Physical Fitness for Dressage Horses

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Best strategies for increasing performance and avoiding injuries

Reprinted from the July/August 2016 issue of USDF Connection

By Hilary Clayton, BVMS, PhD, Diplomate ACVSMR, MRCVS

As dressage riders and trainers, we are responsible for ensuring that our horses are fit enough for the job we ask them to do.

Through a combination of cardiovascular conditioning and strength training, we induce physiological and structural adaptations in the horse’s body. These adaptations have the dual benefits of allowing the horse to perform to the best of his ability while reducing the risk of injury or lameness. The best results are obtained when conditioning workouts are tailored to the individual horse’s age and current fitness, the level at which he competes, the weaknesses in his performance, and the local terrain; and are modified accordingly to accommodate any injuries. Ideally, conditioning exercises should be integrated into the horse’s regular training schedule.

In this article, I’ll explain the various types of conditioning and give you a blueprint for creating a fitness plan for your horse.

Types of Conditioning

Cardiovascular conditioning facilitates the horse’s ability to convert the carbohydrates and fats in his diet into the energy his body uses for locomotion. Cardiovascular fitness allows the horse to perform his work more easily and without getting fatigued. It also enhances his ability to dissipate heat and avoid overheating during longer bouts of exercise in hot and/or humid weather..

Strength training targets the muscles that allow the horse to perform the gaits and movements of dressage with increasing impulsion, straightness, and collection. The horse’s core musculature (his abdominal, sublumbar, and back muscles) act together to maintain roundness and to lighten the forehand. The pelvic stabilizers (gluteals and hamstrings) are responsible for stabilizing the hip and pelvis so that propulsive forces from the hind limbs can be transferred effectively to the rest of the horse’s body. These muscles also need strength to maintain balance in movements that are performed without forward movement, such as piaffe and pirouettes. The muscles of the thoracic sling—principally the serratus ventralis—suspend the rib cage between the forelimbs. The sling muscles stabilize the position of the rib cage and elevate the withers to maintain the horse’s “uphill” balance that we desire in dressage.

Conditioning Principles

Performing an appropriate type and amount of exercise that will produce tangible benefits in performance is known as conditioning. The general principles of conditioning dictate that only a small amount of a new type of exercise is performed at first, with the amount being increased gradually over a period of weeks and months until the horse achieves an appropriate level of fitness or strength.

The tissues need time to regenerate after a workout, so we should train different exercises or focus on different parts of the horse’s body on successive days. Most important, the training schedule should include easy days and rest days to reduce the risk of repetitive-strain injuries, such as pulled suspensories. Much of the conditioning work can be integrated into the regular training program, but sometimes it is beneficial to go outside the arena in order to focus on a specific aspect of fitness development.

A well-conditioned horse will cope easily with the physical demands of training and competition. Bear in mind, though, that conditions at a show may be more taxing than at home as the result of inclement weather, footing, or working the horse more often than usual if he competes in more than one class per day or needs a longer warm-up to allow him to settle and relax. Combine these with the almost constant noise and activity of a show grounds, and it’s not surprising that horses get tired. Getting your horse a little fitter than the minimal required for his level of competition will help him to compensate for other energy-sapping circumstances. Each step up the competition ladder requires a greater degree of strength and fitness, so the horse’s level of training and degree of fitness should advance together.

Cardiovascular Fitness

Horses—especially the hot-blooded breeds, such as Arabians and Thoroughbreds— can improve their cardiovascular fitness quickly and easily. An off-the-track Thoroughbred that’s already highly fit from race training is unlikely to need additional cardiovascular conditioning in his new occupation as a dressage horse. On the other hand, a phlegmatic warmblood may perk up and become more “forward-thinking” as he gets fitter and copes with the workload more easily. Pay attention to changes in your horse’s temperament as he gets fitter, and avoid getting him overfit if this makes him too fresh or naughty.

In order to improve cardiovascular fitness, the horse needs to work at an elevated heart rate, which can be achieved by riding at faster speed, riding on an uphill gradient, riding with more impulsion, or including more frequent transitions. Speed is a major determinant of exercise intensity: The faster a horse travels on level ground, the more energy he expends and the higher his heart rate. In the arena, improve fitness by spending more time in medium and extended trot and canter. However, the necessity to keep turning is a limitation to arena work, and it is preferable to use a larger area, such as a pasture, where you can ride safely at faster speeds without having to make frequent turns.

