hot and tired trot sets

After our cross country run at Twin I was surprised at how little Murray was sweating and how low his breathing rate was — we had just run a 5:50* XC course and the boy was barely sweating!  Then I found out I had 13 time penalties (aka 33 seconds over time), and watched the video and realized we did the first 3 minutes at a slow canter and realization dawned upon me.  Murray wasn’t out of breath because we hadn’t run anywhere.

does anyone else feel kinda cheated when their cross country
courses are sub five minutes?
when optimum is like 4:19 i just feel like i’ve been tricked into getting less time
doing the funnest part of the show.
so a 5:50 optimum is awesome for me.

It wasn’t that I thought Murray was super fit, by any means.  But I was surprised at how fit he appeared to be, based on the very, very minimal work we have done this year.  Like, pleasantly surprised at my pony’s baseline level of fitness!  Look at him go, fit thoroughbred pony, not needing any prep for his first rated even in 18 months!  So I guess, yay that he was fit enough to do that, but really… if you aren’t fit enough for BN you’ve got to re-evaluate your pony priorities.

like maybe just a skosh less of this, mmkay?

My regular rides probably range from 30-50 minutes, but that typically includes a bit of ground work, lunging (before dressage rides), and a fair bit of walking.  I’m trying to integrate more extended trot sets and dynamic transitions into our regular work outs, but there’s only so much I can do to think about timing/length of time I’ve spent trotting while also attempting to dressage.  My mind may be mighty, but it’s not that capable.  Plus, the best reward for Murray when he offers up good dressage is a walk break.  It hardly seems fair to keep him trotting and cantering and trotting on when he’s trying to be good in the fetid black tack.  So this weekend I made a concerted effort to put in some fitness hours for me and the pony, even though it was hot and I knew it would be kinda boring.  Because fitness is important, and I hear that if you’re doing it right you can work cardio fitness while also practicing some of those all-important dressage skyllz, and it’s super fun.

And Murray was great, and more than handled the trot and canter sets.  Based on the advice in Equine Fitness, we did two 3 minute canter sets sandwiched between 6 minute trot sets.  It was the first kinda warm day of the year (we burst out of winter and RIGHT into 90 degree weather, wtf), so I was terribly unmotivated to do anything much longer than that.  We both sweated, my left leg hurt from all the two-pointing, and we went both directions.  I consider that conditioning ride #1 success.  I really should get a TPR baseline on him, but (wouldn’t you know it) it’s a little hard to approach Murray with a stethoscope.  Put a foreign body up his ass and he’s totally fine with it, but auscultate near where the girth goes? NO THANK YOU.

I’m firmly of the belief that part of conditioning isn’t just the slow and steady increase of cardiovascular capacity and stamina, but also the ability to persist and work through tiredness.  Tired and sore muscles are a legit thing for athletes, but nobody is stopping on cross country for a walk break.  So if we want to be successful (I mean, probably not at Novice but maybe in the future we’ll get beyond that?!), Murray and I both need to be able to behaviorally manage lactic acid build up and fatigue, by knowing what pace will allow our muscles a bit of a break.  But we also need to know how to mentally push through the pain and unpleasantness of the lactic acid build up and keep jumping and running.

Another piece of the puzzle, on my side of things, is becoming a good enough rider and horseman to manage a tired Murray.  I’ve heard this on the live stream nearly every time I’ve watched Rolex, but the horse you have in the last two minutes of a 4* course is not a horse you have necessarily ever ridden before — they are so tired and so spent that you have to manage them fence by fence as you go.  I’m not trying to say that running BN is anything like running a 4*, but as we move up the levels managing a tired pony is something I’ll have to think of.

cruising

It’s Spring in Davis, and that always means one thing: WIND.  The Spring winds are awful and persistent and awful.  Last week it was gray and windy, and this week it is hot as balls and windy, but sandwiched in the middle there were a couple of days of beautiful, 72* weather and no wind.  So friends and I took advantage and hauled out for a hack.

