5 Ingredients to Equine Effective Training

by | Nov 9, 2022 | Uncategorized

Ever feel like you’re practicing and practicing but not making any progress? Like you’re constantly training but your horse just isn’t “getting there”? Or when we see that horse and rider combination that always seem to be improving in leaps and bounds with great ease.

We can be very prone to making the assumption that time spent training and improvement have a pretty linear relationship; the whole “practice makes perfect” concept. But it’s not that simple – often training isn’t so much about the “how much”, but rather about the “how”.

There’s a lot of literature on effective training by therapists, vets, coaches, riders, and everything in between. It’s important to consider this issue from a variety of angles because, a good training regime does need to take into account mental and physical aspects – the brain and the body are so interlinked; and it’s important we reconcile our training regimes with the horse’s mental and physical needs and abilities.

So this month we’ve done the hard yards (and readings) for you, found where these ideas have overlapped and, compiled some 6 ingredients to effective training for you!

Warm Up & Cool Down

You’ll never see an athlete put their shoes on and immediately perform at their peak so, don’t expect your horse to! The body needs a chance to prepare for the exertion and strain, as does the horse’s brain. An effective warm up and cool down are essential for correct, sustainable muscle building, which will be the foundation for success throughout your training.

The importance of spending 10-15 minutes walking on a long rein before the beginning of any training session cannot be understated. And make sure this is an active walk. A common thread through the commentary of a lot of world-class coaches was that too often they see people not considering this initial walking phase as “part” of the workout; they let the horse aimlessly wander around, drag its feet, whilst they’re busy chatting or on their phone and this is an absolute waste of time.

Firstly, the benefits of this walking phase are only realised when the horse is engaging its back and is forward and active in the walk. Secondly, it’s hardly fair to expect the horse to be enthusiastic and engaged when we’re not setting that example for them, is it?

This walking phase should be followed up by some relaxed work in the trot, and (depending on the horse and rider) canter. Don’t give your horse 15 minutes of walking time, and then immediately expect his best collected trot. These are different muscle groups. You need to gradually build up to the more difficult and physically demanding exercises.

The cool down is often neglected but, when muscles have worked hard they need a considerable amount of time to recover. By having a cool down period with lots of active walking and stretching, you allow the muscles to wind down slowly, and maintain their elasticity; this will help with blood flow and muscle recovery, and avoid cramping and damage.

Frequent Breaks

To enable the muscles to grow and develop it’s really important to alternate between exertion and relaxation. Allowing the muscle that little “pause” for recovery after pushing its limits is the only way it’s going to be able to build up properly.

Training inherently will excessively strain cells and fibres within the muscle (the body over time responds to this by building more muscle, in anticipation for the next time this level of strength or exertion is required). In this little pause, the body immediately begins the regeneration process, as well as instinctively preparing for the next challenge, this is referred to as super compensation. That is the muscle compensates for the internal upset caused by the strain and goes beyond that to “defend” against the next one. This process is crucial to sustainable performance improvement and it happens in the recovery breaks, not during fatigue. Once the body is severely fatigued (like at the end of the training session), this process won’t be performed as well and you won’t be able to realise the full benefit.

It’s also important for the horse’s brain to take frequent breaks in a training session. They have a relatively short attention span especially when we are teaching them new things it’s really helpful to give them a little time to process the task they just completed. If you overdo it and the get past the end of their attention span and/or reach a point of mental fatigue, there learnings after that will be limited and often they’ll get cranky and unmotivated (I think we can all relate to that one…)

Lastly think about your own fitness levels! Riding requires a fair amount of muscle control and work from the rider as our muscles start to fatigue, we tense up and that will negatively impact our work with our horse.

Days Off

Make sure you’re breaking up hard, intense blocks of work with resting and/or easy days. An example might be doing some groundwork with your horse or, a relaxed trail ride with lots of walking; you’re still spending time together, you’re allowing the muscles to stretch and recover; your horse can still be learning and improving his balance but, you’re giving him a break from that significant physical exertion.

This is really important for muscle health. This notion that we have to train every day to be “consistent” and “hard working” is a really slippery slope. When you’re working the same or similar muscle groups every day you risk overexertion. The result is not only that you won’t be building muscle anymore but, with consistent overexertion you will actually start going backwards.

The added benefit of this approach is that the variety you incorporate into your training will keep the horse (and you) interested and motivated. A good mindset for both horse and rider is worth the world!

Get the Basics Right

The foundations need to be solid before you can build on them. Correct paces, transitions and lines seem like really basic tasks but, they’re not and they need to be properly established before you can move onto more difficult tasks. You reap what you sow  when shortcuts are taken with the basics, you’ll pay a hefty price for it later on.

At first when you’re only going slightly beyond the basics, it won’t be so obvious. But the further along you get in your training, the more these gaps in the horse’s basic abilities will make themselves known. And it’s in the horse’s nature to do their best to complete the task we’ve asked of them but, there will inevitably come a point where they just can’t do it anymore. Then we feel stuck and frustrated and we look to the last point where everything seemed fine. The chances are that point is a lot further back than we think and the damage has already been done.

Shortcuts in the basic training of the horse really weigh on the horse’s musculoskeletal system. When the horse’s basic paces, transitions, rhythm and balance aren’t well established, the muscles that support these won’t be either. That means when we begin to ask more of them they will need to disproportionately use muscle groups and even use the wrong muscle groups, to try perform the task in a way that’s acceptable to the rider. This builds up quite quickly, and does a lot of damage, and reversing it takes much more time and effort.

The training should move forward progressively, with each new lesson building on the last. It’s always testing and asking what’s possible; cementing each key skill before the next is begun. It should be a question “can you do this?”, and if the response is “yes, without trouble” then you can move on; and there’s no set timeline for this, horses are individual creatures, and each horserider combination is unique too.

Set Clear, Achievable Goals

This will bring structure to your work and give you a purpose. My coach gets me to write them down and pin them to the board above my desk – writing things down helps keep us focused, and it makes us express things clearly. We can be a little vague when we are just setting aspirations in our head.

It’s utterly important that these goals are achievable. When we set unrealistic goals, we set ourselves up for failure and that is bad news for the horse and the rider. Get together with your coach or a trusted instructor and talk about what you want to achieve, think “big picture” as well as the little steps to get there. So you can set your big picture goals but, also set little progress goals along the way. That way the little wins along the way will keep you motivated and you will take pride in your work and your horse will benefit from the joy that you are finding in the work too.

When you are looking at your horse every day, it can be hard to monitor progress (or notice problems, as they tend to creep up rather slowly). A really good habit to get is to regularly take photos of your horse when they’re standing (untacked) on flat ground. Take photos from each side, the front, and the back. That way you have an objective way to keep track of any changes, and it’s a really good way to pick up on asymmetries that may be developing too.

As always  remember each and every horse is different! They’re as unique as we are, and so is your partnership with them. So try and build a training routine that is appropriate, productive, and (most importantly) enjoyable for you both.

Copyright Alex Lantzsch www.sonovettherapy.com.au

Photo: one of our favourite instructors Trish Braithwaite and Alex riding Paris


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