Cross Training for Successful Daily Rides
April 5, 2012 by Jec Ballou
If you’ve ever undertaken an exercise program, you have undoubtedly come across the merits of cross-training. Maybe this was as simple as a sports coach reminding you not to work the same muscle groups on consecutive days or recommending strength conditioning along with your endurance training and so on. Where athletic training is involved, cross-training provides an edge not obtainable by continually drilling the same muscle groups or cardiovascular response daily.
The most commonly known reason for cross-training is to avoid repetitive motion injuries—inevitable breakdown that occurs from taking the body’s muscles, joints, and ligaments through the same series of movements day after day. Cross-training allows your horse to achieve peak fitness without creating inflammation, muscle/ligament tears, or other injuries along the way. Maybe lesser known, though, are the other compelling reasons to cross-train. These include the ability to get more out of your performance and to train your horse for a much higher level of athleticism, which makes him more enjoyable to ride. This has the double benefit of making his riding and training more enjoyable for him too.
Interdisciplinary exercises like the ones includes in this book allow the horse to acquire more powerful and efficient locomotion. They teach his nervous system to recruit the best muscle fibers for each movement and exercise, leading to his ability to perform with greater ease over time. These types of exercises, outside your specific discipline, take a horse’s joints through a larger range of motion than his regular movement patterns. By making these gains in his overall balance, coordination, strength, and suppleness, your horse will quickly overcome the training roadblocks that impede many horses. For instance, exercises that require a different level of intensity or coordination can greatly improve your horse’s collected work. Too often, these roadblocks cause horses and riders to get stuck for prolonged periods of time. When this happens, riding can become frustrating, boring, or overly difficult. However, by integrating some cross-training into your normal routine, your riding journey will maintain forward momentum. And it will be fun!
This book will give you an easy roadmap for identifying useful cross-training principles and exercises and show you how to incorporate them into a plan that works for you. Above all, you will learn that you do not need new equipment, a different boarding situation, or even a drastic change in your normal routine.
First, let’s consider the purpose of cross-training. Some riders mistakenly assume that the value only comes from giving the horse a “mental break” from his regular dressage training. This isn’t the case. Cross-training exercises still require effort and work, after all, so while the horse may approach them with a bit more eagerness, they don’t exactly constitute a rest for the horse mentally. Instead, the purpose of adding variety to your schooling is to strengthen different muscle groups and improve proprioception (and therefore balance) in ways that don’t happen in everyday dressage riding. Also, it allows for conditioning the dressage horse without risking repetitive motion injuries (e.g. soreness, strained tendons, tired muscles) from always drilling the same movements.
These exercises will enhance your horse’s overall athletic ability– balance, coordination, strength, stamina. Imagine how much better your canter circles will be, for instance. Or your shoulder-in, transitions, impulsion.
The following are my guidelines for blending cross-training elements into your daily rides. They’re applicable to students of all disciplines, but especially useful in keeping a dressage athlete’s body in full working order. Give them a shot and see what happens. And remember to have fun.
Backing Up to Go Forward
Backing up can hugely improve our horses’ strength. When done properly with the horse in a rounded frame, rein-backs put the same demand on the horse as sit-ups or crunches do for us humans. It requires the horse to firm up and engage his tummy and back muscles while simultaneously stretching his hamstrings.
Julie Rotolo, a popular equine massage therapist around San Francisco Bay area, tells her clients that rein-back is arguably the most important exercise they can do for their horses.
“Hands down, it’s one of the best all-around conditioning exercises you can do,” said Rotolo, noting that the horse should ideally perform it with a low neck frame.
Gina Miles, 2008 Olympic gold medalist in eventing swears by backing up hills, which she does with all her performance horses in hand and under saddle. So, find a driveway, a knoll, or a pathway somewhere that you can ask your horse to back up for 10-15 steps, three times a week. At first, you may only get a few decent steps before you have to stop and remind him to lower his neck. Aim to get as many steps as the horse will willingly give. Ten steps should be your goal at minimum.
