Aug 09, 2020

Conditioning the Event Horse at the Novice and Training Levels

Tad Coffin and the great Bally Cor on the way to winning the Gold Medal at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. USEA Archives Photo.

This excerpt is taken from the USCTA Book of Eventing, which was published by the USCTA (now USEA) in 1987. It was originally republished on the USEA website on May 14, 2015.

Conditioning makes the horse fit and increases his endurance performance with less wear and tear on feet and legs. The idea is to work his heart and lungs in short intervals, let him recover a bit, then work him again. The following schedule for Training level horse provides an introduction for the horse and rider at the lower levels to the principle of interval training.

An important factor during gallops in interval training is to monitor the horse’s respiration. Taking the horse’s pulse is not practical since the horse is not likely to stand still after his gallops. I depend instead on the respiration rate, and notice particularly how quickly the horse recovers after the gallops. Most horses, especially if they finish going uphill, will pull up blowing. If their breathing comes back to normal fairly soon, then the horse is starting to get fit. If he is still huffing and puffing ten minutes later, that should tell you something.

Different horses have different respiration rates, especially half-breds. Some are high blowers, while others can barely be heard. Each horse is an individual and each conditioning program must be approached with flexibility and be geared to that particular horse.

A horse that is fit should be in good general condition - not too thin, not too fat. Horses that look tight and drawn are probably over-worked. The horse may be fit, but he’s also worn out. Should this start happening to your horse, slow down - you’re doing too much. I’ve seen a lot of Training level horses like this and many others that have little fitness at all and finish a course blowing hard. Now this is where interval training comes in - with a schedule, you know where you are all the time. Interval training works the heart and lungs. The horse develops enough muscle and wind fitness, and what I call “base,” to get around any kind of course. The gallops for the conditioning schedule will be discussed later.

The Walk

The walk is a very important part of the program. No matter what you are doing - conditioning or working on the flat - the first fifteen minutes should always be spent at this gait. The hacking walk should be active (without hurrying) with the horse moving in a nice, long frame and using himself. I like to work horses on a long frame with the nose fairly low to the ground because this helps develop the free walk, which is so important in dressage tests. You do not have to walk like this all the time. It’s a good practice to lengthen and shorten the reins from time to time. Take up the contact, then let the horse reach for the bit as you lengthen the reins. This encourages the horse to remain steady as you adjust the reins. Ask the horse to move forward at the walk then come back. It’s important to remember that the horse must have more than one gear at the walk. From the normal walk, the horse should be able to move forward into a more “active gear” without jigging.

Using hills at the walk helps put muscle on behind, as well as teaching the horse to balance himself. Some horses tend to wander or fall apart or jig on the hills. In this case, the horse should be steadied with more contact and leg and encouraged to maintain the same steady rhythm whether going up or downhill.

Flat Work

Depending on the individual horse, you might start a particular day with work on the flat and hack afterwards, or hack first and flat work last, or intersperse the hacks with flat work. Stiff or tense horses often benefit from a relaxing hack first, but with the average horse I would prefer to get my “dressaging” done at the start. Then, if there are any problems there is time to work them out and adjust the hack accordingly. However, if you wait until the end of an hour and a half hack, and then have problems on the flat this could mean being on the horse’s back for two to two and a half hours. For horses that do their flatwork first, a nice hack through the countryside can be considered a reward.

A good way to accustom horses to getting down to business wherever and whenever they are asked is to find different level areas on the hacks and practice some of the dressage movements there. This will be most helpful when going to competitions.

The Trot

Conditioning trots and regular trots are basically the same. The horse should be round, in balance, and using himself. When doing three conditioning trots (trot sets), I’m likely to vary them. The first trot might be in a slightly longer frame, while the second could include some sitting trot, or perhaps some lengthening, while the third might even include a short canter. The whole idea is to get the horse moving forward at the trot in a balanced frame, yet add enough variety in this part of the schedule so that the horse continually benefits from its schooling.

