In riding, you can never stop learning. It seems like the more time passes, the more I realize just how much I still don't know. Here are some things I've learned over my 20 years of riding and horse care.
Fitness is important.....so important!
Your horse has to be fit enough to perform the job you are asking of him/her. Here are a few thoughts on this subject:
1) Keeping a schedule & having a program is important. Your horse is an athlete, treat him/her like one! Would you expect your grandma to go from months of only puttering around the house to being able to go out and run a 5K race or go on a 10 mile hike? No way! If you were preparing for a race would you go out and run 1/4 the length of the race a few times & then go for it? Probably not! Yet people do this with their horses all the time. You have to start with low intensity exercise and build. This program has to be tailored to your horse's body condition and your riding goals. Get a watch and start writing down your rides. Add intensity (faster paced work, hills, jumping) as well as the duration of workout over time. Horses, especially older ones, lose fitness quickly. If your horse gets time off, you need to start back at a lower intensity and slowly build from there. Although it has its place, body clipping is not a substitution for fitness. So many horse injuries are preventable with proper fitness.
2) If you have any kind of riding goals, you have to get your horse fit. This can be anything from taking lesson, trail riding, fox hunting, hunter/jumper shows, or dressage clinics. If you can't get your horse in shape and maintain his/her fitness, it's your responsibility to get help from someone else. If you haven't been able to ride due to weather/travel/other life commitments, you sometimes have to say no to an event you signed up for and instead stay home and get your horse in shape safely, slowly, and correctly. You will not make progress if your horse isn't fit.
3) Different horses need different programs for fitness. While OTTBs may seem like they get fit and stay fit easily, I've noticed that many may not be "mentally" fit. Most of my TBs need to be ridden, even if it's only for 15 minutes, at least three times/week. When they are ridden less, they seem a lot more likely to be hot, spooky, and overreactive. Similarly, the ability to canter madly for 10-15 min straight on the lunge line does not always equate to having the muscles needed to carry a rider through an intense jumping or dressage lesson. I learned this lesson with Stromboli when I first started taking him Prelim. He wasn't out of breath at the end of the XC phase, but he definitely lacked the muscles needed to be adjustable & collect himself properly. I finally saw the results of a truly fit horse at the end of last season when my XC felt smooth, light, and easy. Heavier breeds of horses may need more aerobic fitness activities such as trot/canter sets in the field.
4) A lot of horse behavior issues also relate to fitness. Horses in work are better behaved on the ground, keep their weight/muscle better, and are less prone to bad habits like eating wood fencing, tearing each other's blankets, and other destructive habits. Likewise, if I take my unfit horse out and expect him to do a lot of jumping, he's going to be uncomfortable which will probably manifest itself in the form of "bad behavior." Don't set yourself up for a bad ride...get them fit!
Side note...rider Fitness: Riding is easier and more fun if you're fit too. If you're tired after a weekend of riding, a long trail ride, a fox hunt, show, or lesson, imagine how your horse feels!
Although it is a bit scary (global warming anyone?), we have barely had a winter here in Fayetteville. It has been awesome to keep the lugging of frozen buckets, three layers of blankets, and ice down to a minimum. There have been only a few days where it has been too cold/wet/frozen to work the horses, which has been great.
I've been using the winter to really re-focus on Stromboli's dressage. Stromboli was supposed to have some time off to rest and repair after Texas Rose, but after three weeks in the pasture with no riding he became a terrorist, rampaging around, putting his leg through the fence (twice) and taking out his excess energy on Piney and Tonic. He definitely doesn't need to be doing gallop sets, but putting him back into work on a 3-4 day/week schedule has made him a much happier horse. He left last week for more intense dressage training with Claudia Cooley in Springfield, MO. I'm looking forward to more lessons on both horses, and pretty soon it will be time to get Stromboli jumping and galloping again in preparation for our first real event of the season!
The warm winter has also allowed me to finally get Stromboli's "little brother" (in looks only) going.
With Never Ceasing (Piney), I have been focused on building fitness slowly with lots of trail rides, field work, and a little dressage. I believe that building this fitness is so important, especially in a young or old horse, as I want them to have the physical ability to do what I ask of them. When it comes time to go to a show or other outing, the last thing I want is my young horse coming home sore because I didn't prepare him fully, and then associating that experience negatively.
Piney has taken a lot longer to come into his own than I expected. He has never had any kind of bad behavior, except some nervousness and herd-bound behavior on excursions, but until recently, he has always been very "un athletic" seeming, slow, uncoordinated, and had a bit of a weird shaped body. Some shoeing changes, moving him to the barn with the other big boy geldings, and most importantly, giving him the time to grow, has finally made him into an athletic and super fun horse to ride! I have a smile on my face every time ride him! I'm so glad his withers are finally higher than his butt.
I feel so lucky to have two amazing horses that are so different, yet talented in their own way. We also have a lot of exciting new developments at the farm, that will be announced in the coming months!
Last month, we went to Feather Creek Schooling Horse Trials. I rode Piney in the intro division (18") and he jumped clean in both XC and stadium to finish on his dressage score! Majorly proud of this guy, who had barely jumped a whole stadium course, never mind XC. He cantered around the whole XC course in perfect rhythm and is extremely brave.
Stromboli improved in dressage, scoring a few points better than usual, and put in a beautiful clean Prelim SJ round. Unfortunately, he slipped and fell after coming through the finish flags, so I elected to only run him around part of the XC. Thankfully, we both are totally fine, and I learned a hard lesson that he definitely needs back shoes/studs for any kind of jumping on turf.
On February 5th, we went to Stone Ridge Eventing's schooling horse trials. Piney was really improved over Feather Creek, but the courses were much more difficult. We had a few silly/green moments, but he has an incredible attitude, definitely made progress, and is well on his way to becoming a real event horse! So so proud of this horse.
Stromboli also went to Stone Ridge and did two dressage tests, scoring a personal record of 36 and 38!
Adventures eventing as a semi-pro in the mid-south.