Kate Chadderton is an Australian native who operates a competition and training business in Maryland. She recently began offering weekly tips and advice, and we're pleased that she's graciously allowed us to share them here on EN. Keep an eye out for a new tip each week from Kate!
Aside from nutrition and shoeing, fitness is the most important part of a performance horses program. I rate it above training. For a horse to answer the questions you ask him on the flat and jumping either at a show or home, he must be physically able to respond.
For example, if you’re asking your horse to gallop around a 6 minute course on the weekend, it’s not fair to him, physically or mentally, if you have only flatted him once that week and he’s stood in the paddock the other 5 days.
Equally, if you’re asking him to perform a high degree of collection for half pass or flying changes, it’s only fair if you have prepared and strengthened his muscles over time. Which brings me to:
Types of Fitness
Obviously the event horse has to use his body in a multitude of ways — sometimes fast, sometimes slow. I like to incorporate several different methods of work.
Firstly I find trot sets, whilst boring (hello working students!), are great for building long slow endurance. My horses typically do it out in a hilly field and on the bit.
For my gallops I use a mixture of hills and flat ground, alternating fairly evenly between them. The hills are awesome for building amazing amounts of strength and the incline really gets their heart rate up.
I use a flat surface to encourage them to gallop on a longer stride, if they’re comfortable opening up and understand how to use their stride length for speed, we can save time without going quicker between the fences.
Your footing is of utmost importance. As I don’t have an indoor, perfectly manicured hill (yes they exist!), my galloping is done outside and at the mercy of Mother Nature, which means I’m obsessed with the weather!
I have a gallop schedule for my horses but will readily deviate from it to get better footing. For example, if the ground is hard today and it’s going to rain tonight, I’ll switch my gallop to the following morning. Same goes if it’s too wet and 12 hours of drying improves the ground.
Another technique I love using is walking the horses on hard surfaces to strengthen their legs. I’m lucky enough to have about a mile of pavement on my farm so it’s easy for each horse to do that three times a week.
Typically they go with myself or a working student after I finish schooling them. This doubles as a relaxing hack which the horses enjoy. I’ve found this really helps keep their legs tight and strong; it’s an old technique I stole from the English foxhunters!
Obviously I’m talking about event horses, but dressage horses, jumpers and almost every other equine athlete, improve their performance thru fitness. Of course you’re not going to gallop your fancy dressage or jumping horse, but trot sets and walking on hard surfaces can be a good additional to aid in soundness.