive to a park or larger farm, perhaps once a week or twice a month' Do you live near a coastline and know where you can ride on the beach' Perhaps you know of another stable with access to trails where you could move'

If logistics make none of these options possible (or not possible on a regular basis), then you need to use your imagination to come up with engaging study breaks for your horse from riding.

Practice turning and doing transitions without reins, at the walk or trot. Use your legs, weight and seat, and voice to turn, move laterally, or to slow down or halt. You can use objects like jumps, barrels or a mounting block as obstacles to move or turn around. You could even work up to jumping without reins, an exercise in balance that would be good for both or you.

Instead of drilling lateral movements or collection, work your horse ?long and low,? encouraging him to stretch those huge muscles in his topline, instead of contracting them. And you can work on turns, transitions and bending using your legs and seat.

You could longe him instead of riding him, using sidereins or a chambon to encourage him to stretch and to use his back and hindquarters by changing the size of the circle and by doing lots of transitions.NT>

For jumping, the key to adding variety is to move the jumps, to create new exercises and challenges. Mix up short courses, single jumps, gymnastic combinations and gymnastic lines. Make your horse and you think, react, and use different parts of your body. We highly recommend Linda Allen?s 101 Jumping Exercises For Horse And Rider. The exercises are progressive, effective, and easy to set up.

Article by John Strassburger, our Performance Editor. A graduate A Pony Clubber, John has decades of experience in eventing, steeplechasing and dressage. With his wife, he operates Phoenix Farm, a breeding/training center in California.