Take a Hint (and a stroll) from the Masters
Growing up, I watched a lot of training videos by dressage legend Reiner Klimke and I noticed the same thing about every single one: at the start of each session, his students would ride their horses in a walk on long reins repeatedly over a line of ground poles outside the arena. When they felt the horse’s back start to relax and swing, they gathered up their reins, headed into the arena and began their workouts.
Klimke obviously knew what equine chiropractors have since proven—that slow work over poles allows the horse’s sacral region to rock back and forth, thereby loosening. Few other exercises, except rein-back and walking down hills, have the same effect. And without focused loosening, this area of dressage horses gets pretty jammed up from doing so many collected movements.
Add this simple routine to your daily sessions. It’s simple, quick, and requires no special equipment except for a few fence poles that you probably already have lying around. Setting them up someplace outside your arena allows your horse to relax mentally before entering the arena. It also means that he’ll get to warm up on a different type of ground/footing, which in itself is a type of cross-training. There’s no need to go any faster than a walk. Just give yourself—and your horse—five minutes of sauntering slowly back and forth over those poles. It’s like medicine to his body!
Add a Slope to your Longe
We dressage riders are most often fanatical about finding level ground with good footing to ride on. However, when it comes to longeing, it can help your horse’s balance and hind-end strength—a lot!—by occasionally doing your groundwork on a gentle slope, also with good footing. In fact, this exercise is so great for horses that many equine physical therapy books recommend it for rehabbing horses after time off. It’s also frequently suggested as a cure for chronically crooked horses. Working a horse on sloped terrain encourages the horse to use his back in a way that improves looseness along his dorsal muscles and over his croup. On the descent portion, the horse’s abdominal muscles engage to balance him. On the ascent, his hip and back muscles engage. Therefore, the exercise is valuable in developing his entire core.
You’ll want to find a 20-meter circle area to longe your horse where the ground rises approximately three or four feet on one side and slopes downward the same amount on the opposite side of the circle. The footing must be somewhat smooth and stable. Begin by longeing your horse at the walk to ensure he is managing his footwork on the uneven ground. Then, pick up a rhythmic trot around the circle. Keep the tempo slow. In this exercise, the speed must be slow and easy enough for the horse to maintain the same rhythm all the way around the circle, rather than changing his speed from uphill portion to downhill.
Gearing up to Gallop
Popular FEI dressage trainer Yvonne Barteau believes a lot of dressage horses’ movement would be improved by a good swift gallop to free up their back muscles. Many of the sport’s forefathers and authors, like General DeCarpentry and Udo Berger argued this point decades ago. While obviously not a movement in dressage tests, galloping strengthens the horse’s front end and puts his limbs into a greater range of motion, which has the effect of releasing tension in his back from ordinary work.
Riders who train primarily in the arena often fail to gallop their horses, therefore missing out on a really valuable gymnastic tool. If you are unaccustomed to galloping, or a little timid, the best way for you to start is by taking small steps. So, first define your comfort zone. If you are afraid to gallop, you will not be a useful teammate for your horse. You will, however, be able to incrementally get past your fear one small step at a time.
Begin in the arena with a regular working canter. Then, for 30 seconds, make the canter bigger (slightly faster and with longer strides). You may sit in half-seat. Come back to a regular canter. Then, again make the canter bigger for 30 seconds and return to a regular canter. Keep doing these bouts for a period of several minutes until you’re able to stay in the bigger canter for longer than 30 seconds until it becomes a sustained period of galloping. If you eventually decide to take your efforts outside the arena, great! If not, don’t worry. Galloping is a useful exercise no matter the terrain.
** Note: In a bigger canter, the horse should never be out of control or excitable or start pulling on the reins, etc. That’s why we start in the arena to show him how to do things appropriately. If your horse shows a tendency to get excited or out of control, he needs to learn what’s expected of him. So, stick with the 30 second bouts until he learns the drill!