the other half of equestrian fitness

There’s been a bit of buzz in the equestrian blogosphere lately regarding fitness goals and a fitness blog hop to help us keep one another accountable.  I am all for using friends to keep yourself accountable – just the other night I made a riding date with a friend at 8:30 so we could both get a late night ride in when otherwise we would have just gone home!  Since it’s January, show season is approaching but is not quite upon us, and with all this talk of human fitness on the table, I thought we might want to consider the other half of equestrian fitness – PONY FITNESS!

IMG_5096Who doesn’t want to do gallop sets?!

If you’ve followed Denney Emerson on Facebook for more than four months or so*, you’ve probably come across one of his diatribes regarding the NOW NOW NOW attitude of, well, now, and how poorly that translates into horse fitness.  Denney’s philosophy is to take the long way to equine fitness – thousands of easy miles, hundreds of moderate ones, and some intense ones over many, many years.  I love this idea, and I wish I’d been more rigorous about following it.  Sure, Murray has been in pretty consistent 5-6 day a week work for 18 months now, but that work has not had an overarching theme of increasing his fitness.  It’s kindof like the X-Files: monster-of-the-week fit into over-arching season-long plots that all fit into ten epic years of Mulder and Scully and the Black Oil mystery.

To say I’m obsessed with horse fitness is an understatement.  I think about it a lot and, even though I kinda suck at it, try my hardest to plan aspects of fitness building into all of my rides. My personal spirit guide on the journey to pony fitness is Equine Fitness by Jec Ballou.  There have been several reviews of it around, so I’m not going to say too much here.  However, it is well worth the $15 and can be at your house in two days with Amazon Prime!  In order to appreciate Ballou’s hard work and avoid violating copywright, I’m also going to try to avoid posting too much of the content here.  What I will do is post my program for fitness, and invite you all to follow along!

I think those of you looking to increase your own fitness might be surprised by how much the conditioning exercises in a rigorous fitness program will help.  I know that riding only one horse a day isn’t exactly the fitness workout of champions, but I certainly do a lot more walking and resting during my rides than I realized before I started this!


Before you can embark on your fitness journey, you need to figure out your starting point and your plan.

If you can’t afford this amazing book, follow along with the many bloggers who write about fitness, and check out Ballou’s own equine fitness blog.

Step Two  Get yo’self a timepiece!
A stopwatch is essential in this fitness program.  I personally like this one:

300 Memory timer Stopwatch 470

You can program two different intervals into it and they repeatedly count down and cycle, so you don’t have to worry about keeping on resetting the timer — however, my familiarity with it is probably why I love it so much.  However, any watch with at least one countdown timer function will do — and they can be had for as little as $15.  I had originally used my eventing watch for this, but there just isn’t enough functionality (in a freaking $55 watch I expect a LOT MORE. Optimum Time and other watch makers – get your shit together).  What I do is stuff my stopwatch into my iPod armband to stop it from flopping all over the place.  Don’t want to spend money on a  stopwatch?  Just use your regular wristwatch!  Just a little bit of mental meth math required (OOPS Freudian slip!!!).

If you don’t have a stopwatch, you need to make sure you at least have a watch or a clock in the arena to pay attention to.  I see lots of riders jump on, walk around a bit, trot a bit, canter a bit, do some changes if their horse has them, and then walk out of the arena 20 minutes later to cool down.  These riders seriously think they put in a 45 minute ride and wonder why their horse sweats so much during their actually 45-minute lessons.  Without a watch, and with our arena clock broken, you just can’t monitor your rides that closely, and cell phones are just not that accessible to me.

Step Three Determine your baselines.

Before you can develop a program, you ought to know where your horse is at with fitness.  This will vary with the level of training your horse has, their age, and their breed.  In the first RRP TV episode, Dale Simonton (a rancher who works with quarter horses and thoroughbreds) says that in his experience, a relatively unfit TB is pretty similar to a fairly-fit quarter horse, so you’ll need to adapt your program to your horse’s needs.

Shit just ain’t fair

I don’t have a heart rate monitor and it’s actually really hard for me to evaluate Murray’s breathing while I’m mounted, so I monitor his forwardness, willingness, and enthusiasm while doing our conditioning exercises.  However, this year I’m going to take baseline measurements to get a better understanding of Murray’s fitness level.  Increasing fitness should see, over time, decreasing baseline heart and respiration rates.

Do you and your horse trot consistent ten-minute sets during your rides? Awesome!  As per above, you’d be surprised how many horses I know that never do a full ten minutes of trotting during a ride, unless it’s a lesson, and possibly not even then.  One of Ballou’s exercises has you working up to ten minute trot sets in each direction, with a canter break in the middle.  Yeah, it’s cray/awesome.  This, and more!!, is where we’re headed.

I wish I knew some kind of baseline fitness “test” for horses, but alas, I don’t (if you do, let me know!).  Instead, I’m going to start out with easy exercises from Equine Fitness this week and work up to harder ones and harder ones as the weeks and months progress.  I’m not too stressed if we start out easier than Murray needs – easy miles add to fitness too.

My baseline fitness set includes two sets of 3 min trot, 1 min canter, each direction (no break in between sets).  I’m going to monitor how forward and willing Murray is during these sets, and increase my program from there.

Step Four Understand your strengths and weaknesses.

All horses AND riders are asymmetrical, it’s a fact of life.  Murray, for example, is extremely left-handed and is much stronger through his left side than his right side.  Unfortunately, I too am very left-side-dominant when riding, and tend to drop my right shoulder and pinch my right knee, thus exacerbating Murray’s problems.  This means that Murray is much stronger trotting left, but has a much better right canter depart (because his strong foot is the one that kicks off), and he struggles to maintain the right lead on counter-canter.

foster_januaryBritt from A House on A Hill made this ingenious comparison of her Foster’s booty to look at his unevenness!

Different horses are asymmetrical in different ways; you can be stronger on diagonal limbs (right hind and left fore, for example) or through one side.  Understanding your horse’s asymmetry is extremely important, and will guide the type, number, and repetitions of the exercises you choose to place in your fitness program.  Working the weak side is harder, and a lot of riders simply avoid the weaker lead or track, which is, in my opinion, exactly the wrong approach!   Ballou encourages riders to stretch and limber your horse equally, by understanding why one side is weaker than the other — is it due to shortened/contracted muscles on that side, or stiffness?  I personally like to also work Murray’s weak direction more during these limbering exercises (shoulder in, leg yields, spiral in/out) as long as he stays loose and doesn’t become resistant.

I love the routine of a fitness program, and would love to hear about yours too!  As I work through my weekly equine fitness plans, you can follow along and develop your own, and post it in the comments or on your own blog!  Together but apart, our ponies will all get super fit!

* There is also a cycle of Denney Emerson – perhaps I’ll write about it sometime.