William Micklem: Fit to Do the Job, Part 2 – Keeping You and Your Horse Safe

We are pleased to introduce a new series on the subject of fitness from guest columnist William Micklem. Click here to read all of William’s guest columns on EN. Many thanks to William for writing, and thanks for reading. Go Eventing.

“The horse’s intuition is being trained out of them and they are waiting for instructions from the athlete without thinking for themselves.” — Mike Etherington-Smith & Capt. Mark Phillips, Safety Conference Tattersalls 2017. Photo by Shems Hamilton.

The first three keys to producing a fit horse are covered in the first part of this series. Click here to read William Micklem: Fit to Do the Job, Part I – So Much More Than Canter Sets.

4. Hills and varied terrain are golden

… do you use hills? Use them and you can reduce both speed and distance by up to 33%

‘Don’t Fence Me In’ is not just a song title, it is the key requirement

It needs to start early but slowly, especially for event horses. Up and down hills, over banks and through water, slow hacking and gradual exposure to their working lives. Not forgetting plenty of time … plenty of time to develop both physically and mentally.

The phenomenal success of the Irish event horses, and even their soundness and longevity, undoubtedly has both nature and nurture components, and the nurturing component is done well in Ireland. We have space and relatively little flat land, and hundreds of small breeders with just one or two mares who largely avoid the hurry and worst excesses of equine factory farming, with too many horses in small paddocks and small arenas being fast tracked to sales. But the right nurturing needs to start early when horses are in the equivalent of their child and teenage years, otherwise the chance is missed.

The New Zealand young horses also have an upbringing that is similar to those in Ireland and their hills and space are good for their riders as well. Andrew Nicholson and the majority of the New Zealand international riders started their riding over varied terrains and all these riders believe this has been a significant factor in the eventing success of a country with very few event riders. As an interesting comparison there are currently over four and a half times as many registered international riders in the USA as there are in New Zealand, so the New Zealand riders punch well above their weight.

The research also shows clearly that using hills for canter work can reduce both the speed required and distance covered by up to 33% to get the same effect as by using flat areas. The obvious huge advantage this brings is the reduction in risk for tendon and ligament damage, and generally less wear and tear. In a sport in which long term soundness is vital using hills is therefore a no brainer,

So the bottom line for both physical and mental fitness is that ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ is much more than a Bing Crosby song title, it is a key requirement for success. 

5. Fifth leg training

… is essential for mental fitness for cross country

… do you teach your horse to stand on his own four/five feet?

It’s all about how much your horse can do for you

Andrew Nicholson is rightly critical of modern training that doesn’t prepare a horse for the inevitable surprises across country and the inevitable times a rider will make a mistake. He wants a horse to use their intuition, to look after a rider and respond in times of need, and to find what I call the fifth leg to get them out of trouble. I describe some of his schooling exercises to achieve this in my report of his presentation at the International Eventing Forum in 2016.

I often say that the sign of a good coach is not how much they have to do for their student but how much they can do by themselves, and the same applies to good horse training. So in everything you do there should be an effort to avoid over riding and avoid over organising. It is often hard to do, particularly if you find seeing strides easy. But it is vital.

Allowing a horse to go in a natural outline with a natural head and neck position, making sure the rein contact is a communication point rather than a support point is the foundation of fifth leg training. This should happen in all activities including both the dressage and show jumping, and it can be very helpful to jump grids with no rein contact.

They can also be jumped without a rider, just as they do with National Hunt racehorses. National Hunt steeplechasing in the UK and Ireland is not for the faint hearted. Horses gallop flat out over a standard 1.40m fence and also do this at the end of a race when tired. So there is a big emphasis on good jumping and all the leading trainers regularly jump their horses loose. So I often suggest to a group of riders that they get together and hire a suitable facility and coach to loose jump their horses.

It is also possible and helpful to put sleepers or small solid fences between fields and in other places where the horse has to go slowly on a daily basis. Banks can also be built near stabling and along the side of access roads so that your horse has to regularly look carefully and develop care and dexterity when you ride them out. This should be done slowly, with the horse in walk or slow trot. It can form part of an overall fifth-leg programme combined with riding out over varied terrain and progressive exercises in the school as described by Andrew Nicholson and shown by Michael Jung as he jumps schooling cross country fences on the lightest of rein contact.

