According to the CrossFit website, “The aim of CrossFit is to forge a broad, general and inclusive fitness. We have sought to build a program that will best prepare trainees for any physical contingency — not only for the unknown, but for the unknowable. After looking at all sport and physical tasks collectively, we asked what physical skills and adaptations would most universally lend themselves to performance advantage. Capacity culled from the intersection of all sports demands would quite logically lend itself well to all sport. In sum, our specialty is not specializing.”
If you always jog the same 5K route every single day, at the same speed, there will come a point in time when it will no longer offer as much benefit as it did initially. Your muscles will become used to the work and your fitness will plateau. There are several ways to change the workout to return it to its previous level of benefit: change the effort level (i.e. vary your pace or the distance), change the terrain (add hills or less secure footing), or change the work load (carry weights or pull a sled).
We can easily do something similar with our show horses, providing them “physical skills and adaptations that will most universally lend themselves to performance advantage.” I’m a strong believer in cross training for horses. Just like their human athlete counterparts, show horses can benefit from a varied workout. Cross training can:
- work different muscle groups
- provide different levels of cardio, muscular and respiratory work
- improve a horse’s coordination, balance, and mental ability
- keep a horse interested in their work
What is cross training, from my perspective? It’s essentially doing a variety of work with your horse. A typical Saddle Seat trainer uses driving, long lining, riding, and stall bridling as workouts for most of their show horses. These types of activities provide a well-rounded physical regimen for a show horse, hitting on the four points mentioned above. Cross training could even be expanded to include training your horse for multiple disciplines, if you are so inclined, but for this article, I’m simply referring to varying the workout routine.
In a typical week, my horse drives 3x, long lines 1x and has 2 rides. This will vary depending on my work schedule, vet or farrier visits, and horse shows, but for the most part, this is the routine I follow. If he gets an extra day off, it’s usually a long lining day, since I’m not a big believer in working horses in circles for an entire workout. Below is a hypothetical week of exercise that I might plan for my horse.
Tuesday: Drive, pulling the ring drag for 50% of the workout. This is a stifle and back focused workout. I have to be careful not to overdo it, because the drag is heavy and it would be very easy to cause muscle strain. A good portion of the pulling work is done at a walk.
Wednesday: Ride in a work bridle. I would mainly focus on bending and transitions, asking him to extend and collect his gaits and move between gaits smoothly.
Thursday: Long Line. I like to do a lot of lateral work in lines. I’ve always taught my horses how to do haunches in/out in lines, and these are great for building strength and flexion.
Friday: Drive in a full bridle or curb bit. This workout would focus on bending, with lots of serpentines at the trot and canter. Since my horse can get a little fussy in the curb, asking him to bend and accept the reinwork needed for direction changes while wearing a leverage bit helps while riding.
Saturday: Ride in the full bridle. This ride starts out with bending work until he is supple and focused, and then moves on to things we need to do in the show ring. I will work on headset and speed, and ask for his highest level of collection and lightness.
Sunday: Drive outside. This drive would include trotting up and down hills, as well as cantering work. Since I have a lot more room outside, I can do very large circles and even some counterbending.
I will also throw in the occasional trail ride/drive, bitting rig session, or a bodywork day.
What if you don’t drive? You can still cross train your horse. Instead of following the same routine every time (get on, warm up, then walk/trot/canter/reverse/walk/trot/canter/line up), think about some ways in which you can vary it up. Work outside, where there might be small hills or uneven footing. Even the small dips and divots in grass or working on gravel will make the work harder for the horse – they have to use more muscles to remain stable. Do some transition work, where the horse has to accelerate and decelerate, collect and extend, through its gaits. Do patterns that ask your horse to bend and pay attention. Work at very slow gaits, which tax the muscles, or work at very fast gaits, which tax the respiratory system.
Something that’s often overlooked as a conditioning tool is groundwork. I categorize groundwork into three “buckets”: forwards, backwards, or sideways.
Forward groundwork builds the muscles your horse needs to drive itself forward. Some things you can do on the ground include parking the horse out and asking it to step forwards, teaching the horse to step up onto a platform or over a low obstacle, and teaching the horse to stand squarely and then move off into a strong trot in hand.
Backwards groundwork builds the horse’s topline and flexibility. Don’t overdo these. #1, they can be physically hard on a horse and #2 you don’t want your horse to lose his “forward” brain. Some exercises to do: backing in a straight line, backing through obstacles, backing over cavaletti, backing up and down hills. When backing the horse, always make sure his poll is at the level of or below his withers. This will prevent him from dropping his back and dragging his forehand backwards.
Sideways, or lateral, groundwork improves a horse’s flexibility in their shoulders and hips. Some activities you can do are side passing, pivoting on the forehand, and pivoting on the hind.
All of the above groundwork will also help your horse gain manners and respect while being handled in general. You’ll find them paying more attention to you while grooming, bathing, and even loading into a trailer. If I only have time to do a few, I’ll do a bit of backing and side passing.
Cross training your horse can be a lot of fun – use your imagination and break up your routine to improve your horse’s performance.
Got any additional tips? Share them below!
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