Hill work is the best way of improving a horse’s cardiovascular fitness because the effects of gravity load the hind limbs so the propulsive muscles are strengthened while simultaneously unloading and reducing concussion on the forelimbs. The ideal hill for this purpose has a long, gradual incline that can be negotiated at trot or canter, then slowly walked down. Ascending the hill at a faster speed or performing more repetitions produces fitness gains. You can do hill work before or after a schooling session if the hill is close to your arena, or you can devote an entire training session to hill work.

Muscular strength is often the missing link when a horse is unable to progress successfully to Grand Prix.

-Dr. Hilary Clayton

When the horse changes speed or direction, overcoming the body’s inertia requires energy, so every transition increases energy expenditure. Therefore, frequent transitions improve our horses’ fitness as well as our technical skills in dressage! As horses move up the levels, the number and difficulty of the transitions in the tests increases, so incorporating more transitions into your training sessions is a highly specific method of improving fitness.

Interval training involves short periods of exercise (works) punctuated by rest intervals. A series of alternating works and rest intervals is called a set, and successive sets are separated by longer set rests. The rest intervals allow the horse to recover somewhat between work periods, to reduce the risk of muscular fatigue or fatigue-related injury.

Much of our dressage arena work uses an interval-training format. For example, we work on improving a movement, then take a walk break. In the context of conditioning, an exercise that involves rapid acceleration from walk or halt to medium trot or canter followed by a downward transition to walk becomes an interval-training exercise if the transitions are repeated several times in quick succession. (This particular exercise can be beneficial for sharpening the responses of a horse that’s sluggish off the aids, but it might be less appropriate for an excitable “hot” horse, so use it with care.)

Strength Training

Strength training improves muscles’ strength, power, or endurance. Although some dressage horses succeed despite the fact that they don’t do strength training, many others fail to reach the pinnacle of success because they lack sufficient strength.

Muscular strength is necessary not only to enhance performance, but also to reduce injuries by stabilizing the joints more effectively. Don’t underestimate the importance of joint stability: In human athletes, it has been suggested that more than half of sports injuries could be prevented through appropriate strength training. The same is likely true for sport horses.

Strength training should be sport-specific. In dressage horses, this means focusing on developing endurance of the muscles responsible for self-carriage and collection. It is important to train these muscles precisely as they will be used during the dressage movements—meaning at the same joint angles, though the same range of joint motion, and at the same speed of muscle contraction. In other words, use of the dressage movements is entirely appropriate for strength training, but the number of repetitions has to be sufficient to stimulate muscular adaptation. The need to strengthen the muscles in the precise way that they are used in the movements explains why there are no shortcuts in preparing a Grand Prix horse: It is only as the horse learns the technical aspects of performing at a higher level that the muscles can be strengthened specifically to improve performance at that level.

Muscle strength must increase progressively as the horse moves up the levels. When a horse graduates from the small tour (FEI Prix St. Georges and Intermediate I), the need for muscular strength increases dramatically, and this is often the missing link when a horse is unable to progress successfully to the Grand Prix level.

The type of strength required for dressage is highly specific. Our sport does not require explosive bursts of activity, as in taking off over a jump or accelerating out of the starting gate. Instead, dressage calls for repeated submaximal muscular contractions, which requires the development of endurance in specific muscles. Appropriate strength training involves a large number of repetitions in which the muscles are used precisely as they are in the dressage movements, with progressive loading achieved by increasing the number of repetitions. Include strength-training exercises in your training program two or three times per week.

YOUR HORSE’S BEST WORKOUT BUDDY: Hill work is an optimal way to develop cardiovascular fitness and muscular strength. Steeper slopes like the one pictured are best negotiated at a walk or a canter. Walk down, being sure to keep your horse straight. (DustyPerin.com)

Since horses can’t lift weights or use resistance machines, we rely on core-training exercises, hill work, and the use of poles or cavaletti. In the early stages of breaking and training, we can use carrot stretches to activate a horse’s core muscles. Although these exercises are called “stretches,” their main benefit is to strengthen the abdominal, sublumbar, and back muscles that are responsible for postural control, as well as to enhance the stabilization and range of motion of the horse’s back and neck. The horse learns to perform these exercises while standing square on a level surface; after he becomes proficient in the techniques, the degree of difficulty can be increased by having him stand with his legs in different positions or on an unstable surface or with one leg raised.

Stimulated movements, in which manual pressure is used to induce the horse to use his core muscles to round or bend his back, are a progression from carrot stretches. All of these core-activating exercises are best done immediately prior to tacking up in order to activate the muscles and make them ready for the workout that follows. (For more on these exercises, see my book and DVD with co-author Dr. Narelle Stubbs, Activate Your Horse’s Core.)