Our journey wasn’t without drama.  Murray decided that post-Twin he was never getting in a horse trailer again, or something like that.  The trailer we used for that 5 hour haul was on the small side, and Murray and his big ego don’t do small-horse trailers, I guess.  On the way home he flat out wouldn’t get into the second spot (which is actually bigger, but appears smaller and harder to get in to), and only got in to the first spot after my trainer took a hold of him.  I was a little worried about it on Thursday, but since we were using a different trailer that Murray likes (normally), I tried to play it off like I was super cool.  Alas, Murray wasn’t buying it, and would get two front feet on and then pause and wildly back up when I asked him to come forward.  I’m not really willing to let him slam his head on the top of the trailer, so I’d let him.  He was so not on board with the trailering game that he wouldn’t even eat a carrot out of my hand, which is pretty clearly not a happy Murray state to be in.

Eventually my barn manager got him on, but not after standing for about five minutes with his hind feet out of the trailer, stretching his neck as far forward as possible to be with her, little toes pointed.  I can’t remember exactly what precipitated it, but eventually he bunny-hopped his little feetsies into the trailer and off we went.

We joined a friend at WSS, and the three of us cruised all over the property.  Murray is always pretty good in groups on trail, as long as nothing too exciting is happening.  Too exciting is defined as a gait above a sedate walk, or doing anything other than eating grass when other horses are achieving said gaits.  That was awesome for my friends, as their ponies needed a little mellowing out away from “home” (though she boards there, my friend’s horse is not totally comfortable in the wide open spaces just yet).  In his own way, Murray was a great teacher for this.  Want to trot? Eat some grass.  Worried? Eat some grass.  Don’t know where you’re going? Eat some grass. Feeling a little queasy by the vast expanse of the unknown and your sudden realization of your own miniscule existence in the universe? Eat some grass.


solution focused, this one

We walked all over the cross country course, and would have gone through the water were there any.  We even cruised over toward a many-mile (I think like 12 miles?) perimeter trail that goes around several neighboring properties and is part of an easement agreement between all the owners.  I would be totally game for that trail some time, just maybe not on a weekday when I have work to get to at home.

We cruised for nearly two hours, and were probably past due to head home, really.  Though we did nothing but walk, I felt like it was a good notch in Murray’s fitness belt, since the terrain undulated gently, in addition to a couple of nice hills.  Plus, how often do I walk my horse around for more than ten minutes, even?

I would like to do more hacking out this year, and add in some trot and canter sets.  I think I can find a mile long track on the perimeter to canter, which would be a fantastic fitness exercise.  But we will see – real life and real jobs have a habit of getting in the way of these things.

get fit or die (of boredom) trying

The hard thing about getting Murray fit this year is that I know that there are all kinds of fun things that he can do, but that we shouldn’t do right now.  Given the fact that Murray has been essentially sitting in his stall and cruising around pasture with intermittent 40 minute exercise chunks once every two to three weeks, leaping back in t work is bound to come with a tired pony and some sore muscles.  I do not want to sour him by making him muscle sore and burned out with a sudden return to the six-day-a-week lifestyle.  So I’m trying to be mindful of Murray’s current level of fitness, but still keeping our rides fun and productive.

In some ways we’re way ahead of where we have been in the past, because Murray is so much more ready to work and understands using his body better.  I no longer have to wait until we’re most of the way through our ride to get Murray connected to the outside rein, or ride around hanging on the inside rein to get him to stretch down.  So I get to focus on our bad habits, and encouraging the good habits.

wp-1463587279209.jpgnot getting fit

There’s a lot of walking involved.  I hear it’s the foundation of fitness.  Also, if I do it right, I can hatch a lot of Pokémon.  Leg yield at the walk, shoulders-in at the walk, haunches-in at the walk, free walk (if possible…)… it’s all fair game.

The other day I threw in half a long side of shoulder-in and then a volte and haunches in between four loop serpentines in the outdoor arena.  At first Murray was like “what the WHAT, turn AND go straight, are you crazy?!” but after a kick and some coaxing he remembered.  And then he was so good with the shoulder-in and haunches-in that I was like “maybe I could try a little bit of the half pass again that I rode at dressage camp?!”  But that wouldn’t be fair, since I’m not sure I could ask for it again without coaching and Murray would certainly be confused.  Later.

