Protecting our horses is a big part of our responsibility as riders and trainers. Because "fitness" is our best defense against injuries to them, we need to study it.
Webster's Dictionary is not much use in defining fitness, and Wikipedia is no better. In the absence of any help from these sources, I define fitness to mean our horses are physically and mentally capable of performing their tasks without undue stress or fatigue.
I will talk about the mental preparation of your horse in future columns, but this month I want to discuss his physical preparation. I am old-fashioned about this; I do not think there are any shortcuts to fitness. Physical fitness takes a long time to develop, and it involves a great deal of effort. At the same time, if you make the effort, I promise you will never feel such a sense of pride and satisfaction as when your horse completes the cross-country at your destination Classic and pulls up obviously thinking, "Is that all you got?"
Along the same lines, my father used to say, "A good horse, well trained, will jig home from a three-day event." I have seen it and I have done it, and to this day I remember my elation at feeling my horse after a serious competition, still well and obviously full of himself. These are worthwhile goals, and we need to start now to produce fit, sound, healthy and cheerful horses.
Plan Your Season
I hear from riders a great deal at this time of year saying, "I am so bored, I can't get out of the indoor, the footing is not suitable yet," and so on. My reply is usually, "Are you kidding me?" The winter months (and to a lesser extent the shorter summer break) are my favorite parts of the calendar. This is when I have time to sit down, evaluate my results from the past competitive season and plan the next. The main part of my planning is developing my horse's conditioning schedule for the upcoming season, which I do by working backward from a season-end "destination event."
I know having a "season" with my horses is hopelessly old-fashioned, but it works for me—and, more importantly, for my horses. One of the reasons it works is that I do not ask my horses to stay at, or near, peak fitness for extended periods of time. Once I arrive at the destination event, my horse needs a break—win, lose or draw.
As an example of a destination event, I might want a particular horse and rider to wind up at the U.S. Eventing Association Area Championships. Obviously, your goal needs to make sense for you and your horse. If you are a first-time Preliminary rider, then "ride at Rolex" is a worthy long-term goal, but not yet.
Once you set your end goal for this coming season, you want to determine how many competitions you need as preparation for it. There is no single right answer to this, but there is a correct answer for your horse at this time. If he is very experienced and you know him well, then you may just need to plan for only a couple of preparation events before trying to win the destination event. If you and your horse are green at the level at which you plan to compete, then you need more mileage before you wind up your season.
I think competing every other weekend is acceptable at the Novice and Training levels, if you and your horse need additional competitive mileage. If your area calendar requires it, you can run back-to-back competitions, depending on your horse's age and soundness. I have occasionally run Preliminary horses on back-to-back weekends, but I made sure they had a week off after that. However, this should not be a standard practice.