The Gallops

I like to see the horse moving in a slightly longer frame for the gallop - round and in balance. The horse should not gallop with the head on the vertical and the neck shortened. If the flat work has been done properly, you should be able to lengthen the rein and ask the horse to lower his neck and stretch his nose out and down a bit. He should be on contact - not feather-light, but not pulling either - and moving in a nice balanced frame.

While galloping I suggest that the rider bridge the reins in a single bridge. (A single bridge is formed by placing one of your reins across the neck and holding on to it with both hands, which provides you with a “bridge” across the neck to use as support; a double bridge uses both reins crossed this way). I personally feel that the double bridge is limiting. The green horse should learn to become stabilized at the gallop at 350-400 meters per minute before learning to lengthen and shorten at the gallop. If the horse is doing well, I will jack up my stirrups at least three holes. If the horse is not behaving, then it’s easier to sit back down and reorganize the horse if the stirrups are not quite so short.

Be sure to include hills in the gallops as this teaches the horse to balance himself and develops fitness. It is better to gallop downhill at 300-350 meters per minute and to go uphill at 400 meters per minute. After the horse has learned to balance himself downhill, then at an event he can be ridden more forward to make time. Keeping the downhill conditioning gallops on the slow side also saves wear and tear on the horse’s legs.

Scheduling of Events

I recommend that the rider compete a Training level horse about every three weeks. This gives the horse one week to recover, and then two weeks to work out any problems that occurred during the last event. Also, this way you can go the whole season without giving the horse too much time off. Should the horse compete every two weeks, then after three or four events it is necessary to give him a very easy month. Another drawback here is that with only two weeks between events, there is little time to polish up any cross-country problems after easing up for the first week following the event. Here again, the event schedule depends on the individual horse and the difficulty of the Training events and, of course, on the Area in which you live and compete.

Schedule for Training the Horse from Pasture to First Event

Week 1 - On Lunge

Monday

30-40 minutes active walk with saddle, bridle, cavesson, and loose side reins

Tuesday

45-minute active walk; 1 short trot (approximately 3 minutes)

Wednesday

50-minute active walk; 1 short trot (approximately 3 minutes each direction)

Thursday

50-minute active walk; 1 short trot (approximately 3 minutes each direction)

Friday

1-hour active walk; trot 4 minutes each direction

Saturday

1-hour active walk; three 3-minute trots

Sunday

Day off (hand walk, graze, or turn out)

Week 2 - Lunge and Ride

Monday

Lunge 1-hour active walk; three 3-minute trots

Tuesday

Lunge 1-hour active walk; two 3-minute trots each direction

Wednesday

Lunge 30-minute active walk; two 3-minute trots each way. Ride 30 minutes at the walk

Thursday

Lunge 30-minute active walk; two 3-minute trots each way. Ride 30 minutes at the walk

Friday

Lunge 30-minute active walk; two 3-minute trots each direction. Ride 30 minutes at the walk; include one 3-minute trot

Saturday

Ride 45-minute active walk; include one 3-minute trot

Sunday

Day off (hand walk, graze, or turn out)

Week 3

MondayLunge 30-minute active walk; two 3-minute trots each direction. Ride 30 minutes at the walk; include one 3-minute trot

Tuesday

Hack out 50 minutes; include two 3-minute trots with a 3-minute walk in between all trots. (The 3-minute walk between trots [and later gallops] is the interval of rest given the horse between each set of repetitions, thus the term interval training. Vary the length of interval from 3-4 minutes at this level)

Wednesday

Hack out 50 minutes; include two 4-minute trots

Thursday

Ride 1 hour; include three 3-minute trots

Friday

Ride 1 hour; include three 4-minute trots

Saturday

Ride 1 hour; include three 4-minute trots and one short canter

Sunday

Day off (hand walk, graze, or turn out)

Week 4
Total time daily = 1 hour 15 minutes

Monday

Hack 1 hour; include three 4-minute trots and one short canter

Tuesday

Four 3-minute trots; one 4-minute canter. Lay out cavaletti poles on the ground 4’6”-5’ apart and trot over poles while doing the last two trots.

