Training by Time or Feel?
December 15, 2019 by Jec Ballou
Horse training happens most often through non-quantifiable skills, relying instead on an artistic balance of feel, observation, emotional equilibrium, and a dose of intuition. It tends not to go so well when we try to apply prescriptive formulas. And yet I wish to argue in favor of at least one plain old tool that is neither touchy nor feely: your watch.
Early on, the words of legendary horseman Nuno Oliveira made an impression on me. He admonished riders who looked at the clock for any kind of guidance when schooling their horses. Nothing about the clock would make them better riders, he said. Riders needed to throw away their watches and ride strictly by responding to their horses’ needs in every moment until arriving, through keen sensitivity, at what felt like a natural terminus of the lesson.
Let me first state that I love this idea. And then let me quickly acknowledge that we humans are often not capable of fully adopting it. Most of us on any given day are a little distracted, fatigued, unfocused, annoyed by weather, or maybe even bored. So, while I agree that most good training happens through a kind of symbiosis, I also advocate strongly for using a watch.
Specifically, there are three necessary instances when you should consult your watch during a lesson. The rest of your ride will be spent feeling and responding to your horse, but in the following three instanced you should look at the clock.
Every horse, regardless of age, requires at least 10 minutes of continuous walking at the beginning of any session to achieve lubrication of his joints. Until then, the joint fluid is thick. As the joint moves, it gradually thins out and warms up this fluid, dispersing it around the joint capsule so it can cushion the cartilage and bones as needed. It takes 10 minutes or more for this to happen. Until then, sustained action of the limbs/joints causes friction on the cartilage.
Depending on your mindset any given day, 10 minutes might seem like a flash or it might seem like an impossibly long period of time. But the point is that most of us are very inaccurate estimators of that time passing. When I consult my watch each day to be sure I have walked the full 10 minutes, it keeps me accurate and consistent. It guarantees I am setting my horses’ joints up for the healthiest possible future.
During an exercise
As an author of several exercise books for horses, I am obviously a fan of using routines that strategically condition a horse’s body. These might include cavalletti patterns, speed drills, workouts on terrain. For exercises to be their MOST beneficial, though, they need to be performed for the prescribed amount of time. As the horse adapts to them, the rider needs to increase the time spent doing them by measurable increments. This means noting how much time you perform each exercise.
For instance, I might have a rider practice trot-canter-trot transitions for three minutes (which is a good amount of time to target the back muscles, some cardio effort, and coordination improvements), and then the rider will take a short break for about 30 seconds. If the exercise is not going smoothly, riders might be tempted to continue drilling it. In their pursuit of perfection, riders can sustain exercises long past their helpful duration. Nerve signals dull, fewer muscle fibers are recruited, tension builds in the nerve endings. Nothing is gained by continuing on in this state. This is where your watch comes in. If you stick to the planned time intervals for the exercise, regardless whether the results match your aesthetic goals, you will be rewarded and, more importantly, so will your horse.
Athletes require a diversity of stimulus, meaning they cannot make gains by working at the same intensity level every day. A simple formula I encourage riders to follow is to exercise horses EASY one day, MODERATE the following day, and HARD the next day. On the fourth day, the sequence begins anew with an easy day, then moderate, then hard. Remember here that you can adjust the difficulty level by increasing either duration or intensity of the workout, not both. For instance, to adjust duration: on your EASY day you ride for 30 minutes, on your moderate day ride for 45-minutes, and one your hard day ride for 60- to 90-minutes.
Alternatively, you could ride every day for the same duration but modulate the difficulty levels by using harder exercises. Tracking your workout times with your watch ensures you stay within these parameters.
In summary, using a watch does not overrule your chance to adapt to your horse’s needs from moment to moment, nor does it need to steal any of the artistry or intuition that plays a part in training. Instead, it balances those elements with care for his physiology that requires particular windows of time.