together a training schedule
Organization has never been one of my
strong points. Recognizing this, one of the first things
my coach Julie Gomena did when I began to ride with her was to
put together a training schedule for me and my horse. For several
years Julie provided this service, then one year I was politely
informed that it was time for me to make up my own. I flunked, but in
flunking I learned
some valuable lessons in how one goes about developing a
fitness schedule for horses.
Following Julieís lead, for several
years, I made training schedules for my own students. A
few days back, my hard charging Bethany called. On the
day her schedule called for a trot, mother nature was
unleashing a hurricane and was unsure what to do. I
laughed, and told her of course she should not ride.
Later as I reflected upon her
concern, it occurred to me that I had assumed she
understood that while it was important try to
follow a training schedule, it was still necessary to be
flexible enough to take in account unforeseen events,
such as the weather. To clarify the issue, I wrote a
following letter to Bethany . .
One of the hardest parts about
getting your horse ready for the spring season is
resisting doing too much too early. Letís face it,
when we get on our horses for the first time after a
long winter break, weíre still riding the horse we put on
vacation three months earlier. Unfortunately, our horse
doesnít see it that way. Theyíve been on vacation
both physically and mentally, and have completely
forgotten most of which we've worked on the season before.
Thatís why following a prescribed
fitness and training schedule often makes the difference
between happy and nasty horses, winners and losers, not
to mention sound and unsound horses.
As I was pulling together your
schedule, it occurred to me that one day you yourself will have to develop schedules for your students.
Given this, I figured it would help if jotted down what
goes through my mind when I developed a schedule.
The Basic Structure of a Schedule
The principle purpose of a conditioning
is, as its title implies, to ensure the proper conditioning of your horse.
Given that your horse has been on vacation for several
months, the front end of the schedule is heavily
weighted toward long hacks and trot sets. This serves
two purposes. One it starts to rebuild the muscles they
will need for the upcoming season, and two, it gives
their puny mind sufficient time to accept the fact that
yes, they are once again back at work.
ABCís . . .
God rested on Sunday (unless youíre Jewish or
Seventh Day Adventist, in which case He rested on
Saturday), Eventers and their horses rest on Monday.
the conditioning season, Tuesday is always a hack day.
Wednesday is trot sets. Thursday is trot sets followed
by a canter set. Friday is trot sets and hack. Saturday
is trot sets and a very long hack. Sunday is canter
sets and a very long hack. Early in the season,
the sets are short. As the season progresses,
the length of sets increases.
the event season, Tuesday is split between dressage
and hacking. Wednesday is a repeat of Tuesday, but
with more dressage. Thursday is jumping. If your event
is on Saturday, Friday is dedicated to lesson and/or
fine tuning your dressage, and Sunday is an extra day
off. If the event is on Sunday, Friday is either a
lesson or dressage, followed by a hack. Saturday is
another chance to take another jumping lesson and fine
tune your dressage.
you donít compete one weekend, Saturday
should do two trot sets and two canter sets followed
by a long hack. Sunday - Go play with your
we all love to jump, I am a fervent believer in the
old saying: ĎA horse is born with a certain number
of jumps in them - so don't waste them.í
Unfortunate we donít know what
that number is, but every time you jump, rest assured
you are one jump closer to that maximum limit. So, the
less jumping you do, the better.
can accomplish much to improve your perforce over
fences by just improving your flatwork. For example,
when I picture myself doing a half-halt, itís six
strides away from a big oxer, not in a dressage ring.
Now I can practice that half-halt in front of that big
oxer and wear my horse legs out jumping it, or I can do it in a
field as part of my daily flatwork. In both cases I
tune my horse to the half-halt, but in the later case,
I do it at minimal expense to my horse.
the season progresses, the schedule changes from one
weighted toward fitness, to one weighted toward
performance. The change is gradual, and should be
almost imperceptible to your horse. In this case, my
philosophy is driven by the fact that horses thrive on
routines. They like to go out at the same time every
day, they want to be fed at the same time, they want
to be turned out in the same field, etc. So the more
you can mask your training schedule under routine, the
happier your horse will be.
Ok, we all love our horses. But that doesnít obviate
the fact that like Democrats, they have only a limited
capacity to learn. Horse can at best only learn
something new five minutes a day. So spend most of
your rides reinforcing what they already know, and
only then add something new.
Implementation of your Schedule
Knowing that on a given day you
have to do 20 minutes of dressage, followed by two
five-minute trots is one thing, how you go about
actually implementing your schedule is a whole
different story, which is another way of saying: ĎThe
Devil is in the Details.í
Compliance is for idiots
schedule, while well thought out, is just a plan, and
like all plans, it needs to be changeable as
conditions demand. The first thing you need to accept
is that there are conditions where you will do
yourself and your horse a great favor by not following
your schedule! This is especially true for younger horses, or those
competing at the lower levels. The best way to
identify these cases is to put yourself into your
horseís mind. Ride the horse who greets you at the
barn, not the one on paper! Its ok to not follow the
schedule as long as youíve got a good reason for it.
bad ride costs three good ones
rainy days, do you feel like riding? I doubt it. So if
you donít want to ride, what makes you think your
horse is any more eager to have you plop on their
back? A good rule of thumb to work by is Ďone bad
ride will set you back three rides.í So yes, you
might impress everyone in the barn that you are a
dedicated horseman by riding in in rain, but if it
makes your horse miserable, will it be worth it?
