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Putting together a training schedule

Michael Hillman

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 . .

Dear 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 schedule 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.

The ABCís . . .

While 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.

During 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.

During 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.

If 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 horse!

Flatwork vs. Jumping

While 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.

You 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.

Schedule Progression

As 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.

Puny Brains

Ok, 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

Verbatim Compliance is for idiots

Your 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.

One bad ride costs three good ones

On 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.

If 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.

[Of 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.]

Build a good will bank account with your horse

I 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.

So 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.

Understanding your horseís capacity to learn

Your 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.

When 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 already knows.

How 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 your ride.

Eventers vs. Dressage Queens

As 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.

Donít 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.

Use uneven terrain to your advantage

Keep 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.

Remember the definition of insanity

The 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 ride.

I my 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.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting something different. If its not working, change something.

Youíre not alone

That 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 . . .

Make your horse your friend

Lastly, 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 leagues.

When 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.

Read other horse related stories by Michael Hillman

Read other stories by Michael Hillman