Wednesday

1 hour including four 4-minute trots and two 3-minute canters

Thursday

Four 3-minute trots; one 4-minute canter. Lay out cavaletti poles on the ground 4’6”-5’ apart and trot over poles while doing the last two trots.

Friday

1 hour including four 4-minute trots and two 3-minute canters

Saturday

Do above trots and canters and include cavaletti with cross-rails 18 feet apart.

Sunday

Day off (hand walk, graze, or turn out)

Week 5
Total time daily = 1 hour 15 minutes

Monday

Hack. Include some gentle hills while doing three 5-minute trots.

Tuesday

Gymnastics. Work over cavaletti and add cross-rails, then 18 feet (one stride) to a small 2’ oxer. Should do a total of 20 minutes at the trot with breaks at the walk.

Wednesday

Flat work. Start to work on transitions and lengthening, slight increases of work at canter; hack

Thursday

Gymnastics. Work over cavaletti and include cross-rails, then 18 feet to a small oxer and 29-30 feet to another small oxer. Total of 20 minute trot plus 10-minute canter (always with an interval of rest at the walk)

Friday

Flat work for 30-40 minutes. Practice movements in Training and Pre-Training level dressage test; hack

Saturday

First gallop. Hack, then three 5-minute trots and one 4-minute canter. (Pace off or measure 350 meters so as to learn proper timing)

Sunday

Day off (hand walk, graze, or turn out)

Week 6
Total time daily = 1 hour 15 minutes

Monday

Hack. Include some hills and 30 minutes trotting with some canters and intervals in between.

Tuesday

Gymnastics. Warm up at trot over small 3’ cavaletti oxers during three 5-minute trots for 40 minutes.

Wednesday

Flat work. 1 hour on flat with breaks.

Thursday

Trot single fences. Warm up at trot; jump 1 ½’ -3’ vertical and oxer at rising trot for 10-15 fences. (When horse jumps from the trot in a good rhythm and good frame, he learns to use himself. This also teaches the rider how to wait at a fence)

Friday

Work in dressage ring. Practice entrances, being on center line, movements and transitions. Minumum 30 minutes. Make sure the horse is relaxed and has a good attitude.

Saturday

Second gallop. Hack, then three 5-minute trots (with 3-minute walk in between); two 3-minute canters at 350-400 meters per minute. Make sure the horse is quiet, relaxed, round and is moving in longish frame in a good stride.

Sunday

Day off (hand walk, graze, or turn out)

Week 7
Total time daily = 1 hour 30 minutes

Monday

Hack. Include three or four 5-minute trots using hills. Also do some flat work on level areas (accustoms horse to working in different places away from home).

Tuesday

Work on flat. Trot and canter some single fences at home.

Wednesday

Hack. Work on flat on level places in countryside.

Thursday

Canter single fences. Trot first 3,4,5 fences; then canter 8-12 single fences

Friday

Dressage in ring. Minimum 30 minutes, maximum 1 hour; hack.

Saturday

Third gallop. Hack, then three 5-minute trots (always with 3-minute break at walk in between); gallop three 3-minute sets at 350-400 meters per minute

Sunday

Day off (hand walk, graze, or turn out)

Week 8
Total time daily = 1 hour 30 minutes

Monday

Hack. Use hills and work on flat wherever you can find level areas.

Tuesday

Fourth gallop. Hack; then do three 5-minute trots; then three 3-minute gallops at 350-400 meters per minute

Wednesday

1-hour hack plus 30 minutes light flat work

Thursday

Show jump. Always warm up by trotting single fences. Then canter single fences including some combinations with two elements (10-15 fences).

Friday

Dressage in ring; hack.

Saturday

Fifth gallop plus cross-country school. Three 5-minute trots; 4-minute gallop at 350-400 meters per minute; then 4-5 minutes at 400 meters per mintue including some simple cross-country fences i.e. hunting panels, stone walls, coops, logs etc. Important that the horse stays relaxed and in control.

Sunday

Day off (hand walk, graze, or turn out)

Week 9
Total time daily = 1 hour 30 minutes

Monday

Hack. Include some light flat work on level areas.

