Avoid Burnout with Your Horse: Have a Plan
For those of us who can measure our involvement with horses by decades rather than days or months, showing up at the barn can feel like the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day. With a few minor variations, our days follow a similar routine. And while these routines are generally satisfying, they open the door for burnout. Even when you love your horse– or horse training career– wildly, this sameness gets dull.
When you sustain any routine for an extended time– a hobby, an exercise program, a health habit– burnout lurks around the corner.
The obvious solution, and the right thing for our horses, is to avoid the sameness. In so doing we avoid burnout. For our purposes, I’m defining sameness as exercises of similar type or intensity every time we work with our horses. Once upon a time as young trainer, I put my training horses through 45-minute dressage schooling sessions 4 to 5 days per week operating from the belief that in order to get better at dressage, we needed to do dressage as much as possible. Sometimes I substituted a day of longing or ground driving for riding, but generally our daily routines were very similar.
With small variations in the exercises we rode or the amount of time in each gait, the bulk of our arena schooling was repetitive in terms of work effort, seriousness, duration, and objectives. As a note-young-anymore trainer I admitted to myself that I felt a little burned out. Maybe not entirely toasted yet, but definitely burning around the edges.
Luckily it was at this time that I began studying equine exercise physiology in earnest and learned the horses needed me to change my Groundhog Day approach anyway. To become better at dressage, my horses needed to become better athletes, not necessarily to do dressage every day. Funny enough, adapting my routine for this (with the convenient side effect of preventing burnout for me) involved drafting in many ways a more rigid weekly schedule. This new plan had built-in variety and cross-training, variations in duration and intensity of training days, and prevents me from obsessing over the tedium of dressage any given day. I probably don’t need to tell you it made made both me and the horses happier.
Adhering to this plan has helped me make better equine athletes, for sure. But more notably, it keeps me from burning out. It allows me to arrive at the barn each morning with a bright mood, a clear and focused mindset, and still after all these years a little eagerness. In a general outline, my weekly schedule is below. Obviously, there are times on any given day when I scrap the plan in favor of addressing a horse’s particular need that arises. More or less, though, our weeks follow a rhythm like this:
Monday: basic gymnastic work, 30-45 minutes of riding in all three gaits, several transitions between gaits, lots of stretching. No fiddling with dressage movements.
Tuesday: Cavalletti day. A warm-up followed by 20 minutes schooling an exercise from my books.
Wednesday: Dressage schooling session
Thursday: Trail ride
Friday: Dressage schooling session
The Intersection of Body Work and Horse Training
At the Intersection of Horse Bodywork and Training
I am admittedly lucky. My student Sandy Vreeburg is a Masterson Method instructor and practitioner. This means I not only have access to my preferred type of body work but I also get to trade notes with her about the horses we mutually work with. When this kind of melding occurs between trainer and practitioner, I would argue it is almost magic for the horse. In fact, I shudder a little when I look back decades ago when we trainers had to form our own best opinions about what might be going on for a particular horse’s body without the benefit of available skilled bodyworkers.
Sure, there are plenty of times when we trainers DO have the answers about what/where a horse might be physically restricted or discomforted. But there are also times when we are making our best educated guess. And, true, a bodyworker might just confirm or validate our guess. Other times, though, he or she might have insights that shift our focus in a positive new direction. These check-ins offer an excellent opportunity to assess our current stage and future aim for the horse.
Last week, Sandy worked on one of my lesson horses, Sem. A large grade mare, Sem is a sweetheart, but she can be pretty tricky to ride for new dressage riders due to getting heavy on the forehand and leaning against the reins. A rider must re-balance her frequently, more frequently in fact than I prefer. Lately, I stopped giving lessons with Sem so I could set about resolving her balance issues more permanently. I started working her through my Corrective Exercises daily to challenge her to find new motor patterns.