IMG_20150223_134233not getting fit

Today we worked on keeping a good outline and spiraling in from a 30 meter circle to a 15 meter circle with good bend and keeping our hind feet under us – enough of a challenge even when we are fit.  Then we took a walk break and changed directions.

I did a couple of canter transitions in each direction, and was quite pleased with them.  Often this summer, when I didn’t have time to ride or didn’t bring out riding clothes, I would throw Murray on the lunge in side reins and work on canter transitions, as they have bene the source of many comments for us.  We had all kinds of problems with them, leaning on the inside rein, throwing our heads or bodies around during them, and most of all tensing up during the down-transitions.  But the change in Murray’s transitions from the lunging has been huge.  He is much straighter and can even pull out a few round transitions without leaning on me!

nap-02not getting fit

But that’s another one where I don’t want to fatigue him.  I know that good canter-trot transitions rely on a supple SI, and overworking this trick will not a supple SI create.  So I kept it to a few canter transitions and then let us both have a break with some stretchy trotting.

Oh yeah.  There has been (and will continue to be) a lot of stretchy trot too.

The key, for me, is going into my rides with a game plan.  I have absolutely zero interest in cruising around the arena doing bit trot and canter circles and changing directions across the diagonal a few times – even if those changes do happen to be fancy and flying (not us, yet).  I have never been that type of rider.  I find it mind numbing and it’s the fastest way for me to get off a horse.  So I plan out a little exercise while we’re doing our walk warm up, even if it’s a circuit that involves a few repetitions (4 loop serpentine, 15 meter circle, shoulders in, 15 meter circle, haunches in, 4 loop serpentine, repeat…).

2014-07-12 10.05.32not getting fit

And that’s how we fitness.  And with any luck we will get back to the fun stuff soon.

Napping montage brought to you by Murray, the nappiest pony in the world.

old lady problems

I had a lovely, relaxing weekend of celebration (with beer donuts! anyone want a recipe?) and pony rides.  I honestly travel or have some kind of adventure on so many weekends (usually 3 per month) that a weekend at home with the creatures is a luxury.

Beer donuts almost too successful..

A post shared by Nicole Sharpe (@nicolegizelle) on

Anyway, after a long few days off to recover from camp Pony was back in work, and then promptly terrified me by looking lame on the lunge line.  SIGH.  He wasn’t, though, just stiff and sore still from our camping adventures.  Though I was obviously sad he was sore, it does fill me with a little bit of joy that despite it being a very tiring weekend, Murray was willing to give me his all for our stadium and XC rides.  So we took it easy Wednesday and Thursday with light, stretchy dressage rides, asking pony to remember how to stretch since he had clearly forgotten in all of that jumping excitement.

As we worked towards returning to our former dressage “glory” I decided to accept “good enough” stretch and warm-up work and just move on to some of our current exercises, like shallow counter-canter serpentines and crisp simple changes.  I suspect I am suffering from a kind of shifting baseline-like effect — I’m so used to the new “normal” that it seems that we have made no progress, despite having made LOTS of progress in the last year.  I’ve also been working hard on my own position lately, since I discovered how freakishly crookedly I ride.  [I wrote about that for Horse Junkies last week.]

dressaging01
Glorious for the dressage hating baby

Saturday I got on for what was supposed to be an easy, quiet dressage ride and Murray decided he had completely, utterly, totally, entirely forgotten the concept of bend.  I am sure that holding my body in a new way is freaking him out, but it will be better for us in the long run.  So I took a cue from many of the blogs I’ve read lately and just worked on shifting his shoulders around both on and off a circle, and finally worked towards the spiral in.  We only got to about a 13 meter circle in the middle before Murray’s bend would break down, but we did finally get true bend in there, and I managed to control his bulging shoulder on the spiral-out too.  A hard exercise for a pony generally disinclined to acquiesce to that request.  I try to include some canter work in every ride too, since I know it helps stretch hamstrings and limber the back by using the pelvis in a different motion, so we did some of that too.

