Your Horse Is An Athlete. Train Him Like One.

*I am not a professional trainer, nor do I claim to be one. I'm just a woman with a pony and some education and experience I'd like to share. 

This summer, I've spent a lot of time working on Dino's fitness, muscle tone, and strength. He's made tremendous progress in getting totally ripped. While his particular physical issues (PSSM, Cushing's, and a locking stifle) make it even more important for him to stay in peak condition, EVERY horse and pony that is worked on a regular basis needs to be trained and prepared for that work like the athletes they are. Each and every time you ride, lunge, drive, long line, or round pen your horse, you are not only teaching them skills and habits, you are either building up or tearing down their body. Recently I was asked how I came up with the training program that I use for Dino. While there is no straightforward answer to that question, there are some guidelines and methods that I adhere to very strongly that have served me well over the years in training and conditioning many horses. Let me share! Because sharing is caring:

-Listen to your horse, and take baby steps. Really get to know what's normal and what's not as far as your horse's attitude, movement, and abilities. Learn to feel and see when you horse is a little stiff, sore, or tired. If you notice that he isn't feeling 100%, do his body a favor and take a step back in your work that day. Going for an easy hack in lieu of an intense dressage school on a day when your horse is feeling a little sub-par does a lot to keep him from going lame or resenting his job.

-Make sure your mount has the appropriate strength and flexibility for the work you're asking for. Just like how running five miles when you're out of shape is a sure-fire way to injure yourself, asking your pony for movements, collection, duration of work, or jumps that are beyond his physical capabilities will damage his body. If your horse has soundness issues, talk to your vet about any performance limits he may have, and tailor your training to those limitations. Avoid anything (jumping, sharp turns, fast work, etc.) that will exacerbate any unsoundness your horse may be dealing with.

-Don't skimp on the warm up. Just like human athletes need to stretch and start off slow before they work out or compete, horses need to warm up, too. Walk. Walk a lot. Walk on a long rein and let your horse stretch down, shorten your reins and bring the horse into a working frame, then stretch them out again. Walk fast, walk slow. Walk over poles. Practice shoulder-in and leg yield at the walk. Do walk-halt transitions. Walk and walk and walk until your horse is light off your leg, soft in the bridle, stepping forward freely, and swinging his back with every stride. Then start your trot work, making sure all of your fast/slow, collect/stretch, stop/go, left/right buttons are working in trot before you canter, and always be sure your horse feels loose, responsive, and relaxed before you move onto a faster or more difficult gait or movement.

-Ride FORWARD and INTO THE BRIDLE. Letting your pony putz around on the forehand with his nose in the air like a demented llama does not build the muscles he needs to be a strong, supple, capable riding horse. It is so, so important to ALWAYS ride your pony forward from his hindquarters (the 'engine') and into the contact as much as he is physically able to do. Correct riding builds a strong topline and hind end; muscle groups that are absolutely essential for any riding horse, no matter what the discipline. Roundness is not just for dressage horses! If you aren't sure how to ask your horse to go round (or in a 'frame' as it's sometimes called) please, please, PLEASE ask your trainer, instructor, or a friend who rides better than you do to help you learn. This is a priceless skill that EVERY rider should have, and will make your horse a fitter, stronger, more balanced partner no matter what discipline you ride!

-Be patient. When you first start conditioning a pony who is young, out of shape, or has had a lot of time off, they won't be able to go in a proper frame right away because they lack the strength and muscling to do so, and you must ask for just a little bit of roundness at a time, and always insist on forward. Over time, your pony will be able to move with his back up, hind end pushing under, and neck softly arched for longer and longer stretches. The end goal is something we like to call "self-carriage," in which the pony carries himself in this posture with limited input and support from the rider, but it is a result of building the correct muscles, strength, and flexibility to do so. It takes TIME. Be patient! Don't expect your pony to transform into a world-class athlete in a week, a month, or even a year depending on how fit he was when you started out. Train at a pace that is comfortable for your pony.

-Get off the rail! Put some variety in your ride! Riding around on the outside track doing walk, trot, and canter on a loose rein does almost NOTHING to get your horse fit and muscled. If riding in an arena is your only option, use the whole space to your advantage. Do lateral work, circles, figure eights, serpentines, and every different change of direction you can think of. Change bend, change speed, change gait. Work over cavaletti, jump grids, ride bareback. If you can, get out of the ring altogether! Go on trail rides, do hill work, school in a field or pasture, do trot and gallop sets with a friend, and ride your horse on as much different terrain as you can. All of these things challenge your horse both physically and mentally, and do wonderful things for his fitness and muscling, as long as you keep riding him forward and into the bridle!

-Don't neglect the merits of groundwork. Use your time on the ground to improve your pony. Belly lifts, tail pulls, neck and leg stretches are all things that you can do in the barn that will help your pony build muscle and flexibility. When you lunge, lunge with a purpose! Use lunging to teach your pony voice commands and proper carriage with the use of equipment like side reins or a chambon, not for bucking around like a wild thing.

-Track your progress, and relish the small achievements. I find it helpful to use journals and photos to track progress. Writing down what I worked on, how it went, and what I plan to work on in the next training session helps me stick to a structured program and move logically from one thing to the next. Photos are another great tool to help you visualize the changes your horse goes through as he gains muscle and fitness. When you look at your horse every day, it's sometimes hard to see a difference in their condition. Keeping a photo log of conformation shots taken every month or so can help you see some dramatic changes, and pinpoint areas you need to work on. It's also so important to stay positive and focus on small successes. Your horse was able to go round a few strides more today than yesterday? Awesome! He started pushing with his hind end up hills instead of pulling with his shoulders? Fantastic! The pony changed bend smoothly from left to right for the first time? THROW A PARTY! Training horses is a beautiful thing!

-Never stop learning. Ask questions! Read books! Watch lessons and clinics! Participate in online forums! Every new insight you gain about training and conditioning can help you become a better trainer, and help your horse become a better athlete. One of the wonderful things about the horse community is that there is no one right way to do anything, and it's easy to find someone with a different experience or perspective that may help you work through problems you encounter. If you work with a trainer or instructor, use that resource! If you don't, find some knowledgeable friends and help each other progress. An open mind and a thirst for knowledge are two of the most powerful training tools there are. 

These are the principles that have helped me successfully train and condition Dino and other horses and ponies. I hope they helped give you some new insights on what it means to train your horse as an athlete, but please remember to TRAIN SAFE, and don't be afraid to ask for help from a pro trainer, friend, barnmate, or mentor if you ever feel overwhelmed, scared, frustrated, or confused. You owe it to your horse! Please share any questions, resources, or training tips in the comments! Let's help each other be better trainers.


  1. This is great! Luckily I have a great trainer to help me out ; )


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