Learn Three Things: Strength-Building Your Horse

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Jec A. Ballou

By Jec A. Ballou

In the physical training of a dressage horse, the greatest gains to be made are in the areas of strength. Being a low aerobic sport with limited endurance or speed components, dressage relies on the acquisition of strength and flexibility more than other fitness markers to improve performance. In terms of how to go about building strength, a few basic principles will guide you. Here I offer you three pointers worth heeding.

1. To increase strength, a muscle must be recruited at 75 percent of its maximum contractile effort. This means choosing exercises based on current fitness levels that are not too easy for your horse. For instance, if you are using shoulder-in as a strengthening exercise, be sure to ride it with a tempo and frame and alignment that feels like the horse is working at 75 percent of maximum effort.

2. Ride an exercise for 60 to 90 seconds. Recent studies using muscle sensors and post-workout biopsies indicate that in order to utilize the right amount of effort to create consistent recruitment patterns, the horse needs to perform exercises for 60 to 90 seconds at each go. So, go out and find yourself a short hill or a cavalletti pattern or a routine of gait transitions and perform it for that duration and then…

3. Use an interval format. Intervals are loosely defined as a period of work effort followed by the same duration of time of rest. As an example, ride a cavalletti pattern for 60 to 90 seconds and then rest (brisk walk or easy jog) for the same duration. Repeat this sequence several times depending on your horse’s fitness level. For full effectiveness, be sure the duration of each rest period does not exceed time spent on work efforts. Intervals are the most productive ways to build strength according to physiology experts. They recruit muscles intensely followed by a brief pause to allow increased blood flow, oxygen, and nerve action. In terms of increasing strength and power, they work more effectively than prolonged routines that favour muscular endurance.

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