Sunday I did something I have never done before — you all are going to laugh at me — I jumped in the rain.  Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever even ridden outside in rain like that.  We had an uncharacteristic California Spring shower (THANK YOU ALASKA FOR THE COLD FRONT!), and I was already tacked up and had set my jumps outside when it started sprinkling.  No worries, I thought, time for some George Morris style saddle breaking-in.  Well, then it got colder and rainier and the only way to stay warm was to keep moving so I did.  Fortunately, we came in before it started POURING freezing cold rain on us.

And that brings me to my old lady problems.  In getting Murray and myself fitter, I’ve been doing a lot more two-point.  And lots more two-point has actually really been helping my balance and position so yay.  However, lots more two-point also makes the outside of my calf hurt.  You know that tendon that runs down the outside of your shin bone?  I have no idea what it’s called, but it’s always stretched when I two-point because my heels get so deep.  And then after some trotting and cantering it starts to kinda… hurt in a stretched way.  As I’ve done more and more two-point in my rides, it’s hurt later and later in the ride (so it’s getting stronger, I think?) but I can’t really two-point around every day since I do a lot of dressage work so… any exercises to help that tendon/muscle/whatever strengthen and hurt less?

The other old lady problem I have is my left foot.  The big muscle under the arch/base of my foot starts to cramp after a while.  And then I have to kinda pinch my knee to relieve the pressure, or shove my foot into my stirrup so the stirrup bar puts pressure on that muscle.  I suspect it’s because I’m tensing my foot up somehow, but attempts at relaxing it are futile!  Any hints on that one, fellow old ladies?

equine fitness project: week whatever & a weak hind end

Back in January I was pretty obsessed with getting on the fitness train with Murray hardcore, and I had a whole plan to do it.  Unfortunately, life got in the way (swollen knee, lame, out of town, horse fell down, horse got chiro), and Murray and I haven’t really done much conditioning to date.  I guess we did do some hills, which was quite good for us.  To try to make up for that, I’ve been doing extra long warm-ups and cool-downs (at least 10 minutes of walking, closer to 20 if I can manage it), and a long trot set before our last conditioning ride.

I mentioned back in week one that it’s important to Improve your piano technique with Hanon exercisesknow your horse’s unevenness, and both Ballou and other equine fitness authors talk about the importance of working the weaker side correctly.  My intuition, as a hoomin, is to just work the weaker side more.  I’m right handed and a pianist, so when I wanted to gain strength and dexterity in my left hand I just did Hanon scales and exercises with my left hand until it was ready to fall off.  Then I did them some more.  But this doesn’t work with horses.  Such muscle fatigue, depending on the person you talk to, just causes more compensating with the stronger side, stiffness on the weak side, and possibly even injury.

You can’t ignore the weak side, you just can’t approach it the way I’d approach my weaker side (work it hard, work it often, don’t let up until you get the results you want). According to Ballou, the best way to approach it is with a combination of conditioning and stretching exercises.  Stretching encompasses everything from shoulder in and lateral work to stationary stretches done from the ground.

How do I approach this with Murray? First is to know his weakness, and know it well.  (Know thine enemy!)  Murray is weak through his right side.  He struggles to bend right, but not because he is stiff through the left.  Kid can stretch both directions on the ground very well.  He struggles to bend right because his right hind is weak, and engaging it is a) hard, b) challenging, c) not intuitive, d) all of the above.

These are the exercises I can do every day (aka no need to trailer to some hills) with Murray to help strengthen his right hind, though I do them in both directions. I’ve obviously not been great at it lately, but I’m planning on incorporating at least two of these into every ride from here on out.  For all of these, I used Equine Fitness, my dressage trainer, or our equine masseuse to guide my way.

First position/shoulder fore/shoulder in — I try to ride around in first position all the time but I struggle with it — Murray doesn’t naturally follow my shoulders when we’re tracking right (because he doesn’t want to stay off my inside leg). Shoulder fore and shoulder in both encourage your horse to step under with the inside hind, and stretch and engage their lumbar muscles as well!  (Image from Sustainable Dressage, one of my fave websites!)

