Horses have been trained as a riding animal for over 4000 years. The science behind this is considerably less old. It wasn’t until halfway through the 20th century that people started to gain interest in learning processes in animals. Mainly in the past couple of decades a lot of research has been done on horses in general and the equestrian sport in particular.
As riders we have several reasons to train our horses. For example, goals for a dressage rider are very different from an eventing rider’s. However, we all train our horses in five areas: coordination, endurance, strength, speed and suppleness. What you focus on, is dependent on your discipline.
These five training components are called the ‘motoric properties’. Within sports they cannot be trained separately. You’re training combinations of these properties. Eventually they are all needed to build a strong and long-lasting athlete.
Coordination is important in every branche of equestrian sports. With this many injuries are easily prevented. With coordination we mean that your horse knows where he puts down his feet. To train your horse’s coordination, it’s best to do difficult exercises briefly and often. Slowly your horse will become more and more skillful in this. If you continue these exercises for too long, chances are that your horse will become tired and his coordination will get worse.
It may not come as a surprise, but pole work is a good way of training your horse’s coordination. He really needs to lift up his feet high enough and put them down between the poles. Do you want to make it a bit harder? Use cavaletti. These are just a little higher than normal poles. You can choose to ride over the poles, to lead your horse by hand, or to put a few on the lungeing circle. Alternate between them!
For jumping and eventing riders a good exercise is to jump in-and-outs. In this exercise your horse jumps over twee (low) jumps right after each other, without an extra canter jump in between. This way he learns to estimate even better where he needs to land and where he needs to jump off.
Dressage riders can make it hard for their horse by making a turn while going backwards. Do make sure he only performs this when you ask him to. Of course you wouldn’t want him to make a sudden turn while riding a test.
Training your horse’s endurance is also important in each discipline, here too mainly to prevent injuries. If your horse gets tired during training, he will start tripping more easily or lose his focus.
To train the endurance, it is best to train on a low intensity for a long time. In the endurance sport this is called LSD training, long slow distance. When you’re focusing on endurance it’s better to twice a week work on relaxation for one and a half hour, than to do difficult exercises for half an hour.
If you want to make this training more difficult, it is very important to never increase speed and distance at the same time. First you make sure your horse can handle a longer training at a lower speed, before your start increasing the intensity.
Strength training is mainly important for jumping and collection in dressage. This does not mean that horses in other disciplines don’t have to do any strength training. Just the correct carriage of a rider requires a significant effort from a horse.
Strength is easily trained by making your horse walk across a different surface. More difficult terrain, like heavy sand of a low hill, already does a lot. If you want to make the exercise harder, you can increase your speed or ride up a steeper hill. Make sure you don’t do these things at the same time, because you can quickly make it too hard for your horse. You could also do some more difficult dressage exercises, where your horse really needs his hindquarters and abdominal muscles.
In strength training it is important to repeat exercises, with moments of resting in between. You do have to make sure you don’t do the exercises to often in a row, otherwise you’re training endurance. Besides that, it’s good to slowly build up strength training. Too much at once will not make your horse stronger.
The right speed is mainly important in racing, jumping and eventing. It is important to start this after coordination, endurance and strength are good enough. This prevents a lot of injuries. Speed is always trained on a firm, flat surface.
When you’re training speed, you’re training your horse to go fast for a long time. This can be done through interval training. In a more intensive interval training you can use a heart rate monitor to check when your horse’s heart rate comes above the ‘turning point’. When this happens, the muscles are not getting any oxygen anymore. This is called anaerobic conditioning. Lactic acid is created and at a certain point the muscles will acidify. The goal is to get above this turning point for a maximum of two minutes. Generally that point lies around 150-170 beats per minute. The average heart rate of a trained horse in canter lies around 110-120 beats per minute.
The most important thing in interval training is resting. Especially in anaerobic training, your horse really needs to rest to recover. These resting moments should be five or six times as long as the peaking moment. If you spend two minutes in a gallop, you let your horse rest in a slow pace for ten to twelve minutes. In aerobic training, in which the heart rate does not come above the turning point, the resting moment needs to be twice as long as the peaking moment.
Especially when your horse has become a bit stiff in his body because of other kinds of training, training suppleness is very useful. This is also the basis for the dressage sport, training your horse’s agility. Many riders from other disciplines ride dressage in between other training because of this. Riding circles, serpentines and tempo changes can do a lot for the suppleness of your horse.
In every kind of training it’s important to do a good warming-up. This means ten to fifteen minutes of light walking and trotting. When you start your actual training, you can do some stretching exercises with your horse, in which you can make his nose go toward his stomach. You can do this standing next to your horse, or sitting on top of him.
Within training you can mainly make use of circles. You can make them smaller and smaller, as soon as your horse is ready. Besides that, you can ride half-passes or again ride across cavaletti. While riding you can also stretch your horses muscles by asking for flexion or full extension of the neck. If you think these kinds of exercises are difficult, it can be useful to take a few lessons with a dressage instructor.
Training with technology
By means of technology you can check if your training has an effect on your horse. For example, you could use a special heart rate monitor for horses. Besides that, you can use the IPOS Rein Sensors to check if your horse is making progress in some of the motoric properties.
Using a heart rate monitor you could train endurance or strength. Endurance is especially visible if the heart rate goes up less quickly when you start training. The heart rate of a horse in good condition also goes down much more quickly after training.
At the end of a training your horse will become tired, and often start to hang into your hands. With the IPOS Rein Sensors you can see at what point this happens, and do something with it. Besides that, if you’re training endurance, you can see if this point comes later in training. In a similar way you can check the strength in his hind legs. The more a horse gets on his hindquarters, the lighter he will be in the rider’s hand. Suppleness is also easy to check with the sensors. If your horse is more loose in his body, he will be lighter in the hand. You will also need less aids to start, for example, a circle, because he is less stiff.
It takes two to tango
Within equestrian sports both horse and rider are an athlete. This means not only your horse needs to be fit, but you too. You could of course focus on the motoric properties. It is most important you work on your endurance in your personal training. When you get tired, you will notice that you become worse, both mentally and physically. You become less focused and will start to get in the way of your horse’s movements.
To improve your endurance, you could start running a few times a week. Endurance is a skill that is easy to check up on. You could make use of a heart rate monitor for this. By keeping good track of your progress, you can see if your personal training has effect and continues to do so.