Getting Fit Again…

On a slightly different track to the usual posts I wanted to write a little something about getting a horse fit for eventing after some time off – as this is exactly what I’m currently doing.

After about 4 or 5 months in the field through no fault of his own, my horse, now 15, was getting bored stiff and grumpy. He’s never really been a big fan of other horses and always preferred people and being in work. Six weeks off over the winter is about his limit usually. 
So as our new baby (now 3 months old) was settled and to save the horse from dying of boredom I thought we may as well get stuck in and have another season or two. Now he’s a pretty low mileage horse with more quirks than you can shake a stick at, so I was a little uncertain how best to get him up to fitness again without it taking an age. 
You quite often come across this theory that you need to walk your horse around for a month before doing anything else. I could never understand how this would be sensible, and given my horse is very cold backed this wasn’t going to work. 
One of the biggest challenges I’ve always found with this type of situation, is balancing work and feed so that you only fight fitness not fat. It’s easier to build fitness and muscle than it is to turn around a fat horse, and one that has been fit before is typically easier to get going again. With some muscle tone now regained I have cut his feed down marginally to ensure I’m only feeding for the work he has done, not what he’s going to do, and as soon as he’s doing more cardiovascular work I’ll up his feed again to the normal levels. 
This grey is 17hh and has quite a big frame (part Irish Draught), so he struggles to make Intermediate time although he can jump Intermediate and probably beyond quite happily, but never really competitive at anything above novice, hence I’ve never tried. 7 years ago he had a wind op and it’s only been in the last year that this has really begun to bear fruit, so this season I thought we’d see if we could get fit enough to make intermediate time. 
I rediscovered my horsey bookcase last week too and on it a very good book by William Micklem – The Manual of Horse Riding that is perfect for reminding you of some basics, I then found his blog. By the way there’s an interesting comment by him on using ‘rising trot’ in warm up and freeing up backs. As I don’t have a large string of horses with differing needs I often find I need to go out in search of inspiration for new variety in my training programmes, and so other than rifling through my bookcase or surfing the web will also spend time analysing what others do (and a Camcorder comes in very handy here). Videoing as much of my riding as possible I find allows me to be very critical of what I need to change or improve, hugely helpful especially if you don’t have an army of trainers/teachers to assist. 20+ years of competitive & professional riding, a handful of qualifications and I’m still learning new things every day. (“Old Dogs – New Tricks”)
Anyway, enough background, back to the job in hand. Walking a horse around for month doesn’t make sense. Probably the most crucial part of the horse to strengthen is its back (it connects everything else and is a long flexible sets of bones hooked up to several muscles), and a horse is generally more balanced when working on a circle or bend, so sticking two sacks of potatoes on his back walking up and down the field or roads didn’t seem remotely sensible. So I starting lunging lightly for the first week along with a few good grooming sessions to get the circulation flowing and the difference day on day was noticeable, not only in muscle tone but also his attitude. I also put a bit back in his mouth straight away so that he had a chance to acclimatise before I held any reins, and this just helps to avoid any soreness.
In week two I put a saddle on his back and a couple of days later tentatively took up the stirrups. Ten days after dragging him in from the field looking like an oversized moorland pony (or polar bear just out of hibernation) and  he is already starting to look like an eventer again (see video). A further 3 days in the saddle and I’m starting to feel that suppleness comeback, and rather than spend 30 minutes or so on board, I’m spending 15-20 minutes on the lunge with a little of that time in side reins just to ensure I have acceptance and spending less than 10 minutes in the saddle just to piece things together.
If the truth be know I was also becoming bored by having little or no equine contact, and having built a very special relationship (I sound like a UK politician now!) with this horse, who had been ‘tyre kicked’ for nearly a year before I bought him, I have to admit I was itching to get him back into the old routine. I suppose anyone reading this will understand the therapeutic value that all of this brings, and it’s very good for the soul.  I’ve not had an emotional bond with every horse I’ve owned, in fact there have been one or two I was quite happy to see the back of, but this one is worth every penny I’ve turned down over the years. 
It’s only two and a half weeks into the master plan but so far it’s working. A few more weeks and I should be able to start a little light jumping and some cardiovascular work to start burning some calories (He & I). I know we’re ready for an event when he can do 5 mins of canter at half pace without blowing and I can do it stood out of the saddle without my legs burning up completely, hopefully by the first week of August we’ll have reached that goal. It’s the stages in between I find prove trickier to judge. 
Here’s the first stage: getting fit enough to ride with purpose
filmed on an iPhone so a little shaky even after stablisation.
Dominic
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Amateur event rider, aspiring photographer. Technologist by day.

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