Faux turn on the forehand — Murray can’t do a real turn on the forehand because he cheats.  Instead, I hold him in hand and turn him in a small circle asking him to step over strongly with his inside hind.

Canter departs — Murray’s weakness really shows in his left canter depart (the outside hind takes the brunt of the force in canter departs).  For a horse like Murray who is in good enough shape to practice these, canter departs really help strengthen the outside hind.  They are always something I can work on — especially if I ever want that elusive lead change — but I must be careful not to drill because someone gets cranky when I do that.

IMG_8458

Canter transitions within the gait — Cantering, which is already pretty fun, also stretches out the quadriceps and hamstring muscles, of both hind legs but especially the outside hind.  My masseuse suggested that I ask Murray to do a little collected canter, medium, collected, extended, medium during our canter sets to get those muscles limbered up and moving.

Toe touch stretches — Straight out of Ballou’s book, I like these stretches because they move his leg in all different directions.  You take your horse’s hoof and stretch it straight back as far as you can, directly to the side (think perpendicular to the direction of their body), and forward, all keeping the toe close to the ground.  You hold each of these positions for ten seconds, and repeat at least once.  Move slowly, especially in the beginning.  I’ve found Murray really appreciates these now, though he was fairly resistant in the beginning.

What are your favourite exercises and stretches for the hind end?  I want to learn more!

equine fitness project: week two

Last week I started a conversation about equine fitness, and about getting our pony partners ready for the upcoming year of lessons, shows, adventures, and fun.  This week, I want to continue the conversation with some more wisdom from Equine Fitness, as well as my own program and experiences!

IMG_8458Who needs a fitness plan? NOT THIS GUY, apparently.  Hills mean nothing to him.

First off, let’s review Week One.

Last week, I wanted to establish a baseline and figure out unevenness.  I am a little ashamed/pleased to say that Murray blasted through our 3 min trot/1 min canter sets with absolutely no problem, despite the fact that I did them on hills, and he proceeded to have no soreness the next day.  So clearly, we can start working a little harder.  I am also fairly in touch with Murray’s unevenness: he is weak in his right hind and right front.  He struggles to bend through his right ribcage, takes shorter steps with the right front, and suffers when he needs to strike off or step under with his right hind.  (For example, if I ask him to turn on the forehand off my right leg, Murray will back up slightly as he does so, so that instead of stepping under with his right hind he can take a wide step over with his left hind and drag his right hind behind him.)

This week, we’re going to start incorporating different fitness exercises into our routines and develop a long-term plan.

What are your goals this year?  Do you want to run Training at an event?  Go to a dressage show and ride three tests in one day?  Do a 50 mile ride?  I know you will need to focus on fitness for the first two, and have a strong suspicion that you will also need to for the third…. However, you don’t necessarily need your BN horse to be Training-level fit, so consider your goals when making your long term plan.

This year, I’m aiming for a few beginner novice level three-day events.  Some of these events are horse trials, where you do dressage and XC on the same day, so there’s even more need for fitness there.  In addition, two of the events that I’m planning on are in the middle of the summer, so even more need for good fitness!

IMG_0459It is so blindingly white because it’s really, really, really hot.

Given these facts, my goal is to have Murray and I able to canter and gallop around for 2+ times the approximate time it will take us to run an XC course.  Is this value based in anything scientific? Nope, I made it up.  I’ll do some more research regarding whether I should shoot for more or less than this, but it seems pretty reasonable to me.  XC is not just about galloping of course, there’s jumps in there, requiring a bit of added fitness.  In addition, hot summer weather means more potential for heat stroke and health problems — so more fitness needed for that too.

It takes about 5 minutes to run a BN course, so that means 10+ minutes of cantering all in one go.  (I actually started with 3x but 15 minutes of cantering seemed really terrifying!) I’m also going to be doing trot work, and I’ll try to work up to 20+ minute trot sets either direction.  At the moment, I’m not sure whether I’ll be doing that trot and canter work on the same days, but I will do both trot and canter work on any given day regardless.

