In this excerpt from his book “Horses Came First, Second, and Last,” the late great Olympic event coach Jack Le Goff gives us his seven tried-and-true rules for mentally and physically preparing the horse for competition.
The mental attitude of the horse is of equal importance as the physical conditioning. A relaxed, happy horse will not only compete better but will have far less chance of injury. If a horse is happy in his work, then competing at an event will take less out of him. A calm horse has a longer stride. Take one extra foot on a stride, and multiply that by the number of strides on a cross-country course and you will see a big difference. The horse will be faster on the course with no increase in speed because he is taking fewer strides to do it. The development of your conditioning program should include both the body and the mind and will help the horse do his job at maximum efficiency.
Conversely, if the horse is unhappy, he may not make the extra effort. You can pretty much get the horse up to the Preliminary level whether he enjoys it or not. But when it comes to the big fences, you cannot force him. It is all down to the mental attitude; many horses are physically capable of jumping the heights and widths, but they just will not do it. Horses have to like you and be happy in their work to put out that kind of effort. I see some people who do not ride so well, but horses go for them. I believe someone like that must be a good horseman or horsewoman because the horse wants to work for him or her.
Injuries are often related to the horse’s mental condition. If a horse is relaxed, he is not going to get into half the trouble he will if he is fighting the rider all through the course. Not only is the unhappy horse going to knock himself, he is also going to have problems in his back, muscle soreness, and problems in the shoulders, all because he is mentally unhappy and tense. He is going to run around with his head in the air, unresponsive to his rider, who will then head to the hardware store for a solution instead of the drawing board!
The happy horse will use his body properly. He will be able to make the time between jumps; he will seem like he is flowing, coming back smoothly for turns and flowing forward. His muscles will work freely. The tendons will slide inside the tendon sheath, and they will seldom be injured. The articulated joints will work fluidly. There will be no rubbing or grating because the horse is relaxed. His muscles are relaxed and he is supple, listening, obediently responding to the rider’s aids, and he is covering the ground with relaxed, efficient strides, not wasting an ounce of his energy. This is the epitome of our goal in our training and conditioning program. And again, it all comes down to going forward, coming back, and turning smoothly like a well-oiled machine.
Although there are basic principles to conditioning horses, I never trained two teams the same way and have always adjusted the conditioning of event horses according to specific factors, such as:
1. The distances and speed required and the nature of the terrain of the target competition.
2. The length of time since the horse’s last competition. A horse that has not been competing for several months will need more conditioning than one who is competing regularly.
3. The facilities available for conditioning. Gently rolling open fields are ideal, some hills would be an asset, but you must make the best of what you have nearby.
4. The temperament of the horse. With a hot horse, you must use a lot of long distances at slower speeds. With a more easygoing horse, you will use shorter distances at faster speeds.
5. The age and soundness of the horse. With a horse whose soundness is delicate, you must replace the speed work on the flat with slower work uphill and possibly swimming.
6. The upcoming competitions. When conditioning for a three-day event, the horse trials leading up to it will be a critical part of the horse’s fitness preparation and nothing can replace competition.
7. The rule of three. Three weeks prior to a major competition I always sharpen up the horses with a competition. If you have to travel a long distance to the final competition, then the trial can move to four weeks prior. Racehorse trainers would not conceive running the Kentucky Derby without prep races. Finally, let me say that it is essential that a horse get a rest period after a hard season. They should be turned out for 10 hours a day in a safe pasture whenever possible and for at least three weeks. Young horses at the Preliminary and Intermediate levels don’t need any riding during this decompression period, but an older horse may need a gentle hack to keep his joints loose and his back muscles in decent shape. A rest of less than three weeks simply will not do. Also, a midseason break just doesn’t work as the horse simply won’t let down during that short length of time, but you can give him what I call an “active rest.” This means taking him for hacks with no work as such. It is better to let the groom do it if possible as you would be tempted to do something instead of leaving him alone. Horses can go sour more quickly than people. Treat them like people because they think and react to their conditions and they have feelings; they also need a vacation!