“Fit, Fat, Sound and Happy”
This month Les gives you the recipe for showing success by following this old horseman’s saying…Show preparation is a critical factor in how successful you are or aren’t at the show. The kind of show preparation I am talking about isn’t bathing your horse or cleaning your tack although those things are important. I am talking about the physical conditioning of your horse. There is an old saying that the winning horse is the fittest, fattest, soundest and happiest horse.
I’ll qualify that by saying ‘fattest’ does not mean borderline founder fat but a horse that is in good weight with the appropriate muscle for the work he is doing. So how do we achieve this fit, fat, sound, happy horse?
We all know that fitness and soundness go hand in hand. The horse’s fitness is the rider’s job; he must condition the horse to work at the highest possible level. Like most things in riding you want to use your common sense as you get your horse fit. A fat
horse who hasn’t done anything for five or six months will need to build up his fitness level whereas some horses maintain a pretty good level of fitness on their own and will be able to do more work.
It is very important that you are working your horse on good ground. Firm ground with 3 inches of ‘fluff’ on it and a little moisture is good conditioning ground. It is soft enough that it doesn’t cause the horse any undue concussion but firm enough that the horse moves easily across the top of it.
Working the horse in deep sand – especially a horse that has been out of work – is asking for trouble in my opinion. I really wouldn’t want to leg up a fat horse in deep sand. The horse labors more in deep sand than he does in well-prepared dirt causing muscle fatigue.
You can use a large field or an arena for your gallops, the bigger the better. Trying to gallop circles in a small area, such as a 100 ft round pen, puts a lot of stress on the horse’s joints. A bigger area gives the horse a chance to straighten his body and carry his weight in a more even distribution.
You may not have the option of a large area and in this case you must take precautions such as keeping the horse’s shoulders up around the corners, maintaining a balanced posture and moderating the speed.
It is a good idea to warm the horse up by long-trotting for a few minutes in each direction before picking up the gallop. The less fit your horse is the more time you will need for warm up. Make sure you have your horse in a good posture before you start.
Conditioning work doesn’t mean that the horse can go around with his head up, his back down and his hind legs trailing out behind him. Although he is not in a collected frame he should still be flexed at the poll, soft in the neck and moving well up underneath himself. Do some exercises such as (The Five Easy Pieces) to make sure that your horse is balanced and listening to you.
I gallop my horse in short segments until he is blowing a little bit and starts to crack a sweat. I think this is a pretty safe line to draw as far as how much pressure you should put on your horse. In order to increase the fitness level the horse does have to get his respiration and heart rate elevated just as people do.
In the gallop the horse can go in a slightly longer posture but he should still be soft in the neck and moving well up under himself
One of the things I like to do once I have my horse in the gallop is to break off and counter canter a circle of about 30 ft diameter at each corner. For example:
I am galloping my horse to the left down the long side of the arena; as I come to the end of that long side I make a circle to the right (in counter canter) and then continue on to the next corner where I repeat this maneuver.
As long as you are galloping in a large enough area it can be very helpful to break off into a circle in counter canter as you come to each corner
Doing counter canter around the smaller circle helps to keep the horse from leaning to the inside when you go back to the true lead. I feel that this makes the horse use different muscles and it saves wear and tear on the inside limbs.
At the very least you should change directions one time during your conditioning gallop to make sure the horse develops strength equally on both sides. Just galloping around in one direction will also put more strain on that side which can lead to soundness trouble.
Using boots to protect the horse’s legs during conditioning gallops is a good idea. For horses that need a little more support you can use polo wraps.
The amount of galloping you do depends on your horse. A young, fit horse will be able to do more than an older horse that might need to be babied a little more. I had a vet tell me once – and I believe it to be true – that it is much harder for older horses to go up and down in their fitness. It is much better to keep an older horse fit all the time. When an older horse goes up and down and up and down in his fitness it is harder to keep him sound.
You never want to gallop any horse until he is out of air because this is when you have a great chance for injury. A tired horse stops using his muscles efficiently and lets the tendons and ligaments do more and more of the work. That is why tendon soreness usually shows up after a strenuous work. Showing a horse that is not fit in a high performance class can lead to injury, either minor (soreness, mild swelling) or major (tendon or ligament strain).
Les Vogt is a 15X World Champion in reining and reined cowhorse events. Les’s products include the Cowhorse U training programs, bits and spurs developed to help riders and horses at all levels of training. All are designed to improve you and your horse’s performance
This article was printed in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 8, Issue 12
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