IMG_1049And water! My old lease horse, Quincy. He’s amazing.

Right now, we’re at 4 minutes of trot and 2 minutes of canter each direction (a total of 8 minutes trot, 4 minutes canter).  Each week I’m going to add 1 minute of trot work and 30 seconds of canter work to our set.  In the long term, this is what our work will look like

Start of week – trot / canter each direction = total trot / canter
Feb 2 – 4 min trot / 2 min canter = 8 min trot / 4 min canter
Feb 9 – 5 min trot / 2.5 min canter = 10 min trot / 5 min canter
Feb 16 – 6 min trot / 3 min canter = 12 min trot / 6 min canter
Feb 23 – 7 min trot / 3.5 min canter = 14 min trot / 7 min canter
Mar 2 – 8 min trot / 4 min canter = 16 min trot / 8 min canter
Mar 9 – 9 min trot / 4.5 min canter = 18 min trot / 9 min canter
Mar 16 – 10 min trot / 5 min canter = 20 min trot / 10 min canter
Mar 23 – 11 min trot / 5.5 min canter = 22 min trot / 11 min canter
Mar 30 – 12 min trot / 6 min canter = 24 min trot / 12 min canter
Apr 6 – 13 min trot / 6.5 min canter = 26 min trot / 13 min canter
Apr 13 – 14 min trot / 7 min canter = 28 min trot / 14 min canter
Apr 20 – 15 min trot / 7.5 min canter = 30 min trot / 15 min canter

(Note, I wanted to put this in a beautiful graphic calendar, but I couldn’t figure out how to get it small enough to not take up a billion pages but still large enough that we could read all the text…. #designfail)

IMG_1059Always taking the long spot, this one.  Also note the golden brown hills of hot, hot California.  I was wearing one of those chilly gel packs on my neck for this ride.

If I continue with this conditioning schedule, I’ll reach my basic conditioning goals by near the end of April.  There are two possible events near the end of May, one in June, one in July, and one in August.  Will I definitely meet this schedule?  Probably not.  Spring break is tucked away in there somewhere (end of March I think?) and I’m going on a week long vacation at the end of February so that will put me back at least two weeks in the schedule.  I’m also inclined to forget things, so who knows.  But I’ve got it on the calendar, so we’ll see how we progress.

I’m going to parrot another piece of Ballou’s advice here, which is to let your horse work in a relaxed and natural frame during these conditioning sets.  Trust your horse to know how they need to hold their body during these sets — unless something is going really wrong.  And if you’re wondering what I’m going to do during these sets, I’m going to be working on MY balance and position!  I usually download some podcasts and songs on my ipod, and practice doing magnificent two-point during my canter sets!

workout 2

Get that heart rate up!

Long trot and canter sets are far from the only way to contribute to your horse’s fitness.  A key to increasing fitness is to increase the heart rate over short periods of throughout a steadier workout.  This is also known as interval training, something you have probably heard Gillian Michaels or the bowclimbersteppermountaintreader espouse.  You don’t just have to do sprint sets to increase heart rate, either.  Many exercises — shoulder in, cavaletti, etc. — will increase your horse’s heart rate over a short period of time and can really contribute to your fitness program!  So while I’m doing my standard flatwork, I try to work a little bit of “mini interval training” into it.  As I go around the arena, I’ll do 5-10 strides of shoulder-in and then return to working trot for half the arena before another 5-10 strides of shoulder in.  Sometimes I’ll mix this up and leg yield down one side and shoulder-in on the opposite side.  I’ll repeat this exercise for 5 or more minutes at a time, making sure to work both sides evenly.

Here’s a couple of other exercise sets I plan to incorporate into my rides over the next few weeks.

Leg yield down one side, shoulder-in down the other (my old faithful)
Shoulder in to haunches in, each for 5+ strides (still working on haunches in at the trot)
5 long trot poles to 5 short trot poles on opposite sides of the arena
Trot poles on a circle (M and I have never done this together!!)

Good luck with your fitness goals this week!

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!

week1

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

Step One BUY EQUINE FITNESS!
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.

 vs 
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.