5 Things We Learned From Jon Hollings’ Conditioning Workshop

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Jon Holling and Downtown Harrison at Carolina International 2014. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Conditioning is one of those topics that most certainly stirs up a lot of confusion. Whether you’re new to the sport or preparing for a show, knowing a baseline of exactly what you should be doing with your horse in order to reach your fitness goal is crucial.

Throughout Ride iQ’s Conditioning Schedule Workshop, we discussed all things conditioning with Jon Holling, a US 5* event rider. Jon shared an example 6-week conditioning schedule for each level and the discussion included how to adjust based on your specific horse, your circumstances, and your goals.

To get started, here are five key things we learned about conditioning.

You Can Track Your Horse’s Fitness Without a Heart Rate Monitor

The best way to track your horse’s fitness without a heart rate monitor starts by wearing a wristwatch. Go ahead and try this during your next interval day and begin to compare each of your rides throughout the conditioning program.

  • After a trot or canter set, walk for 3 minutes.
  • Then halt..
  • Look at your horse’s nostrils or flank and count their breaths for 15 seconds.
  • Multiply that number by 4. What’s the result?

This is your horse’s respiration rate. Jon generally treats a respiration rate below 80 breaths per minute as an indicator that your horse is ready for their next set. If their respiration rate is above 80 after three minutes of walking, give them a minute or two more to recover before checking again. If their respiration rate then indicates readiness, continue with your next set. If not, call it a day and continue to monitor how they’re reacting to the fitness work.

Six Days Of Riding May Not Always Be Feasible — And That’s Okay!

Let’s face it — we all live busy lives. While Jon’s conditioning templates offer six days of work, this may not always be feasible or realistic for your personal riding schedule.
Ideally, at least five days of riding a week is key, as four days doesn’t allow for the variety and consistency of work needed to prepare for novice level and above.

Jon’s conditioning templates map out 6 days of riding each week: (1) hack, (2) dressage, (3) trot set, (4) jump, (5) dressage, (6) intervals or cross-country school. In the workshop, Jon explained how to choose which days to skip or combine if you’re limited to 5 rides per week. If you’re someone who doesn’t have a full five days, it’s important to get creative here and use your best judgment. If your schedule only allows you to make it to the barn four days a week, maybe you ask a fellow rider at the barn to trail ride your horse on that fifth day to keep them moving.

You can also combine your days as you see fit. For example, you can combine your long walk with the dressage day. A great rule of thumb if you are combining days is to keep your horse’s recovery in mind. Keeping jump days and gallop days with either a rest or hack day in between will ensure your horse get’s enough rest and recovery.

Another rule of thumb Jon suggests: be on your horse for at least 45 minutes each time you ride. That includes a generous walk at the beginning of every ride.

Conditioning in a Field is Great for You and Your Horse

If you’re able to do your fitness work in a field, take advantage of that! Riding in a field gives you the opportunity to work on rideability, improve your strength, and expose your horse to varied footing, which is great for injury prevention.

Jon recommends doing canter sets in your gallop position, which benefits your strength and balance as a rider while your horse improves their fitness, too. A lot of riders will struggle in the gallop with their horses, insisting they become too strong. The best way to improve this is by — you guessed it — practice galloping your horse! Just as you would on course, allowing your horse to come through its shoulder and rocking back onto their hind end encouraging self-carriage will allow you to feel more confident at this gait with your horse.

Even better, riding in a field is great for practicing rideability up and down hills and away from or toward the barn.

If you miss a day or even a week of the program, don’t panic. Backtrack as needed and pay attention to your horse’s fitness.

Switch Up The Footing For Soft Tissue Conditioning

Even if you have a horse who’s already fit, riding on a variation of surfaces is still just as important in order to condition your horse’s soft tissues. Not only does riding in the arena get boring, but it doesn’t allow your horse to adapt to other surfaces you might face at a show.

It’s important to note that any sudden surface changes can be hard on horses, but working in the field can allow the connective and soft tissues to get used to moving, flexing, bending, and using itself. In turn, this will strengthen the soft tissues.

Take Advantage of Your Hack Days

On your hack days, of course, you want your horses to be relaxed, but it’s important to make these days purposeful. For example, Jon has most of his horses to hack in a ‘round and down’ frame and he’s diligent about keeping them at a marching pace. Alternatively, if you have a horse who has a tendency to pace it may be best to keep the horse more in a frame during your hack, but again, still marching and moving forward.

Your hack days are your friend. Use these long walking sessions as an opportunity to reconnect with your horse between training sessions. Allow your horse to stretch and relax, all while maintaining their fitness level.

Want to listen to the full conditioning workshop with Jon Holling and download his 6-week conditioning schedule templates? Start your Ride iQ 2-week free trial to all of that and more at Ride-iQ.com.

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