Training by Feel….or by Time?

For years, the sage advice of classical dressage master Nuno Oliveira guided my daily rides. I had read a quote by him deriding the use of a watch or any kind of timepiece when schooling a horse. His philosophy was that riders needed to school by feeling and responding to the horse rather than by any kind of external measurements or parameters. I adopted this idea wholeheartedly for many years, modulating the duration of my training exercises and sessions based on how I felt the horse was, or was not, making gains from them.

Over time, however, two realities altered this approach for me. First, the more I studied exercise physiology the more I realized that certain tasks needed to be performed for a very specific amount of time in order to achieve the desired result. Second, we humans are not as focused nor aware nor consistent in our efforts from day to day as we assume. This makes the ‘training by feel’ paradigm erratically applied throughout any given week, day, or session. Today, I still ride a majority of each session by feeling and responding to the horse, but I do often use my watch.

Using a watch keeps me on track. It holds me accountable, prevents both laziness and over-working, and provides structure to any workout. Let me offer a few examples of why it is necessary to use a watch. Numerous scientific studies have shown that horses need 8-12 minutes of continuous walking at the beginning of a session to warm up and circulate their joint fluids so their joints are optimally primed. When I ask riders to adhere to this figure, most of them “feel” like they have reached the 10-minute mark when in fact only 5 minutes have passed.

As soon as my butt lands in the saddle on any given horse each day, I immediately note the time. As a trainer, I am frequently interrupted by students needing to ask questions or stopping by to say hello, and by noting the time I am able to be fairer to the horse I am schooling. On a recent day, for example, I mounted a horse at 9:52am and commenced our phase of walking around to circulate joint fluid. Within moments, one of my students walked in to the arena and interrupted me. I had to stop my horse and answer a bunch of questions.

Feeling a little annoyed and now behind schedule, I wanted to carry on with my ride and was just about to urge my horse to a trot when I checked my watch again. It was 9:58.I had definitely not satisfied my own rule of walking the horse for a full 10 minutes before trotting. Good thing I checked my watch, because my instincts were telling me to move the session in a difference direction!

The safeguards of checking my watch also applies to the actual exercises within any ride. Often, in our quests for perfection, we can spend far too much time drilling a maneuver or routine. Horses’ neuro-muscular systems respond to this kind of repetition by dulling, meaning they recruit fewer muscle fibers and at lesser force rates. In other words, there are diminishing returns on our efforts.

When I introduce gymnastic exercises to students at clinics, they sometimes experience an immediate result from their horses. After one or two repetitions of a cavalletti pattern, for example, the horses might suddenly start trotting with more rhythm and agility. However, these instant changes do not indicate deeper muscular and skeletal adaptations. I like to remind riders that any exercise needs to be practiced enough to make these more substantial and permanent changes. A single moment is insufficient. An entire half-hour is too long. How, then, do you know what timing to use?

The long answer is that each horse is different: some horses will benefit from 90 second intervals while others might need three-minute intervals. Figuring out what your horse needs requires monitoring your rides for clues about how/when your horse is in the work zone and how/when he recovers. The shorter answer is that you need a watch.

Cross-Training 2.0

Cross-training used to be something I casually promoted. Nowadays, I support it like a zealot. In fact, I might even argue that one cannot call herself a horse trainer unless she follows a cross-training program. My increasing commitment has risen in equal parts from exercise physiology research and my hands-on training results.

Unquestionably, the most efficient way to improve a body’s mechanics and movement is through varied training stimulus.

The fact that more riders do not cross-train weekly puzzles me. And yet I recognize that maintaining this routine might seem time-consuming, daunting, or possibly even frivolous. It needs not be time-consuming, as I’ll outline below. As for it being worthwhile, consider for a moment the benefits.

First, a quick definition: I define cross-training as exercises that, through coordination or intensity or range of motion require the horse to use his body differently from his everyday workouts. For arena horses, this could mean traversing alternative terrain. For horses that ride primarily at brisk speeds, it could mean working through slow-moving, precise footwork. For horses that rarely do so, it would include negotiating obstacles.

By definition, cross-training differs from how the horse exercises a majority of each week. For this reason, his nervous system recruits muscle fibers with more force to accomplish the task. This is due to novelty. Much like humans, horses’ neuro-muscular systems are designed for efficiency. Over time, they recruit fewer muscle fibers, and at weaker forces, to accomplish tasks they have mastered. This allows them to become more efficient at accomplishing a task, from running 100 miles to working through dressage patterns. Unfortunately, this limits the conditioning effect those tasks can have when continually practiced.

Varied muscle recruitment through cross-training is a way to “wake up” the nervous system and stimulate fuller muscular contractions on a regular basis. This leads to a greater number of muscle fibers being recruited in addition to generating more forceful effort. This conditioning effect carries over to the horse’s normal exercises, resulting in fuller participating of the neuro-muscular system overall.

Additionally, cross-training mitigates the mental dullness that arises from repetition of routines within any discipline. Modern science has shown us that in order to continue learning or refining skills, a horse must be in a state of calm, curious mental engagement. Only then does his brain map new movement patterns. Without sufficient mental interest, training will lack a conditioning effect. By cross-training, we can select from a range of exercises to refine the chosen skills but without allowing boredom to limit our progress.

And, lastly, my own personal opinion is that you can often accomplish gains faster by stepping outside your chosen discipline. One recent example from my own training illustrated this, so I’ll share it with you here.

An athletic little mare that was quite side dominant (always drifting with her body towards the left) showed up at my barn for some lessons to help resolve this issue. To date, her rider had done everything right. She rode the mare in lots of circles trying to bend and align her spine. She practiced leg-yielding, rein-backs, and other arena exercises. But the mare just got STRONGER in her asymmetry. The fitter she got, the more solidified in her crookedness she became.

I suggested she spend a few weeks riding the mare down hills in a very slow walk. To keep her body straight while walking downhill in this controlled manner, the mare had to organize and balance her torso. She needed to use each pectoral muscle equally; she needed to flex each hind limb evenly. With each step down the hill, she needed to allow her scapulae to rotate backwards, rather than using her over-developed left shoulder to drag her along as she did in the arena.

Through this simple routine, the horse was able to change much of her existing movement pattern that had become so strong in its incorrectness. These changes then allowed her rider to accomplish more with her arena exercises and to make more progress overall. This is just one example of what I consider working smarter rather than working harder.

A variety of training stimulus allows us better access to the horse’s nervous system and muscular effort. This variety keeps the horse mentally and physically engaged better, enabling our physical conditioning to have results.