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.

Riders are the Best Training Aids

The more we learn about horses’ anatomy and body mechanics, the more it becomes clear how riding and training can alter their bodies and not always in positive ways. As we observe just how fragile and delicate these animals are beneath the surface it can be tempting to question whether we should be riding them in the first place. I have watched a couple of my colleagues step away from riding and training for just this reason, causing me to question my own participation.

I continue to believe that nearly every horse can be made better by a rider. To be clear, that rider needs to be skilled and patient, mindful and committed, and a keen observer. But having witnessed the value of dressage applied to all kinds of horses over the years, I believe a horse can have a better life through riding than without it. The physically transformative influence of the rider’s educated seat upon the horse guides him to a better version of himself– balanced and symmetrical, strong and noble, elegant, and confident through his partnership with a patient leader. I have witnessed dozens of horses ‘fixed’, or given more comfortable lives, because of the therapeutic training through dressage.

Last week, I was sorting through some videos and articles about vertebral crowding (aka “Kissing Spine syndrome”) among performance horses and several of the x-ray images showed such evidence of discomfort that I thought briefly maybe we have no business riding these poor animals. If we are pinching their vertebrae and bruising their mouths and causing imbalanced muscular development, then maybe we should just leave them alone. Probably this is a quandary many trainers wrestle with, but might feel ridiculous voicing.

When I went to the barn the following day, the x-ray images were still lingering in my mind especially as I saddled up my first horse of the morning. I paused and looked around my training facility. I noted the once anxious mare that has blossomed through training in to a serene and confident animal. I noted the big gelding that used to get stuck in place out in the middle of the field because his stifles locked up from lack of fitness. I watched the two senior Icelandics (one is 24 years old, the other 26) that remain healthy, sturdy, and energetic because of the consistent exercise program they’re in. All of these horses would currently lead lives quite a bit less comfy and content were it not for regular riding.

A rider’s seat can accomplish magical things. It can guide a horse to use his own body in ways that are far more functional and therapeutic. In this way, it is one of our most valuable training assets. Sure, many folks can accomplish– and enjoy– playing with horses from the ground only without riding. I don’t mean to infer that this has no value; it clearly does. I just wish to sing the praises of riding because I have seen it deliver such wellness to so many horses. And, yes, probably just as equally poor riding delivers deleterious effects, which we could rant on and on about here. In the spirit of remaining positive for the best interest of our noble steeds, though, I prefer to focus on the good we can achieve. For me, this means riding them.

The more we learn about horses’ anatomy and body mechanics, the more clear it becomes just how good we need to become as riders.

dressage horse