You can read more about fifth leg training in my article entitled Safety and Responsibility. 

6. Strength and suppleness comes before speed

… is all your horse fit to go faster?

Can they easily do a 2 hour hack including 20 min trotting up hills?

Slow canter is very safe, gallop is high risk

Strength, suppleness and and a good basic fitness should be developed before doing any faster galloping work. It is an obvious necessity but as ever so many are tempted to cut corners, especially with talented horses and riders who are tempted with big prizes in the short term. This will inevitably lead to injuries and long term delayed and restricted progress.

On average most horses will take about 2 months to get to this stage but it depends on each horse: 1) whether they have ever been fit before 2) how much weight they are carrying 3) how long a holiday they have had 4) what type of horse they are, and 5) what exercise they have been taking when turned out. Therefore some will take three months to get to this stage and others just one month.

Many trainers just walk their horses for the first three or four weeks but I prefer the method that Jack Le Goff often recommended, of alternating the walking with short periods of lungeing. The problem with long periods of walk is that there is no variation of muscle group use and the riders weight stays exactly the same for long periods. So it can be tough on the horse’s back. When trotting and cantering is introduced this is not a problem but until then quality lungeing sessions will do what is required and can help the way of going enormously.

Good lungeing can put the horse ‘in gear’, thinking forwards with contro;;ed impulsion. Being ‘in gear’ does not mean going fast but going fast requires being ‘in gear’. So the sooner this is established the better for your cantering and galloping programme. It is also obviously detrimental to every aspect of your training program if your horse gallops with a stiff or inverted back or in a manner that is out of control.

You rarely get into trouble with slow cantering but going faster, and in particular going close to a horse’s maximum speed, increases the risk of injury exponentially. This is why it is so important for event horses to have plenty of gallop so they can go well within their maximum speed. It is no coincidence that the majority of long lasting upper level event horses in the USA are TB or have at least 75% TB and we should not be led astray to using horses that are impressive in the dressage and show jumping but short of gallop and endurance.

As a rule of thumb a higher-level horse needs to be able to go at approximately 800m/m at maximum and the majority of the basic cantering is done at half speed = 400m/m. NB: A racehorse may have a maximum between 1,000 and 1,200m/m, so you can see why our eventing half speed is much slower than a racehorse half speed.

It is important to be precise and learn how to judge speed precisely. So do you know what speed you are going and what speed is required? It is easy to measure a distance and put markers at 100m intervals and start this process even when slow cantering. For example rider needs to regularly practise going at 300m/m, 350m/m, 400m/m and eventually 500m/m and faster and know they can easily judge and control the speed. After the right direction it is the next most important component in a performance.

NB Alternative training aids for fitness: There are now many more opportunities to use training aids for fitness such as walkers, treadmills, aqua treadmills and swimming. What is important is to recognise that they all have obvious advantages and disadvantages. The major disadvantage of all these aids is the very real possibility of depressing your horse. It is impossible for a horse to understand why these aids are being used, so they should be used carefully and should be a comfortable experience for them.

I hate horse walkers that are fully enclosed and become like a never ending tunnel but more open ones are good. All round walkers also have the huge advantage of helping to put the horse in shoulder in position as they walk because they cling to the inside of the walker not the outside rail as in a dressage arena. This is a significant advantage with developing straightness.

It is also a significant disadvantage with all types of treadmills. Particularly as the come under physical pressure they become crooked as they rely more on their stronger hind leg and side. This is obviously unhelpful for the even development of a horse. While swimming is a lifeline for horses with old injuries the same crookedness can appear.


 Length of time before a horse is ready to start a proper cantering program

When you can do a 2 hour hack easily, including approximately 20 minutes trotting up hills, or approximately 30 minutes on the flat, you are ready for cantering.


Slow Canter = 300 m/m

Novice Show Jumping = 350 m/m

1/2 Speed = 400 m/m

Basic Gallop = 500 m/m

3/4 Speed = 600 m/m

Max Speed = 800 m/m

NEXT TIME: Fit To Do The Job, Part 3 – It’s All About Balance

Rider balance and fitness, an integrated training programme, and an example of a competition cantering programme.