Beating the Winter Blues: Winter Fitness and Accountability, Week 1

Are you an ammy-adult eventer who struggles with motivation during the winter months? Madison Givens feels your pain. She is embarking upon her own winter fitness and accountability journey, and taking EN along for the ride. Check back weekly for updates, encouragement, camaraderie and tips to help you come out swinging this spring!

Photo by Grace Busse.

Hello everyone, and welcome to the very first part of my winter weather journey. If you are anything like me, or what I would consider the “average” eventer, you are currently debating whether or not your winter break should come to an end. It’s easy to get lost in the funk that is shorter days, colder weather and sometime a downright boring ride. That’s right, I said it, BORING. Even the most obsessed horse riders have their mundane days.

For those of you who are lucky enough to have an indoor arena to work in, you are dreaming of greener grass and a day when you aren’t stuck in an arena doing circles upon circles upon circles upon circles upon circles upon circles …. For those of you who don’t, you really just want one day where the footing isn’t crap, you can still feel your pinky fingers, and you’re not soaked to the bone in some sort of off yellow/brown colored substance. It is becoming easier and easier to head out to the barn, give your horse some love and turn around and head right home, without even opening your locker and saying hi to your tack.

If you are able to relate to this in any way, whether you are from the southern side of Texas to the most northern forests of Minnesota, then I encourage you to keep reading and join along in my journey. If you are one of the lucky ducks who enjoy wintering in Florida or Aiken, well then maybe join along, too? My hope in writing this, along with providing videos, pictures and articles, is to help any and all riders who are looking for an easy central source of developing fitness from “0” to competition, have some fun, and learn new tricks.

The Rider: Let me start by telling a little bit about myself. I am the epitome of your average Adult Amateur from Area IV. Hello, my name is Madison and I’m addicted to horses. It has been exactly 0 days since my last search on Dover for more things I don’t need, and I live in the heart of central Iowa. That is IOWA with the corn, not Idaho with the potatoes. I work full time at a law firm, waitress part time to support my horse addiction and go to school part time. No rest for the wicked, they say.

After my last competition at the end of October, one I had spent much blood, sweat and tears preparing for, I gave my little pony just over two months off. The first month was a breath of fresh air, only riding every now and then. December the holidays took over. And now it’s January of the new year, and I am sitting here kicking myself because my horse has lost a significant amount of topline/fitness and the only tool I seem to have to get it back is an indoor area. Not ideal.

The Victim: Finn the Finntastic wonder pony. Finnamon toast crunch, Finn the mudblooded cowpony I bought off the lot for $750 with less than 30 days on her and an attitude for life that did not match her size of 14.3. She has a heart of gold, and she is my soul horse.

I have been eventing for close to 15 years and I can tell you, she was not the horse I was planning on purchasing. In fact, what I wanted was a 17-hand OTTB(oh the irony). Everything about her, and how she is built works against her when it comes to staying fit and learning the game, but she TRIES, and I’m not really sure I would want it any other way.

We started the year trying not to careen around the arena at Mach 10, leaning harder than a Kawasaki around a race track, and finished our year earning an 8 on our canter work. I am ever so proud of it. We have competed together at many schooling shows, got TEed from our first two recognized events due to rider error (excuse me while I slam my head against the wall for my “learning the hard way” mistakes) and finally landed a finishing score of 33.3 at Windermere Horse Trials, our third recognized event ever, and the first event I ever finished in the 15 years I have been eventing.

Our second time jumping ever. Please note the terror on our onlookers’ faces. Photo by Derith Vogt.

Almost one year later, competing at Catalpa Corners Charity Horse Trial. Photo by Derith Vogt.


The Reality: I have been bitten with the competition bug and set my sights high for the American Eventing Championships in Kentucky. However, as a result of waiting for the weather to improve, the days to become longer and the season to start once again, I have become quite stir-crazy. At work I find myself letting my rump grow as wide as the chair I currently sit, and procrastinating everything so that I may instead spend my time looking and looking and looking for new and better ways to help us prepare for next show season. The countdown starts now, and our first schooling show is April.

So now let’s get to the point of my ramblings: The purpose of these articles first and foremost will be to keep myself accountable for getting both myself and my horse back into shape. Thus avoiding the April shock of “Oh my god I have a show in four weeks and I haven’t ridden in four months.” And allow an open discussion/portal into how I am choosing to get my horse fit, and how you can, too. I am hoping all my fellow eventers out there will find a touch of motivation out of this as I bare my soul to the world, and try and avoid those nasty winter blues.

Update by update I will key in on what Finn and I have been working on, provide videos and articles giving insight into why I chose to exercise the way I did, and what I am doing to help bring Finn back to tip-top riding shape. I would like to share our ups and downs, what works and what doesn’t, and cultivate different ideas. If anything, it will encourage at least one person who reads this to set goals, keep pushing and not lose enthusiasm. No shame in admitting that this time of the year is hard, so let’s all join together and set ourselves up for a productive spring.

