Cross-Training Fitness Test

By Jec A. Ballou

Get in the habit of performing a fitness test every six to eight weeks. This will be your check-up and time to assess which cross-training exercises to utilize over the next several weeks. Remember that the goal is to avoid getting stuck in a rut where no progress is happening. Without using a fitness test, you cannot accurately monitor improvements or setbacks in training and fitness. This practice will help you stick to your plans and timelines, which is when progress happens.

Under the same environmental and footing conditions, evaluate sweating response, respiration, coordination, energy levels. Fitness tests should be sport specific, incorporating exercises and movements specific to your chosen discipline. To get started, though, use the following one which tests basic fitness for most arena horses. Use a watch; do not rely on estimations of time. If you have access to a heart rate monitor for your horse, use it. During none of this test should his heart rate get above 130 beats per minute. At the end of your test, after a rest, his heart rate should be down to 60 beats per minute. If it isn’t, this is your indication that the test was stressful for him. Your regular workouts, therefore, should be quite a bit less difficult than the material in this test. You should plan to re-test him every few weeks, with the goal of seeing improvements. In other words, the test should stress him less and less each time you do it. This will give you accurate feedback on how difficult — or easy — he finds this test. You can then assess where he lies on a fitness spectrum. A word of clarification: This fitness test is designed for horses that have been in regular work (three or four days/week for three months) at the time of performing it.

  • Execute a warm-up as follows: Five minutes of loosening up, riding the horse at a walk on a long rein all over the arena. Then, warm up his body by executing equal amounts of working trot and canter on 20-meter circles and straight lines for 10 minutes.
  • After the warm up, go immediately to the workout (do NOT pause or take a walk break): ride two minutes of trotting serpentines. This should be done with a lively trot and asking the horse to bend his body on the curved lines.
  • Now, immediately canter for two minutes. While cantering, ask your horse to get a bit more collected in the corners and short ends of arena, and then extend his gait down the long side. Do this in both directions until your two minutes is completed.
  • Next, perform five minutes of trotting over ground poles*. *Note re ground pole arrangement: Set up five ground poles in a row, spaced approximately three-and-one-half feet apart or the distance of your horse’s trot stride. Arrange them in an arc or fan shape on the perimeter of a 15-meter circle. Be sure to ride an equal duration of time in each direction of the circle.
  • Next, ride two sets of trot-canter-trot transitions in EACH direction.
  • Now walk and observe your horse. After walking for three minutes, dismount and take the horse’s heart rate. His resting heart rate should be at or below 60 beats per minute. Compare to previous executions of this fitness test. Each time you do your fitness test, the horse’s heart rate should drop more quickly after exercise. It may also begin to drop lower (which is what you hope for!) than his former “resting rate” after exercise.

For successful assessment of fitness, you’ll want to monitor other feedback besides the horse’s heart rate, although that is perhaps the most important bit of data you’ll want to collect. You also want to assess his energy levels start to finish; his respiratory rate (which should be around 20 breaths per minute after three minutes of walking/cooling down after exercise; his coordination (did he trip or stumble? Did his gaits stay springy or did his strides get flat and unanimated?). Also make note of where and how much he sweat. Monitor if this is any different than the last time you did the fitness test. Lastly, observe how he seems. Following this test, he should — if he is in moderate fitness — be perky and plenty eager to do lots more riding that day!

Main blog photo: Canstock/Edu1971

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Jec A. Ballou
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