William Micklem: Fit to Do the Job, Part 4 – Fit to Train & Fit to Compete

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 1 – So Much More Than Canter SetsPart 2 — Keeping You and Your Horse Safe and Part 3 — Fit to Do the Job. Many thanks to William for writing, and thanks for reading. Go Eventing.

“A happy cooperation should exist between rider and horse, without the horse having to sacrifice its alertness, personality or interest.” — Bert de Néméthy, pictured here with William Steinkraus.

9. Fit to do the canter training

… do you have the CONSTANTS* in place for a good quality canter/gallop?

Putting your horse ‘In Gear’ = Controlled Impulsion

As ever Bert de Nemethy says it better than anyone. It is no wonder that those such as George Morris and Frank Chapot credit him with having the greatest influence on their careers. But what has this got to do with getting your horse fit?

The answer to this question is that there will be a considerable benefit to fitness achieved by a horse that is going well and well ridden. “A happy cooperation” is very much part of going well and ideally should be present constantly. It is an integral part of what I call The Constants, because they are constantly required in all activities. Check out my EN article on The Constants here.

In other words fitness is not just about energy metabolism and use of the heart and lungs but also about the way of going and happy cooperation. If a horse works truly as one connected unit and comes through in the back they will not only function more efficiently but also be happier because they are more comfortable. In turn they will almost certainly offer more and perform with better impulsion.

Increasingly the racehorse trainers are also beginning to pick up on this. That winning edge may well come from a better way of going, so increasingly better riders are being hired and more attention paid to how the horses are using themselves. So for event horses it is important to achieve all the dressage basics to a satisfactory level before commencing your canter programme.

Acceptance has to be quietly established, plus Calmness, Forwardness and Straightness, and of course there should be a natural outline and way of going. If any of these are missing athletic potential will be lost, but if they are in place then your horse will be ‘in gear’ and there will be controlled impulsion. Now the cantering can begin.


RULE OF THUMB using flat ground

Two/three weeks before One Day Event

Be able to canter three times the length of the cross country at ½ speed, in 3 sets of canter with a 1 min break between each, and recover totally within 5 min.

Two/three weeks before Three Day Event

Be able to canter twice the length of the cross country at ½ speed, in two sets of canter with a 1 min break between each, and recover totally within 5 min.

a) Using hills you can reduce these distances by up to a 1/3

b) A one day event, with all three sections on the same day, has an extra physical demand in comparison with a three day event over three or four days. This is why the rule of thumb is three times the length of the cross, rather than twice as with a three day event.

10) Fit to compete = at ease = prepared

… can you produce and control the VARIABLES*?

Start and finish with the right direction and the right speed

When I was in the USA in the 1970s I struck gold as a coach as it was the great days of Jack le Goff and Bert de Nemethy. Not only did they produce world class teams in eventing and show jumping but they also consistently spread their messages to a wider audience. They were two very generous men. Through demonstrations and lectures and question and answer sessions they influenced a generation of coaches and I was one of those keen and very lucky occasional students.

What also became apparent to me very quickly was that they worked together and discussed training to a far greater degree than would be expected. For example I remember asking Jack le Goff one day at a seminar in Groton, Massachusetts, about seeing a stride across country. As ever he had thought about everything in great detail and had a precise answer ready for me. “If you have the right direction, speed, impulsion, and balance, then timing, or seeing a stride is much less important.” I had recorded his answers and transcribed them later so I know this is exactly what he said.

Then later that year I went to Gladstone to watch de Nemethy work and asked him the same question about seeing strides, but this time in relation to show jumping. He replied “If you have the right direction, speed, impulsion, and balance, then timing, or seeing a stride is much less important.” I could only smile!

Over a period of years this team of five components became what I call The Variables and wrote about on EN last year — see here. The first two variables are direction and speed.

Whether it is dressage, show jumping or cross country competition it is true to say that if your horse is already ‘in gear’ and you have the right direction and speed then you are most of the way there to a good result, particularly in a pressure situation. I was delighted to read recent quotes from two of the British Olympic dressage team, Spencer Wilton and Charlotte Dujardin, confirming this, and in show jumping against the clock it is certainly true. All the preparation work has been done and the rider chooses the right direction and speed and then leaves it up to the horse to do the job.

It must be possible to control the direction and speed without a struggle otherwise it is not safe to do go cross country, and even then a novice horse may have to be ridden fairly slowly as they learn the job. As William Fox-Pitt says, “The longer a horse spends in novice the better, and they learn going slowly … take the adrenalin out of the cross … a horse you are training to be careful needs to be able to go slowly to big ditches etc …that really safe ’in tune’ horse takes 3/4 years to produce and going slowly cross country.”

So years of preparation and progress until both horse and rider are at ease and the challenge of the cross country, which was once a big dream, becomes simply a readily achievable action step.

The choice of speed and the changes of speed also has a significant relationship with the energy required. A smooth, fluent round is energy efficient. A good cross country rider avoids rapid changes in speed and hooking and pulling because it wastes energy. In particular they avoid rapid acceleration, as this is likely to put a horse into oxygen debt, requiring anaerobic work that produces most lactic acid and may well cause a horse to stiffen or tie up.

William Fox-Pitt says that modern riders don’t learn these things because few have ever hunted or done long format eventing. “They use the gears too early without learning how to stay at 500m/m or 600m/m and jump out of a really good rhythm in a consistent balance which is better, more efficient and SAFER … therefore education is even more important now.”

The pulled in, tight rein, restricted way of going, with many changes of speed is both inefficient and unsafe. So a fluent round will require not slowing down excessively in front of fences. It will also require Bert de Nemethy’s “happy cooperation,” so that the rider’s signals to the horse are small yet effective and the horse can go in a natural outline, being allowed to see and assess the fences easily and use their natural balancing mechanisms.


RECOVERY after cross-country

5m – substantially recovered,

10m – fully recovered

15m – if not totally recovered…get vet

American football coach Vince Lombardi said about football players that “fatigue makes cowards of us all.” It is certainly also true of horses and riders. In eventing it has even more serious consequences because tiredness increases risk of injuries and accidents to horse and rider. So the bottom line is this: Listen to your horse and in both training and competition always finish with your horse willing and able to do a little more.” Then they will be fit to do the job.

NEXT TIME – The concluding part to this series: Added Value – Warm Up/Cool Down & Feeding for Fitness