Avoid Burnout with Your Horse: Have a Plan
By Jec A. Ballou
For those of us who can measure our involvement with horses by decades rather than days or months, showing up at the barn can feel like the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day. With a few minor variations, our days follow a similar routine. And while these routines are generally satisfying, they open the door for burnout. Even when you love your horse or horse training career wildly, this sameness gets dull.
When you sustain any routine for an extended time – a hobby, an exercise program, a health habit – burnout lurks around the corner.
The obvious solution, and the right thing for our horses, is to avoid the sameness. In so doing we avoid burnout. For our purposes, I’m defining sameness as exercises of similar type or intensity every time we work with our horses. Once upon a time as young trainer, I put my training horses through 45-minute dressage schooling sessions four to five days per week, operating from the belief that in order to get better at dressage, we needed to do dressage as much as possible. Sometimes I substituted a day of longing or ground driving for riding, but generally our daily routines were very similar.
With small variations in the exercises we rode or the amount of time in each gait, the bulk of our arena schooling was repetitive in terms of work effort, seriousness, duration, and objectives. As a not-young-anymore trainer I admitted to myself that I felt a little burned out. Maybe not entirely toasted yet, but definitely burning around the edges.
Luckily, it was at this time that I began studying equine exercise physiology in earnest and learned the horses needed me to change my Groundhog Day approach anyway. To become better at dressage, my horses needed to become better athletes, not necessarily to do dressage every day. Funny enough, adapting my routine for this (with the convenient side-effect of preventing burnout for me) involved drafting what was in many ways a more rigid weekly schedule. This new plan has built-in variety and cross-training, variations in duration and intensity of training days, and prevents me from obsessing over the tedium of dressage on any given day. I probably don’t need to tell you it made both me and the horses happier.
Adhering to this plan has helped me make better equine athletes for sure. But more notably, it keeps me from burning out. It allows me to arrive at the barn each morning with a bright mood, a clear and focused mindset, and still after all these years a little eagerness. In a general outline, my weekly schedule is below. Obviously, there are times on any given day when I scrap the plan in favour of addressing a horse’s particular need that arises. More or less, though, our weeks follow a rhythm like this:
Monday: Basic gymnastic work, 30-45 minutes of riding in all three gaits, several transitions between gaits, lots of stretching. No fiddling with dressage movements.
Tuesday: Cavalletti day. A warm-up followed by 20 minutes schooling an exercise from my books.
Wednesday: Dressage schooling session
Thursday: Trail ride
Friday: Dressage schooling session
Main blog photo: Canstock/Castenoid