William Micklem: Fit to Do the Job, Part I – So Much More Than Canter Sets

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.

“It’s not about the winning; that comes easy. No, that comes easy. It’s about the horse: how to care for the horse, how to ride the horse, and how to look after this great animal — the horse.” –George Morris. Photo by Jenni Autry.

We live in a horse world increasingly dominated by small arenas. Riding out, hacking out, and long rides through the countryside are increasingly threatened by urbanisation and by a training culture that puts so much emphasis on treating a horse like a human in a gym. As a result the fitness programmes for event horses are often missing some vital elements.

So I have 10 key points to help my students produce a fit horse … fit to do the job of going cross-country.

1. Do more than enough

… does your plan go far enough? 

Going that extra mile with your horse.

I said in my safety series that that cross country riding is very different from racing, because in general no event horse has to be worked maximally.

This means three things: They should have enough gallop so that they should stay well within their maximum speed, enough scope so that the fences are well within their ability level, and unlike a racehorse they should not finish tired.

So let’s prevent our horses becoming tired and get them fit to do the job …. plus a little more. However, when getting a horse fit there is a natural human tendency to do ‘just enough.’ To do just enough so that they are fit to do the cross country but no more.

Unfortunately this strategy increases the risk of an injury to your horse, requires a longer recovery period, and worst of all increases the risk of a fall if you slightly misjudge things or the conditions change and your horse runs out of petrol before the finish. So the aim should be to train so that your horse is fit enough to do a cross-country at least 20% longer than required in the competition.

You can of course go more slowly if your horse is not fit enough, or you may wish to go slowly because you or your horse are not ready to go faster, but the general rule still holds good … your horse should not get tired and they should be able to do more than required in the competition and easily go that extra mile.

2. Mental fitness goes hand in hand with physical fitness

… is your horse content and willing? 

Your horse doesn’t have an Olympic dream.

Your horse is not a machine so mental fitness has to go hand in hand with physical fitness. If your horse is not responding well to the work, possibly getting either lethargic or buzzy, or possibly going off their food and generally showing the signs of being depressed, then you have to make changes to your programme, even if this means having to change your provisional competition programme as well.

What all riders must understand is that our horse doesn’t have an Olympic dream! As riders we may be inspired by possibilities and be excited by our smart goals and action steps and colour coded timetables but to a horse these things are meaningless!

So much of what we do can appear pointless to a horse, unless they do it because they both enjoy the work and enjoy the relationship and communication they have with their rider. Unfortunately this is sometimes forgotten, particularly by the riders who are very disciplined and hardworking and always stick to their training programmes as a matter of pride.

Horses are generally speaking hugely generous team players that will learn to like most of the activities riders like to do, and they will be stoic and long suffering if a rider has built up sufficient brownie points and trust. However, they can also switch off and lose all spark and spirit if they are bullied into doing things in a mechanical way or asked to do the impossible. And once a horse becomes switched off it is a difficult and long-term process to rekindle their love of life and working with humans.

So we must train humanely and progressively, using a wide variety of varied work and experiences, and be prepared to change both the type of work and workload if your horse is not happy. Ironically the equine activity that is criticized the most, hunting, is usually the activity that a horse enjoys the most. This is not surprising when one remembers that that a horse’s natural lifestyle is moving about as part of a herd of horses, and there is a key lesson here.

Treating a horse more naturally is often the road to improved mental health. This will probably mean more contact with other horses, more low calorific roughage, more riding out and about, and more turn out in the company of other horses … and when riding more attention to a natural outline and way of going instead of tying them up in gadgets!

3. Every horse is different, every horse is an individual

Do you put each horse on your programme or their programme?

Small changes in stable management, feeding, tack, variety of exercise, way of riding, etc. make big differences.

This point is obviously strongly connected with the point outlined above about mental health and not treating your horses mechanically. In fact all these 15 points are connected because the only way we can make the best of our training is to have an integrated holistic programme involving all aspects of stable management and riding.

However, the tough challenge we face, in all activities of the modern equine world, is to maintain and develop stable management skills. These skills use to be a normal part of the lives of most riders but now they are often either delegated to others or done on a minimal basis. Undoubtedly this is to the detriment of riding and training success.

Trainers often tell me that a new horse has arrived and “has been put on our programme.” But this suggests every horse is treated the same and put on an identical programme. On the contrary each horse should have ‘their own individual programme,’ and all aspects of their individual needs should be considered when making up the programme. In particular some horses get fit very easily and need little cantering whereas others may take two or three times longer to get fit for a competition.

Horses are more like children than adults and each will have their own likes and dislikes. For example small changes to stabling arrangements, feeding regime, turnout companions, tack, and way of riding can make big differences. We need to be very observant and discover more about their individual personalities and needs. We also need to see how a horse responds to changes over a period of time … a period of time that is much longer than just riding them in an arena for an hour a day.


Bits, bridles and saddles that comfortably fit each individual horse are obviously essential, but the success of the Micklem bridle suggests that in the past there were thousands of horses not happy with their bridles and nosebands, which may well have been the cause of unwillingness or poor performance. This is also certainly true of saddles that are too low on the withers or pinch the withers.

In addition the current fashion for getting saddles to be fitted further back is causing discomfort. Veterinarian and trainer Dr Gerd Heuschmann said earlier this year:

“… I want to stress, is how small the place is where we put the saddle on. Normally we sit on the long back muscle line on the ribs. The ribs join to the spine, so they move, they are flexible. But if you put the saddle too far back, then it is sitting on these transverse spines.

“Some dressage stables do this, using a fore-girth, and push backwards the saddle, they press on the long back muscle between the saddle and these transverse spines, they ‘fix’ the back muscle, and the horse drops down away from the pressure, and you get this wrong movement.

“If you want to have a loose back, you want to have a supple horse, then you have to be sure that you are not sitting on the first transverse spine. Feel it. Feel the last rib, and that is the last point where the saddle is allowed to be.”


Temperature – at rest 38C (100.5F)

At exercise max 40C (104F)

Pulse – at rest 36-40

To have training effect 60 -120

Respiration – at rest 8 – 16

At exercise keep under 100

NEXT TIME – Part 2 of “Fit to Do the Job”

Keeping you and your horse safe: An integrated training programme, the relationship between strength, suppleness and speed, and fifth leg training