Sometime yes, sometimes no. Yes, as an Eventer, you have to know how to
ride in the rain and the mud, but you donít have to
practice it every time it rains.
you show up at the barn with a headache, or have just
had a fight with your parent, sister, brother, or a
friend, or are just not in the right frame of mind,
you need to weigh the downside of having a bad ride.
In a case like this, I take my horse out for hack, to
hell with the schedule.
course, if you're one week out from your Three Day, you
might not have the option to take the day off, but you
should always weigh the benefits versus the downside.]
a good will bank account with your horse
like to think of each ride as a deposit or a
withdrawal from a goodwill account you have with your
horse. When you first get on them at the beginning of
the season, you have nothing in the account. With each
hack, you add something to your account. However, as
you begin work, you draw down that goodwill. Good
rides add to your account. Bad rides cost you three
rides. So avoid bad rides.
instead of having a bad ride, which depletes your
account, add to it by a hack, and draw upon the
increased balance the next day by asking for just a
little more from your horse. By following this approach, youíll find
yourself with a fairly sizable nest egg of goodwill
that you can expend at events.
your horseís capacity to learn
horse thrives on routine. Horses respond best when the
first thing you do is remind them of the things they
already know. You should always keep this in mind when
you ride your horse. For example, the first thing we
do to break a horse is just get on their back. Thatís
it. For a few days, maybe even a few weeks, all we do
is get on and then off. After they accept being
backed, we begin to ask them to carry us, but even
then, we are still working on getting on and off, we
just spend less time focusing on it.
you first get on your horse, assume he knows nothing,
even if heís a three-day horse. Assume heís never
been backed. When he accepts you on his back, reward
him with a pet. Ask him to move forward as if he has
never had a leg on, again rewarding each correct
response. Continue to work your way through all the
basics, rewarding positive responses along the way.
Only when you have reviewed everything up to your last
ride, do you ask for something new. By then, your
horse should be ready, having been reminded of what he
much time you spend on reinforcing the basics is based
upon the age and experience of the horse. The younger
the horse, the more time you spend on reinforcing what
they already know. The more experienced the horse, the
quicker you can move through the reinforcement part of
vs. Dressage Queens
for when and where you do your dressage, donít be
deluded into thinking that it must always be done in a
ring. Hacks are a wonderful time to practice your
dressage. If you think about it, the whole goal of
dressage is to have your horse go forward willingly
with a rider on its back. Horses love to hack, so
ipso facto, you have a forward horse! Take advantage
of it. As you hack down the road, do some bending, try
some leg yields.
drill your horse to death. Do only enough to
accomplish what you need. Use hacks to work on those
moves that your find yourself struggling with in the
ring. Then after the hack, return to the ring and try
them there, youíll be pleasantly surprised how much
more responsive your horse is.
uneven terrain to your advantage
in mind that at events, you never get to warm-up in a
dressage ring, or for that matter, any type of ring.
So why do it at home? Instead, hack over to a nearby
field and do your flat work there. Even better, try to
find some uneven ground, or a slightly sloping hill.
To accomplish what you need will take a lot more under
these conditions, but youíll be way ahead of the Ďprima
donnasí that spend their days in a sand arena.
the definition of insanity
truth be known, I had no sooner written this note then
the next day I had a knock-down-drag-out fight with my
horse, for all intents and purposes violating
everything I have said so far. Thatís reality. It
will happen. Get over it. What separates good riders
from average riders however, is what we do on the next
case, I gave my horse the next day off . . . No
just kidding. After reflecting on what had happened, I
changed my warm up routine, slapped on draw
reins, and rode in another location. It worked.
is doing the same thing over and over again and
expecting something different. If its not working,
evening I called Julie to confer with her. Before I
could tell her what I had done to correct it, she said
"Get out the draw reins . . ." It was nice
to know I had made the right decision. Along that same
line, weíre all a team. It doesnít cost you more
then 10 cents a minute to pick up the phone and call
for advice, so do it. Remember there is little you,
me, and Julie canít fix, and what we canít . . .
well there is always the power of prayer . . .
your horse your friend
brush your horse. There is an old tale of Custerís
Calvary. They were on a long patrol and ran out of
food for the horses. Custer ordered his men to spend
extra time brushing their horse in hopes that the
goodwill created would keep them going. It did, well
at least up until the Little Big Horn. Brushing will
help you bond with your horse. Believe me, you and
your horse have to be bonded to make it to the big
you find yourself laying in bed sweating over some
god-forsaken cross country fence, itís nice to know
that when push comes to shove, you can count on your
horse going that extra mile for you. So return the
favor, go the extra mile for them.
other horse related stories by Michael Hillman
other stories by Michael Hillman