William Micklem: Fit to Do the Job, Part 3 – It’s All About Balance

We are pleased to spotlight 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.

In case you missed them: Fit to Do the Job, Part I – So Much More Than Canter Sets and Part II — Keeping You and Your Horse Safe. Many thanks to William for writing, and thanks for reading. Go Eventing.

“My mother used to tie a metal curry comb onto the seat of my saddle
so that I would learn to stay balanced with the seat out of the saddle.” William Fox-Pitt and Chilli Morning. Photo by Jenni Autry.

The vital importance of getting your horse sufficiently fit was highlighted at Rolex last Saturday. It was hot and humid, so there was an increased demand on fitness, but too many horses ran out of petrol early on.

Some will say that it was willingness they ran out of rather than fitness, and this was probably true of some horses, but fitness and willingness have a connection as a tired horse may quickly decide it is all too much. Even if they are mentally struggling a little they are more likely to respond to a rider’s urgings if they are fit enough. This was probably the situation with Michael Jung and fischerRocana FST who did not have the easiest of rounds.

The other side of this coin is we don’t want to wear our horses out with unnecessary cantering, or leave our competition on the gallops because we do too much work. That is why a precise programme is required. A programme that balances the individual needs of each horse and rider with the demands of the competition.

7. Good rider balance and fitness makes it easier for your horse

The 3 S’s … do you stay Still and Soft? (+ Slow = Fifth Leg Training)

A still load is a light load (learn from the jockeys)

“A still load is a light load.” It is pure physics and is a vital part of reducing the energy requirement of each horse to a minimum. An event rider has to learn to ride with their seat out of the saddle and stay softly in harmony with the movement of their horse — then they will be a light load. Over the duration of a cross country this can make a significant difference.

The same applies to racing where the top jockeys have no unnecessary movement and blend with their horses, and in eventing there are many examples of good balance across country. Zara Phillips, Andrew Nicholson, Hannah Sue Burnett, Lauren Kieffer, Caroline Powell, William Fox-Pitt, Tim Price, Phillip Dutton and Michael Jung are all great role models but there are many other riders from all levels who have room for improvement.

So riders must spend time in training keeping their seats out of the saddle until it becomes easy and there is muscle memory. William Fox-Pitt learnt about this at an early stage from his mother: “My mother used to tie a metal curry comb onto the seat of my saddle so that I would learn to stay balanced with the seat out of the saddle.” But William found a useful aid to help him balance — a neck strap. “If I got left behind over a fence and pulled on the mouth I had to get off my pony and the lesson finished. I soon learnt to use my neck strap and I continue to do this to this day.”

He points out that this also has one additional major benefit. “I always ride with neck strap … ridiculed but part of my riding … I put a finger in when jumping or when one bucks … it also keeps me from interfering with the rein … a rider interfering with rein on the way down to a fence is fundamentally dangerous.”

A balanced rising trot, with the weight through the leg staying the same during both the rise and lower, is a great way to begin making the balance with the seat out of the saddle second nature — and it’s very good for the horses. In his recent master classes in the USA Carl Hester emphasised that he mostly uses rising trot with his young horses as too much sitting trot too early tends to make them hold the back.

Out of balance riders and sitting trot has a great deal to answer for restricting the use of the back and the overall athletic performance of the horse and it applies to high level show jumping as well. As George Morris says, “What I am teaching is the light school of riding, the school exemplified by Bill Steinkraus. If you look at the jump off in Rio, then five of the six riders in the jump off — Peder Fredricson, Nick Skelton, Steve Guerdat, Kent Farrington, and the most forward of them all, Eric Lamaze – are from that same light school.”

Once an easy light seat balance is established then riders can begin learning the variations, the most important of which are for drop fences and how to deliberately have a more defensive position. In addition riders need to ride enough or go to the gym to get fit enough so that there is no tiredness or strain in a competition. The most efficient way to do this is to regularly spend periods of the dressage and show jumping training with the seat out of the saddle. It will also benefit both the dressage and jumping training.

8. The dressage/show jumping is an integral part of your fitness programme

… do you work both aerobically and anaerobically?

Madness not to have an integrated program

There is a need to work an event horse both aerobically and anaerobically (see below) and get the balance right between the two. Ironically, bearing in mind the sport’s military origins, many riders today seem to forget the aerobic and endurance work, which should be a major part of the fitness program. Instead they work their horses more like a showjumper where there is more emphasis on working anaerobically with short periods of intensive exercise.

This cantering programme is an example of a canter programme, using intervals of work and rest, taken from my book, The Complete Horse Training Manual. It gets the balance right as long as the dressage and jumping training is done as well. But it is only an example that must be tailored to your needs, and with regard to all the seven points mentioned already in this series, and with regard to the riding and cantering facilities you have available.

The majority of riders would be safer and more efficient if they and their coaches worked within one overall compatible, integrated structure, both for the fitness and for the technical work. It is a no brainer. As William Fox-Pitt says, “I like to canter my horses myself, because the way they canter and gallop has a direct connection with the show jumping and dressage.”

The truly great event riders and coaches have a high-level understanding an ability in both dressage and jumping and train one discipline with the other two in mind. This also helps to keep things simple and practical. In general the Australian and New Zealand riders seem to exemplify this simplified, no-nonsense approach, so perhaps it is part of their national culture. In contrast others suffer from a paralysis by analysis culture that springs from a lack of balance between the practical and theoretical.



An event horse works approx 75% aerobically and 25% anaerobically, whereas a dressage horse is the reverse, approx 25% aerobically and 75% anaerobically and a show jumper approx 50%/50%

Aerobic exercise – aerobic means ‘with oxygen’ and powering the ‘slow twitch’ muscles. It is exercise of low to medium intensity that develops both the heart and lungs using primarily the ‘with oxygen’ energy-generating process. For example when you are hacking and slow cantering.

Anaerobic exercise — anaerobic means ‘without oxygen’ and powering the ‘fast twitch’ muscles ––but produces high lactic acid that is the primary cause of tying up! It is exercise of medium to high intensity of the type where your horse gets out of breath in just a few moments – in oxygen debt. For example when your horse does jumping grids and high intensity dressage exercises.

NEXT WEEK: Fit To Do the Job, Part 4 – ‘Fit to Train’ and ‘Fit to Compete’