Disclaimer: I am in no way a trainer or a vet. None of these training ideas are original to me. Anything and everything typed beyond this point should be taken in stride with your own plans that you may have already coordinated with your vet, physical therapist, trainer, etc. These are simply things that I am trying myself or with the help of my trainers, and wanted to share with the world. Remember: These are ALL suggestions only.

Before I continue any further, I must emphasize the importance of a properly fitting saddle. Having an ill fitting saddle will only inhibit your ability to build proper muscle, allow the horse to relax and keep your horse feeling comfortable and willing.

WEEK 1: Fitness Level “0”

Walk work. UGH – I KNOW

I know it’s not the fun stuff. But it’s EVER so important for giving yourself the base any and all horses need to build strength and character. The key here is remembering that energy does not equal strength/fitness. For all you hot blooded horse lovers out there, this means that just because your horse is constantly spooking and daring you to run him around the area because he just really wants to go, doesn’t mean he is in shape for it. The goal by starting with walk work is equivalent to slow and steady wins the race(and ideally prevents injury. (Quick, I said the “I” word! Everyone go knock on the closest piece of wood you can find. DEAR GOD knock on that WOOD)

Finn and I normally start off with 5-10 minutes of keeping my hand on the buckle of the reins letting her look around the area, taking in the environment, keeping a steady pace and practicing turning of my legs. Simple as that. Not really worrying about her being a the bit, but simply allowing her to let her brain settle a little her surroundings and making her she is aware of your aids. It’s pretty freaking cold in Iowa right now, and this also gives her muscles a chance to warm up and remember that they too, must work for a living.

Next it’s another 10-15 minutes of connected long and low stretchy walk. Constantly changing diagonals, doing 20m and 10m circles, figure eights, you name it. I change the bend constantly, keep her moving off my leg in a nice marching walk and try to allow her to relax and come over the back. The more the horse relaxes, the more you should feel the shoulders swing in the gate.

By now you are 15 to 20 minutes into your ride. Maybe throw in a little counter bend. If your horse is more advanced, lateral work is going to be your best friend. Make sure they are listening to your aids. The key here is not to get frustrated or fight when they don’t want to relax down. You don’t want to find yourself cranking your hands and pulling. Help yourself by thinking more about pouring the horse out in front of you, instead of pulling down and backwards.

The video below gives great insight on feeling out the stretchy walk: 

After which, I do about 10 minutes of trot work and then begin to cool down. I know it doesn’t seem like much, but normally after about 10 minutes of the same long and low routine, all while constantly changing our bend, Finn is a-huffing and a-puffing.

My goal for the first to second week is simply to retune myself with my horse. The bottom line is that I haven’t ridden consistently in the last two months, so I cannot expect to grab Finn out of the pasture and be ready to perform. I am just trying to feel where her strengths and weaknesses are.

My goal is to be able to feel Finn take consistent purposeful steps while maintaining nice and low contact. The entire base of training starts from the walk. If I can’t do something at the walk, how should I expect to do it at the trot or canter? As this becomes easier I will incorporate more, but for now, this is all Finn needs. Riding like this, keeping everything long and low is enough to help build enough strength to keep progressing forward. My biggest fear is rushing her into collection and as a result making her back and hindquarters sore. That would set us back months.

Image via USDF.

For Me:

Guess what, we riders aren’t off the hook yet either. Rider fitness is just as important.  How can we continue to improve if I can’t properly stay with my horse and support her through her movements. The two biggest pieces for me are cardio and core strength. So this week I’ll start there.

Stretching: Hip Flexor Stretch. One of the tightest areas for equestrians tends to be their hip flexors. I am no exception. Take a minute to warm up, and then give this stretch a try. Do NOT push yourself to look like the person in the video. If you can’t do the stretch right away, don’t fret. It’s something to work on.

Walking: I am trying to walk 15 minutes extra a day if I can. Around the block, on a treadmill, anything. I  have to start somewhere. Trust me, walking/running is one of my least favorite things to do. And honestly, if you knew me, you would be concerned for my health if you see me exercising voluntarily. I am trying to find a way to do this five days a week, whether it’s a break at lunch, or taking the stairs more often.

The Plank: We all know this horrible exercise, but it’s the simplest one to start with. I have started doing it in the morning after I get out of bed. Got to get it out of the way early. I am just starting by holding it for 30 seconds at a time. Eventually I will work up to a minute. And then eventually two minutes. This is just one of many core exercises you can start with too. (Don’t worry — the more we go along with this, the more core work I will torture you with.)

Finally, while I sit here trying to type this all up, I found myself reading tons and tons of articles on winter fitness. This one jumped out at me, and I think it’s a great start.  

My suggested article for the week is by Marcia King from “Winter Workouts.”  

I am planning on taking periodic pictures of both Finn and I, and I encourage you to do the same. Slow progress is hard to see, and keeping track of where you started to where you are a month from now can be quite encouraging. Please feel free to suggest other ideas and stories about stretches and exercises that work for you. Thanks for reading. See you next time!

Photo by Madison Givens.