Performance Enhancing Tips

Training insight from three top riders in the English sports - eventer Marty Morani, international dressage competitor Suzanne Van Cuyk, and hunter/jumper trainer Louise Serio.
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Training insight from three top riders in the English sports - eventer Marty Morani, international dressage competitor Suzanne Van Cuyk, and hunter/jumper trainer Louise Serio.

MARTY MORANI: Practice a balanced galloping position for better control.
Event riders tend to blame their horses when they get taken off with. "He's such a bad puller," an exhausted eventer might complain as she comes off cross-country. Sometimes it's true--some horses are just naturally stronger than others-but just as often, the rider is as much to blame as the horse. Why? Because she hasn't learned to ride in a balanced galloping position with her weight balanced over her feet. Instead, she leans on her hands, and by extension her horse's mouth, creating a balance in which each partner is pulling on the other. That's like riding the brakes in your car, keep your foot on them long enough and sooner or later, they'll just go away.

Louise Serio. ? Mandy Lorraine

Louise Serio. ? Mandy Lorraine

Learn to ride instead in a balanced galloping position, with your leg on and your weight over your foot, and you may find that runaway problems you used to blame on your horse disappear. A few things to practice at home:

  • Improve your endurance. Practice holding your galloping position out on hacks, at the walk, trot or canter. Start with short intervals in two-point-making sure NOT to lean on your hands--and build up the length of those intervals. The stronger your legs are, the less likely you are to get tired and lean on your horse's neck.
  • Practice cantering down hills. Cantering down slight hills will help give you the feeling of galloping with your leg slightly out in front of you, the place it needs to be to keep you safe at cross-country speeds.
  • Practice pace. Use a meter wheel to measure out 1-minute distances at the cross-country speed for your level. If you ride at training level, for example, measure 450-meter intervals. With a stopwatch on, try to canter that distance in exactly one minute. Keep practicing until you feel comfortable moving at that speed.
  • Get your leg on. Practice riding "bow-legged," thinking about keeping your leg wrapped around your horse even when you are in galloping position. (Standing up in the stirrups and taking your leg off is easy, getting in galloping position and keeping your leg on takes practice.) If you are riding at that 450 mpm training-level pace, practice slowing your horse down to 350 mpm and urging him on to 500 mpm, as you will have to do cross-country; concentrating on keeping your leg ON through both the upward and downward transitions.SUZANNE VAN CUYK: Ride your test at home to tune your performance.
    Practicing your dressage test before a show not only helps you memorize the movements, it can prepare you to deal with problems that might arise in the ring. That's one reason that students at my Laverdonk Dressage (Doylestown, Pennsylvania) ride through their tests once or twice a week before the show. During that practice session, they take special note of any movements-a particular transition or figure, for example-with which their horse has problems. In the week leading up to the show, that type of movement (but not the whole test) will be incorporated into schooling rides. That way, the horse gets more comfortable with the movement and, just as importantly, the rider can experiment with ways to fix any problems that crop up there. If a particular horse breaks into canter during his trot lengthenings, for example, the rider can experiment with various ways of bringing him back and asking again, until she finds a way that the horse responds quietly and smoothly to. Then, once they are in the show ring, if he breaks again his rider will have a much better chance of fixing the problem quickly and getting her test back on track without upsetting herself or her horse.LOUISE SERIO: Build your horse's strength for straighter jumping.
    From Louise's "No More Lying on His Side" in Practical Horseman, June 1997.Beef up your flatwork. Begin by making sure your horse's hind end is always "in gear" when you work on the flat. Use whatever incentive is necessary - from a squeeze with your calves to a tap of a whip - to encourage him to move forward with energy and carry himself on his hindquarters at the trot and canter. When he's moving forward, begin to put him on the bit and supple him. To even out his suppleness, always spend more time working his stiffer side. If he's harder to bend to the left than to the right, for example (probably from the same weakness that causes him to lie on his side), work him more to the left. With both there strategies, start slowly and build the time and effort you ask for gradually, allowing your horse's weak areas to adapt to the new demands.Head for the hills. If possible, incorporate hill work into your regular conditioning program. Start with ten minutes walking up and down gentle slopes and gradually build to fifteen to twenty minutes in equal amounts of walk and trot, eventually incorporating steeper climbs. Going up and down hills, always assume a two-point position (your seat out of the saddle) to free his back - and be careful with downhill work, which can be hard on horses with stifle problems. (If you suspect your horse's stifles at all, check with your veterinarian before starting hill work.) As with any new fitness program (think of your own experiences with running, weight training,or aerobics), use common sense. Take it easy in the beginning, and alternate days to give challenged muscles a chance to repair and grow between workouts. But don't be sporadic; any strengthening program must be regular and ongoing to have a beneficial effect. See "On-Course Saves" in the February, 2002 issue of Practical Horseman for more tips.