Setting the Record Straight: Archie Cox on Fitness for Hunters

Setting the Record Straight: Archie Cox on Fitness for Hunters

Want the inside scoop on how to get your horse ready to win in the hunter ring? Recently, esteemed hunter trainer and judge Archie Cox stopped by our Masterclass Facebook group to answer members' burning questions about preparing and caring for hunters. Read on for one of Archie's answers from the Q&A.

Q: What are Archie’s thoughts on fitness level for hunters? I was told once that it was important to not get hunters overly fit from an aerobic perspective, and rather build their fitness in an anaerobic fashion. Does this make sense and is it part of the programs at top hunter barns?

A: My horses are very fit. I learned something from John French about four years ago. I’m very lucky to have an exceptional horse in my barn right now, Laura Wasserman’s Boss. Boss has won everything you can ask a horse to win. As a pre-green horse, he was quite strong, heavy and pulling.

(When John went to ride him) I said to John, “I’m sorry he’s not quiet enough.” He said, “You’re wrong. He’s not fit enough and he’s not strong enough. He’s pulling and leaning because he’s too tired.” I was dumbfounded. I said, “He’s pulling and leaning because he is too tired?” John said, “He’s too tired to hold himself up.”

I like horses quite fit. Having hunters unfit was more (common) with Thoroughbreds. You generally have to work a Thoroughbred down a little bit more. Warmblood horses have a quieter demeanor, typically. They’re easier to just get on, but you still want your horse fit. You want your horse fit enough that he can do the job, even if he may have to be worked down some to be quiet enough to show, but strong enough to do the intended job. Our horses are probably ridden five to six days a week. They might not be ridden hard, but there is something about being worked or being walked with a rider that is so important. Simply taking a horse out and walking them for 30 or 40 minutes under saddle is beneficial. Leaving horses “fat and happy” doesn't make sense; there are very few sports where athletes are “fat and happy”. They are generally fit and conditioned for their intended jobs.

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I’ll use Boss as an example. As a top horse, he doesn’t practice a lot at home but his fitness is very important. I’ll jump a small cavaletti, they are about 18 inches at most, and I’ll make him jump it eight or ten times using most of the ring. This makes sure he is fit enough and conditioned so that when we ask him to go in the show ring and work, he is able to do that with ease. His intended job is as a hunter, so he jumps approximately eight to ten fences. I want a great looking topline with a great, cresty neck. I want muscle down his back, through his hindquarters, so that he is able to carry himself. The fitness might be a little different for an adult hunter or a children’s hunter than a top junior hunter, but their jobs are different.

That’s important - to understand the demands of the horse's intended job, and condition them for that specific job. A horse that shows with a professional is different than a junior or amateur or children’s horse. That’s something that, as a horseman, is important to identify and respect. Regarding fitness, a fit horse is generally a sounder, happier horse. When you show and ask them to compete and try a little bit harder, you should have done that at home and know there is always a little extra in the tank. You’re always asking them to do a little less than their maximum. You want a comfortable, confident horse. Fitness is so important for horse and rider.

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