Tuesday

Sixth gallop. Hack, then three 5-minute trots. Gallop 4 minutes at 350-400 meters per minute; 3-minute break; 5 minutes at 400 meters per minute (increase to 450 meters per minute, then back down to 400 metrs per minute three or four times)

Wednesday

Hack; 1 hour plus 20 minutes minimum flat work.

Thursday

Show jumping. Do not jump entire course but work on elements of the course i.e. 2-3 fences at a time and combinations.

Friday

Work in dressage ring. Practice different movements.

Saturday

Seventh gallop and cross-country school. Three 5-minute trots. Gallop 4 minutes at 350-400 meters per minute; 3-minute break; then gallop either 4-6 minutes at 400 meters per minute or do two 3-minute gallops at 400 meters per minute. Include cross-country fences-slightly more difficult ones if possible.

Sunday

Day off (hand walk, graze, or turn out)

Week 10
Total time daily = 1 hour 30 minutes (Schedule is slightly different two weeks before event)

Monday

Hack; light flat work

Tuesday

Show jumping. Trot and canter individual fences; then jump course of 8-10 fences.

Wednesday

Hack; flat work

Thursday

Cross-country school. Short course of 10-14 fences. Gallop 4 minutes at 350-400 meters per minute with 3-minute break; gallop course at 450 meters per minute over course 1-1 ½ miles long, taking about 6 minutes

Friday

Hack 1 hour 30 minutes at walk

Saturday

Dressage in ring

Sunday

Day off (hand walk, graze, or turn out)

Week 11
Total time daily = 1 hour 20 minutes

Monday

Hack; light flat work

Tuesday

Practice dressage test in ring with someone watching

Wednesday

Gallop. Three 5-minute trots; gallop 4 minutes at 350-400 meters per minute; then gallop 6 minutes at 400 meters per minute (increase to 450-475 meters per minute, back to 400 meters per minute, four or five times. Finish at 500 meters per minute.)

Thursday

Hack 1 hour 10 minutes plus 20 minute minimum dressage

Friday

Show jump. Trot and canter individual fences; then jump a course of 10-12 fences.

Saturday

Ship to event

Sunday

First event

(Easy week afterward)

Note: This conditioning schedule is intended only as a guideline. It must be adapted to the individual horse, taking into consideration what he has been doing, his general fitness, how easily he gets fit, the type of terrain you will use, etc.

Some Additional Tips

Avoid clipping the horse in cold weather until he begins sweating when working - or not until the third or fourth week. If absolutely necessary to clip, then use a quarter-sheet when you ride.

Feed should be increased gradually as the schedule becomes more demanding.

On the lunge:

  1. The side rein should be adjusted so that the horse is round, yet is in as long a frame as possible.
  2. The walk should be active without rushing
  3. The trot should be round from the start and in a long, low frame. The trot should be relaxed with careful attention to regularity and rhythm. Do not ask for lengthened stride.
  4. Be sure the horse responds well to all voice commands; maintains circles without cutting in, stays relaxed and quiet, and is generally obedient.

First canters should be done in a forward seat and no faster than an ordinary working canter.

In flat work, work in large circles, figures, serpentines, changes of direction, etc.

If horse tires at any time during the schedule, back off immediately and adjust the program accordingly.

Everyone needs assistance as it is impossible to train entirely from paper. Be sure to avail yourself of an instructor.

Gallops at this level are primarily to teach the horse to move in this gait in a settled and relaxed attitude. Should a horse get fit easily, then only gallop once a week (Saturday) and make the gallop a little longer. If a horse needs more work on jumping, substitute work over fences for Tuesday gallop.

  • Galloping twice a week - no more than 4 minutes at 400 meters per minute plus 5 minutes at 400 meters per minute.
  • Galloping once a week - should work up to 6 minutes at 400 meters per minute plus 6 minutes at 400 meters per minute.

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Weekend Quick Links: October 31-November 1, 2020

Are you following along with the action from home this weekend? Or maybe you're competing at an event and need information fast. Either way, we’ve got you covered! Check out the USEA’s Weekend Quick Links for links to information including the prize list, ride times, live scores, and more for all the events running this weekend.

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