To start with, you need to know what activity it is that the horse is fit for. Being fit for a three-day event is a world away from being fit for a Riding Club dressage test. Whatever it is that you are aiming for, your horse has to be fit for the job without undue stress.
Reaching the stage of fitness required is the rider's responsibility. However, it's not just a case of writing down a programme of work for x number of weeks and getting on with it. There is much more to fitness than that - you'll need to adopt an overall approach and take in to consideration how you manage your horse mentally and physically, how you feed him, school him and ensure his muscular, cardio-vascular and skeletal systems are all functioning as well as they can.
Fitness is often seen as a confusing subject and everyone has their own way of doing things and have their own preferences. If you ask any professionals about fitness they will each have their own versions, according to their beliefs and experiences, what facilities they have available and the types of horses they are producing and working with.
First things first
Think about your long-term goal. If you are keen to go eventing you'll have several things to think about in addition to fitness i.e. whether your dressage is up to scratch, if you need more show jumping practice, how you are going to get over the mental block you seem to have about jumping ditches and so on. It is vital that, in planning your fitness programme, you schedule in time to tackle the various points you have identified as needing more work.
Get organized - Before you start to devise any fitness programme it's as well to organize a few things first. If your horse has been resting you'll need to get the farrier and the equine dentist booked in. Check where you are in your horse's worming programme and ensure that he is up to date with his annual vaccinations. If the latter is not yet due then mark it in your calendar so that you do not forget it.
If your horse has been enjoying his time off a little too much (i.e. acrobatics above the ground, skidding to a halt from a flat out gallop etc) it might be worth getting a second opinion to to check him out skeletally and his muscles.
Check that your tack is all okay - check that the tree and all the stitching are sound and that the flocking is level, without any bumps. Before you even think about going riding, check how well the saddle fits your horse. If he's been off work for a while, there may be some adjustments needed. Consult with a reputable saddler. Remember to check your tack fit as part of your weekly routine.
Legs and feet - Hopefully it will already be a regular part of your daily routine to run your hands down your horse's legs and over his feet, before and after work, to feel for any differences in temperature, locate any wounds or grazes etc. If you don't already do this, then please start now! It's important that you know immediately if your horse is feeling 'off' or one of his legs feels a little puffy. If you can catch any problems early on you will save your horse pain and further injury and yourself time and money.
Make it a regular part of your daily routine to feel your horse's legs and feet so you are aware of any changes or peculiarities.
Another useful tip is to take your horse's temperature daily. Do this at the same time each day as it can vary throughout the day. Keep a record in your horse's diary - if you don't keep a horse diary it's a good practice to get into. Just noting down how your horse feels in his work sessions, his temperature, and any injuries sustained etc can build into a really useful picture.
This is particularly important as when looking back you can often see patterns developing - often a useful pointer in explaining your horse's current health niggles or behavioural issues.
The first building block
Whatever your end goal all fitness programme start with a good base - which means plenty of walking for your horse i.e. walking out with a purpose, not just ambling along!
How much time you spend walking can depend on your horse and his past - for instance if coming back from a leg injury he may need more time in walk. Consult with your vet if this is the case.
If your horse is simply coming back into work from a rest then two to three weeks spent hacking at walk, building up from 30minutes to an hour and a half should be fine.
If your horse tends to be the highly-strung type it might be safer to start him working on the lunge or on a horse walker, if you have access to one, rather than risk going on the roads. After a few days, hopefully you will be able to hack out.
When walking out, you need to have the horse moving forwards actively, but he doesn't have to be on the bit - if you do try to have him on the bit his muscles will ache and you could cause problems for yourself and your horse.
The Second Building Block
Once your horse has completed the initial weeks in walk and is working for up to an hour and a half, you can start to introduce short periods of trot. In an ideal world you'll have access to good road surfaces, with a mixture of level surfaces and slight inclines to work on, so that you can trot out on hacks. In reality you will have to think about your hacking routes and plan them so that you can take advantage of the best areas for trotting.
You can also introduce trot in the arena - stick to simpler movements such as figures of eight using 20metre circles initially so that you are not placing too great a strain on your horse's body too early.
If you have quiet roads for hacking you can add variety by introducing some leg yielding or shoulder-in as you ride along. If your roads are too busy, reserve this work for the school. Gradually build up the frequency and length of the trot periods.
The availability of riding time can be an issue, especially if you have a demanding job and a family to look after. So try to plan your programme, week by week, perhaps substituting work on the lunge in walk and trot for a hack, if you know you will be pushed for time on a particular day.
A great deal will depend on the time of year and the facilities available in your area - do try to keep a daily riding diary as then, if things do go awry, you will have an accurate record of your horse's work to date. This makes it easier to know, for instance if you've had to miss a week of work, at what point you can pick up the fitness programme.
To add variety to your schooling sessions, you can incorporate trotting poles. If your horse is the excitable type, having a few poles dotted around the arena, so it becomes 'normal' to trot around, incorporating a pole every now and then, should help to educate him that polework is just part of life.
With trotting work incorporated into your plans and everything running to plan, you can start to introduce canter work. As with any increase in pace, keep the initial periods short and build them up gradually.
Depending on the time of year, your canter work may initially be confined to your school. However, if you are lucky enough to have good places to canter as part of your hacking routes that is great - but do not make the mistake of cantering in the same places every time or you'll be creating a potential problem for yourself. We've all seen horses charging off with their riders because they always canter in certain places - the problem comes when the ground is too hard to canter, or the going too deep, and the potential for injury is greater.
Aim to start your canter work on straight lines if possible and establish a balanced, rhythmical pace, so it is easier for the horse to breathe in time with his strides. Avoid cantering for long periods on the lunge as this places more strain on the hock joints. As with the trot, build up the amount of time spent cantering - be aware of your ultimate goal and don't overdo the work as you do not want your horse too fit - there's no point being fit enough to do an affiliated one day event if you are only entering the local showjumping classes as this places unnecessary strain, wear and tear on your horse.
Short schooling sessions should be incorporated into your weekly programme, with your horse working in all three paces.Make sure your horse has a mix of work each week so that he does not become bored - planning your weekly schedule should also ensure, for instance, that he does not have six schooling sessions back to back. Plan in your polework exercises and start to incorporate some small jumps.
By now, your fitness programme has probably been in existence for about eight weeks, with your horse having a mix of work in the arena and out on hacks, working in walk, trot and canter.
If there are some local dressage competitions you could include these as part of your preparatory work, to help both of you get back into competition mode.
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