Horses have been trained as riding animals for over 4,000 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 the learning processes of animals. In the past couple of decades, a great deal of research has been carried out into horses in general, and equestrian sports in particular.
Horse riders may work towards achieving very different objectives in their horse’s training. For example, the goals of a dressage rider are very different from an event rider’s. However, we all train our horses in five areas: coordination, endurance, strength, speed and suppleness. What you focus on, depends upon your discipline.
These five training components are called the ‘motoric properties’. In a sports context, they are not practiced as separate training disciplines. Sports training always involves combinations of at least some of these elements. And ultimately, they are all needed to build a strong athlete for the long-term.
Coordination is important in every branch of equestrian sports. With good coordination, many injuries can be easily prevented. By coordination, we mean that the horse knows how to place its feet carefully. To enhance and train the horse’s coordination, it is best to perform difficult exercises briefly and often. Slowly, the horse will become increasingly skillful in this. If these exercises are continued for too long, chances are that the horse will become tired and its coordination will worsen.
Unsurprizingly, pole work is a good way to train a horse’s coordination. With this, the horse really needs to lift up their feet high enough and put them down between the poles. For a little extra challenge, cavalettis can be used. These are just a little higher than normal poles. You can ride over the poles, lead your horse by hand over them, or to place a few in the lunging circle. Alternating between these exercises helps add variety.
For jumping and event riders, a good exercise for coordination includes ‘jump in-and-outs’. In this, the horse jumps over two (low) jumps consecutively, without an extra canter stride in between. In this way, the horse can learn to estimate even better where it needs to take-off and land.
Dressage riders can challenge their horse by making a turn, while going backwards. Do make sure the horse only performs this when you ask it to though - sudden turns are, of course, not desirable, while riding a test!
Training the horse’s endurance capacity is also important in all disciplines, here too, mainly to prevent injuries. If the horse gets tired during training, it may will begin to trip more easily, or lose focus.
To train for endurance, it is best to train on a low intensity for a long time. In endurance sport this is called Long Slow Distance (LSD) training. When focused on endurance, it is better to work on relaxation twice a week for one and a half hours, than to try difficult exercises for half an hour.
If you want to make this training more difficult, it is essential to not increase speed and distance at the same time. Firstly, ensure that the horse can handle a longer training at a slower speed, before beginning to increase the intensity.
Strength training is particularly important for jumping and collection in dressage. This does not mean that horses in other disciplines don’t benefit from strength training. Merely that the correct carriage of a rider requires a significant effort from a horse.
Strength can easily enhanced by walking the horse across a different surface. More difficult terrain, like the heavy sand on a low hill, can already help in strength training. To make the exercise more challenging, speed can be increased, or the horse can be ridden up a steeper hill. Ensure that you don’t do these things at the same time, because you can easily make it too hard for the horse. Some more difficult dressage exercises can also be used, in which the horse really needs to engage their hindquarters and abdominal muscles.
In strength training, it is important to repeat exercises, with moments of rest in between. It is imperative that the exercises are not repeated too often in a row, as this is endurance training. Alongside this, it’s good to slowly build up strength training. Too much at once will not make the horse stronger.
The right speed is particularly important in racing, jumping and eventing. It is important to start speed training after coordination, endurance and strength have been built up to adequate levels. This prevents a lot of injuries. Speed training is always carried out on a firm, flat surface.
Training for speed means training the horse to go fast for a long time. This can be achieved through interval training. In more intensive interval training, a heart rate monitor can be used to check when the horse’s heart-rate exceeds the ‘turning point’. When this happens, the muscles do not receive oxygen. This is called anaerobic conditioning. Lactic acid is created, and at a certain point the muscles will acidify. The goal is to exceed this turning point for a maximum of two minutes. Generally, this point is at around 150-170 beats per minute. The average heart rate of a trained horse in canter is at 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 afterwards to recover. These resting moments should be five- or six times as long as the peak moment. If the horse spends two minutes in a gallop, it should be rested in a slow pace for ten to twelve minutes. In aerobic training, in which the heart-rate does not exceed the turning point, the rest interval needs to be twice as long as the peak interval.
Suppleness training is particularly useful when the horse has become a bit stiff in the body from other kinds of training. This is also the basis for dressage in enhancing the horse’s agility. Many riders from other disciplines ride dressage in between other training, as it enhances suppleness. Riding circles, serpentines and tempo changes can really improve the suppleness of the horse.
Good warm-up is essential in every kind of training. This means at least 10-15 minutes of light walking and trotting. Some stretching exercises at the start of the actual training, can also be beneficial. For example, getting the horse to stretch its nose to its stomach can be done with the rider standing next to your horse, or sitting on top of it.
Making use of circles can be especially useful in suppleness training. These circles can be made smaller and smaller, as soon as the horse is ready and warmed-up. Riding half-passes or across cavaletti’s can also help with suppleness. While riding, you can also stretch the horses muscles by asking for flexion or full extension of the neck. If you find these kinds of exercises difficult, it can be useful to take a few lessons with a dressage instructor.
Training with technology
With technology, you can check the effects that training has had on the horse. For example, special heart-rate monitors are available for use on horses. Alternatively, Ipos Technology’s Rein Sensors can be used to check if the horse is making progress in some of the motoric properties.
A heart-rate monitor can be used in endurance- or strength training. Progress in endurance is particularly evident, if the heart rate increases less rapidly at the start of training. The heart-rate of a horse in good condition also returns to normal much more quickly after training (quicker recovery time).
At the end of a training, the horse will become tired, and often start to ‘hang into your hands’. This point can be easily identified with Ipos Technology’s Rein Sensors, enabling the rider to take action within the training. With progress in endurance training, this point should occur in increasingly later in the session. In a similar way, strength in the horse’s hind legs can be checked. The more a horse engages its hindquarters, the lighter it will be in the rider’s hand. Suppleness is also easy to check with the sensors. The more relaxed the horse’s body is, the lighter in the hand it will be. Fewer aids are required to initiate, for example, a circle, with a more supple horse.
It takes two to tango
Within equestrian sports, both horse and rider are athletes. The rider needs to be fit, as well as the horse. The rider can also focus on training their own motoric properties. It is most important to work on endurance in personal training. With tiredness, riding capabilities worsen, both mentally and physically. Tired riders are less focused and that can interfere with the horse’s movements.
To improve endurance, running a few times a week can help. Endurance is can be easily checked using a heart-rate monitor. By keeping good track of progress, you can see if your personal training is effective and continues to be.