Winter Training Tips with Sally Cousins: The 70/30 Rule

With the winter enveloping us, it’s the perfect time to sit back and contemplate how to achieve greater success in 2018 in our lives with horses. As riders, we never stop questing for improvement and learning how to be a better horseman is a lifelong journey. Sally Cousins has more experience in her little finger than many of us can hope to ever garner, and she’s delighted to be part of our Winter Training Tips series, hoping to inspire and educate with little nuggets of wisdom.

Sally Cousins and Tsunami. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

For many years I have thought that success with a horse was 50% riding and 50% management and training. I now believe I was wrong. It is 70% management and training and 30% riding. It is easier to be a good rider than it is to be a good trainer. If we have a great equine athlete we are the steward of that horse’s ability, and it is our challenge to prepare the horse mentality and physically to be able to perform its best. Many of us have a program that we expect the horses to fit into, certain gallop days or a fixed number of times the horses do dressage in a week. Many good trainers do adjust the training plan to accommodate the horses’ individual needs.

Another thing to consider is feeding. Do the horse need a low starch feed? Does he get hot to ride when fed alfalfa? Because he is thin do we give too much grain? Bill Steinkraus had a saying, “Don’t fight the oats.” Do we have to overwork the horse get it to settle, risking soundness, when we could have backed off or changed the feed?

Knowing what equipment will get the best out of our training is crucial. Saddle fit is very important. Does your horse need long or short tree points? What width of tree does he need? Do his shoulders have enough room to move? What bit gives the rider enough input without stifling the horse’s way of going? Would a different noseband change the way the horse responds?

Managing a horse’s stress can be a real challenge. In my experience most horses that compete regularly need some type of gastrointestinal support. Does the horse get nervous at shows and could benefit from a quieting supplement?┬áThe preparation at a show will make a big difference in our performance. How much warm-up does the horse need? Will lunging help him to relax his back? Will he need to be ridden twice before dressage? Or will a hand walk near the rings work?

Working closely with your vet and farrier is critical. Sometimes figuring out a soundness issue can take some time as we work with the vet and farrier to uncover the primary issue. Does the horse need glue-on shoes? How often does he need to be shod? Does he need some type of joint support? If the horse is losing form will pulling blood help find the cause? What sort of maintenance program does the horse need?

Finding a good trainer that you have a good rapport will make this process easier. Asking questions like: Do I need another cross country school before my next event? Am I ready to move up? What sort of conditioning do I need to be doing? How often do you think I should jump?

There is not one person that knows all the answers to these questions. My goal is to know enough to ask the questions and know who to ask!