During every show season, we carefully train our horses to perform their best for a few special competitions and classes. As a trainer and rider, one of the most important skills to develop is knowing how to prepare a horse to reach the pinnacle of fitness and training to produce their best rounds, whether it be during an important indoor show or a particular class.
At True North Stables, the end of summer means preparing our string of horses and riders for the indoor season — also known as finals season. Our first major final of the year is only a few short weeks away: the Platinum Performance/United States Hunter Jumper Association (USHJA) Green Hunter Incentive Championship and the Platinum Performance/USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship (Derby Finals). These championships, held at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky, are two of the biggest events of the year for hunters. So we want our horses to reach peak performance at those finals, and I know the same is true for amateurs, juniors, and professionals alike when it comes to the end-of-year indoor shows.
It’s our job to prepare our horses with an individualized training and home care program so they can perform their best. For any horse that walks down the aisle of True North, whether it’s a hunter, jumper, or equitation horse, it’s my job to design a routine that is best suited for them. Although every horse is unique and has different needs, there are five key ingredients that I’ve found are important across the board.
1. Set Attainable Goals for Your Horse, Skills, and Budget
It’s important to set attainable goals for your horse. If they are are competition-oriented objectives, look at those goals mapped out on a calendar. What events are most important to you as a rider or trainer? What events are attainable for your horse?
Being realistic with your goals is important. Take into consideration factors such as your horse’s capabilities as well as your time and budget. Once you’ve set your main focus and outcome, build your training program around that goal. And if your goal is any of the end-of-year finals or indoor shows, there is still plenty of time!
2. Alternate These 3 Types of Work
Just as we wouldn’t be able to hop up and win an 800-meter hurdles race after months of sitting around, we can’t expect our horses to go out and jump or compete well if they haven’t been properly conditioned. Similarly, just as a human athlete may train legs one day and upper body another, it’s important to vary your horse’s fitness regime. It’s important to keep your horse’s fitness regime fresh and exciting. What this looks like for each horse will inevitably vary, but your program could — and should — include some of the following exercises:
Low-intensity work: This includes walking on a hot walker or treadmill, trail riding, or light hacks in the ring.
Flatwork, flatwork, and more flatwork: We don’t jump our horses much at home. Instead, we emphasize building fitness and a strong foundation on the flat. This is different than low-intensity hacks or trail rides, as you should flat with intention during these rides by keeping your horse engaged and varying your movements. Depending on the horse, I might incorporate exercises such as lateral movements, counter-cantering to work on balance and engaging the hind end, or a focus on transitions.
Ground poles, cavalettis, and grid work: When we do incorporate fences at home, it’s often in the form of specific, shortened exercises rather than full courses. Straightforward ground pole work can also be extremely beneficial in encouraging a horse to develop better rhythm and balance through the hind end, as well as improving timing and adjustability, and cavalettis and grid work can be set for specific areas of focus.
3. Learn How Your Horse Works Best
To me, this is the most important factor of success in any training program. Truly knowing your horse and creating a program accordingly can go such a long way! Humans respond differently depending on the situation, just like horses.
The perfect example for this is my mount for Derby Finals, Durpetti Equestrian LLC’s Cassius. He does not do well in a highly-structured program that works extremely well for some of our other horses. High pressure or more difficult situations such as complicated grid work make him nervous, and focused flatwork several days in a row makes him sour. So instead, his weekly routine and fitness program is more relaxed than many of our other horses. He’s still kept fit, but many days he’s allowed to go around more casually or with his nose poked out a bit just enjoying the ride. He’s the happiest he’s ever been and jumping the best he ever has!
When you truly know your horse’s personality and idiosyncrasies and tailor your program to their quirks, you’re far more likely to achieve success in the show ring.
4. Don't Avoid Weaknesses — Be Brave and Address Them!
By getting to know your horse, you’ll learn what their weaknesses are and can address them in your training program. If your horse isn’t strong behind, maybe it’s time to incorporate more hill work. I had one young horse arrive not quite as robust on his left lead as he was on his right lead, so some of the exercises that I’m doing at home involve big crossrails with landing poles that make him really focus on his shape. The only way to strengthen those weaknesses is to effectively and consistently work on them!
5. Celebrate Little Victories
If you’re not able to enjoy the process and have fun along the way to achieving your goals, then why do you do it? Have fun with your training program — reflect on and celebrate your horse’s progress, and don’t get hung up on plateaus or frustrations that naturally come with the sport. At the end of the day, horseback riding and training should bring enjoyment for both you and your horse.
Best of luck, and happy training!
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Photography by Fine Art Horses.