Despite quite a good amount of progress, I was still a little mystified about the right side of Sem’s body. It was just plain different than the left. It felt unusually difficult for Sem to rotate her trunk and bend correctly on that side while staying soft in the contact. As we know in dressage, without trunk rotation (which allows the inside hip to lower and the hind leg to thereby step under the body weight), there can be no bend and collection. When trying to respond to my cues, Sem often held her breath and braced her jaw against the reins rather than relaxing through her neck. The right rein felt heavy and lifeless, no chewing or salivation or elasticity. And yet whenever I finished riding Sem, she would work her tongue around her lips in big relaxed smacking motions, spending notably more time with her tongue wringing around the right side of her mouth.
Around this same time, Sandy worked on Sem for the first time.
Without any input or prompting from me, Sandy shared afterwards that Sem’s response to her bodywork was a pronounced amount of releasing tension from her right side. Sandy observed one particularly odd form of release: Sem twisting and twirling her tongue around the right side of her mouth accompanied by some head-twisting and yawning, all on the right side only. During the session, Sandy felt that Sem’s right scapula was fairly adhered to her thorax and possibly pulling her entire torso over to that side. Basically, her right shoulder and base of her neck felt stuck or glued to something.
Sandy’s feedback afterwards was not a revelation in the sense that it offered information I had not suspected. But it DID offer me a clearer and narrower focus for my training efforts. Instead of trying vaguely to improve Sem’s general right-sidedness daily, I could now focus my exercises on the front end, the base of her neck, the shoulder. Based on Sandy’s feedback, I now had a priority for my game plan.
I can’t tell you how valuable this kind of collaboration has been for horses in the past. It creates an excellent cycle of effort-progress—feedback. If a bodyworker informs me that one of my training horses is sore in an area I feel he should not be, it causes me to pause and take inventory of the horse’s lifestyle and workload in recent weeks. If on the other hand, the bodyworker tells me how excellent a horse feel when I have been pushing him harder then I know I can accelerate his training even more. This kind of feedback and open-mindedness among horse professionals is singularly focused on the horse’s wellbeing. Every horse should have a support team around him.
Not Enough Time for Ground Poles? Think again.
Following the past several years of traveling around giving clinics in which I teach riders to use ground poles in their regular schooling,I have arrived at a fact: most riders quickly understand the gymnastic benefits of group poles, but they will not incorporate them on a consistent basis. It is not because they are rebelling against my advice but because poles can be a hassle to drag out and set up every day.
Honestly, though, a decent ground pole lesson does not need to be elaborate or complicated. In many cases, you can even forego using bulky risers to elevate them off the ground but still make fitness gains. This makes the set-up much easier, especially when using just four poles which I will offer suggestions for in the next few months. In following blog posts, I will recommend and explain the most effective exercises using just four poles that are quick and easy to set up. Some of these are found in my books, others are new bonus routines appearing only on this blog.
This month’s exercise is the Adjustability Circle. It improves your horse’s balance and quality of movement in a few ways. First, crossing over the poles causes him to fire up the muscles that form the hammock of his thoracic sling. This helps cushion and elasticize his strides, which translates to smoother, more graceful movement. Second, the prescribed quadrants of the circle in this pattern help get both horses and riders locked in to a very steady rhythm of gait. Rhythm, as we have all experienced, forms a primary organizing effect in the body. In other words, it cleans up sloppy, wobbly motions.
Finally, by having to step over a pole occasionally– but not in a predictable sequence– you override the horse’s central pattern generator, which interrupts him from blundering along in a gait pattern without brain-to-hoof communication. Think of it as re-booting his computer every dozen or strides. There are several ways to vary the following routine. You can ride it at different gaits and speeds. You can throw in some transitions between gaits at random points. As-is, the exercise will offer plenty of benefits on its own, so don’t feel like you need to get too creative. Just know that if this routine becomes one you do frequently, you can add variety to keep things fresh.
- Envision your 20-meter circle as a clock face and place a ground pole at 12noon, 3pm, 6pm, and 9pm.
- Now ride your horse in a lively working trot around your circle, crossing over the middle of each pole as you come to it.
- Count your strides between each pole; you should have the same stride count if you are riding correctly in rhythm.
- Be sure to keep your horse bent around your inside leg for the duration of the circle, even when crossing poles.
- Look ahead, keep a light contact with the reins, and smile.
For further description about the physical benefits of exercises like this one, check out my books. Meantime, stay tuned for the next post about ground pole patterns that are easy to set up.