Dressage movements can be used in an interval-training format to improve strength by performing a specific number of repetitions followed by a rest interval. An important prerequisite to using this type of strength training is that the horse must be able to do the movement correctly and in good form; if the movement is performed incorrectly or if fatigue develops, then the wrong muscles are trained.

Here’s a sample exercise to try. On a 20-meter circle, ride transitions between trot and canter every half a circle until you’ve completed four circles (eight transitions, or “repetitions,” = one set); then walk on a long rein for 20 seconds. Repeat the exercise/walk interval on the opposite rein. Over a period of time, you can increase the workload by performing the transitions more frequently (every quarter of a circle), by doing more repetitions (10 transitions per set, then 12 transitions per set), or by performing more sets (an additional set of circles with transitions on each rein).

A more advanced dressage horse might be able to do this upper-level interval-training exercise: Ride eight half-steps, then trot forward for 20 meters (half-steps + trot = one repetition). In week 1, you might do three repetitions for one set, repeating the sequence on alternating days. In week 2, do three reps of 10 half-steps. In week 3, maintain 10 half-steps per repetition but increase to four repetitions per set. In week 4, do 10 half-steps per repetition and three repetitions per set, but increase to two sets separated by five minutes of easy forward movement.

The above examples are suggestions, not hard-and-fast rules, meant to illustrate how the amount of work can be increased slowly and progressively over time to improve the horse’s strength. Keep your horse moving during rest intervals to maintain circulation to the muscles and to enhance the removal of lactic acid. Be disciplined about the number of repetitions and sets and the frequency with which the exercises are performed in order to reap the maximum benefit.

Hill work is invaluable for strengthening the muscles that transmit forces between the fore and hind limbs and the body. Steep uphill gradients develop power in the hindquarters, especially the gluteal and hamstring muscles. I prefer to ride steep uphill slopes at a walk or a canter rather than at a trot because these gaits encourage the horse to step forward under his body and to push hard against the ground, which maximize the beneficial muscular effects. They also avoid the lateral rolling motion of the pelvis that occurs in trot and that can potentially strain the sacroiliac region.

Hill work also is a form of interval training: The ascent is the work, and the descent is the rest interval. The descent also offers a valuable strengthening opportunity. When a horse walks down a hill in self-carriage, he strengthens his sling muscles. Frequent transitions between walk, halt, and rein back are particularly effective. The key is that the horse must not lean on the rider’s hand. He should carry himself; take short, deliberate steps; and use his muscles to control every step of the descent. Make sure that your horse is straight both going up and coming down the hill; otherwise he’ll adopt his habitual crookedness patterns, which will interfere with the development of symmetrically strong muscles.

Work over poles, at all gaits and on straight or curved lines, strengthens the muscles that raise the limbs and make the stride more expressive, activates the core musculature, and improves balance. Raising the height of the poles increases the strength-training effect, whereas going through the poles more slowly enhances balance.

Variables in the construction of a jumping grid include the height, width, and number of fences, and the distances between them. For dressage horses, it is appropriate to use small fences set at one-stride or bounce distances as a form of plyometric training. Gradually increase the difficulty by increasing the number of fences or the number of repetitions through the grid while maintaining the small obstacle size.

Use Variation and Rest for Best Results

Insufficient exercise won’t get your horse fit and strong enough for dressage, but too much exercise or not enough recovery time between workouts predisposes the horse to repetitive- strain injuries. Minimize the risk of injury by doing different types of exercise on successive days, and schedule easy days between strenuous workouts. Always warm up gradually, and be sure to “warm down” thoroughly, including suppling exercises to stretch the muscles.

Meet the Expert

Hilary Clayton, BVMS, PhD, Diplomate ACVSMR, MRCVS, is the professor and Mary Anne McPhail Dressage Chair emerita. She was the first-ever Mary Anne McPhail Dressage Chair in Equine Sports Medicine at Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, East Lansing, from 1997 to 2014. At the same time, she was also a professor in MSU’s Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences.
A world-renowned expert on equine biomechanics and conditioning, Dr. Clayton is president of Sport Horse Science, LC, which is dedicated to translating research data into practical advice for riders, trainers, and veterinarians through lectures, articles, and private consultations. A USDF gold, silver, and bronze medalist, she is a member of the US Equestrian Federation Dressage Committee and a USDF Connection contributing editor.

1 COMMENT

  1. Really good information in this article. I look forward to implementing this more in my practice as well.

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