Would You Mind Closing the Gate?

Obviously, a gate is pretty different than a door. Were gates or fences more door-like in solidity, though, we horse trainers might seem less unpredictable in our temperaments. I have heard it said about trainers that we are not always as warm and friendly as our students might wish. It is hard to dispute this. The truth is that a lot of times, we trainers are very tired or hungry or cold and achey. Or more often, we might just be trying to concentrate on an issue. Either way, our lack of joviality hits our students sharply. This brings me back to the arena gate.

In other workplaces, a professional can close her office door when she needs some silence to solve a problem or to focus on a task. We horse folks don’t have a door to close, which makes it difficult for us to concentrate in an uninterrupted way when we need to, a situation lending itself to constant disruption. Trainers with more social refinery handle this just fine, but for the rest of us it can translate to grumpiness. A few days ago, for instance, I was riding my youngster on a blustery morning with rain and trees swooshing overhead. Excited at the change in barometric pressure, Corazon was doing his best impression of the Tilt-a-Whirl ride at our amusement park. For every few strides we trotted forward, he wanted to add a swirling roundabout.

Needless to say, every ounce of my concentration was needed to keep him on task. My perky student Breanna walked up to the arena right about then and I greeted her with something close to a snarl. It had nothing to do with not wanting to see her; it was more due to depletion of mental bandwidth. If I were to pause and engage with her in chirpy morning banter, Corazon would have lost the little bit of composure he was managing in that moment. Instead, I gave my student a quick nod of my chin and then basically ignored her as she greeted me “Good Morning!” At the risk of seeming rude or unfriendly, I almost always defer my focus to the horse in moments like these, because that IS after all what I’m paid to do. My plea for all the unexpected farriers, boarders, saddle dealers, and others who drop by during a trainer’s schooling hours is to please remember that this is our job. Yes, we enjoy our job and, yes, we enjoy seeing you but please understand that we cannot always drop what we are doing in order to visit.

If your trainer seems short or withdrawn to you during a training session, do not take it personally. Unless we are allowed to concentrate on what we’re doing, we cannot perform at the level we’ve been hired for. When we all concede this, I think it puts the sometimes erratic moods of trainers in perspective. Remember this: when trainers need quiet time to think things through, there is usually none to be found. There is no door behind which we can breathe and gather thoughts. There are instead gates that can be leaned through or fences shouted over. Keep this in mind the next time you might feel a little slighted by an instructor. Bear with us– we are doing the best we can in spite of not having a door to rest behind.

Learn Three Things: Strength-Building

expo-sampleIn the physical training of a dressage horse, the greatest gains to be made are in the areas of  strength. Being a low aerobic sport with limited endurance or speed components, dressage relies on the acquisition of strength and flexibility more than other fitness markers to improve performance. In terms of how to go about building strength, a few basic principles will guide you far. Here I offer you three pointers worth heeding.

  1. To increase strength, a muscle must be recruited at 75 percent of its maximum contractile effort. This means choosing exercises based on current fitness levels that are not too easy for your horse. For instance, if you are using shoulder-in as a strengthening exercise, be sure to ride it with a tempo and frame and alignment that feels like the horse is working at 75 percent of maximum effort.
  2. Ride an exercise for 60-90 seconds. Recent studies using muscle sensors and post-workout biopsies indicate that in order to utilize the right amount of effort to create consistent recruitment patterns, the horse needs to perform exercises for 60-90 seconds at each go. So, go out and find yourself a short hill or a cavalletti pattern or a routine of gait transitions and perform it for that duration and then…
  3. Use an interval format. Intervals are loosely defined as a period of work effort followed by the same duration of time of rest. As an example, ride a cavalletti pattern for 60-90 seconds and then rest (brisk walk or easy jog) for the same duration. Repeat this sequence several times depending on your horse’s fitness level. For full effectiveness, be sure the duration of each rest period does not exceed time spent on work efforts.  Intervals are the most productive ways to build strength according to physiology experts. They recruit muscles intensely followed by a brief pause to allow increased blood flow, oxygen, and nerve action. In terms of increasing strength and power, they work more effectively than prolonged routines that favor muscular endurance.