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.

Focus and Fitness in Horses

What Does Focus Have to do with Fitness?

It is a conundrum that many riders have faced in the midst of consistent, focused effort: despite hours of invested time and exercises, the horse’s fitness and athleticism show no improvement. Even the most wisely chosen exercises do not seem to be working. One explanation for this might be due to the precision with which they are executed. Research from the past few years, though, has revealed an alternative—and surprisingly non-physical—explanation for some of these cases.

What we have learned recently about horses’ brain function shows us that curiosity, or mental engagement, plays a large role in the success of physical adaptations. A horse needs to be alert enough (not too much, not too little) in order to form the neural pathway bridges that create new movement patterns.

When a horse participates in a task without giving it full attention, whether from dullness OR tension/anxiety, he does not form an optimal number of synapses from the task that he would otherwise. This means he fails to form the pathways in his brain that connect nerve signals for particular movements. In fact, these nerve signals will degrade over time due to lack of stimulation and chemical input to the areas of the brain that store them.

In the case of fitness, this translates to diminishing returns. Rather than make consistent positive gains in the precision and/or power of his locomotion, the horse idles at his current fitness level. Many horse will not make the fitness gains you would expect after routinely performing exercises that promise strength, agility, and so on.

As an example from my own training, I had the opportunity to work with a lovely Andalusian mare that had been schooled extensively with various groundwork programs. The problem was that she had done TOO much groundwork. She was docile and obedient about the patterns and games that her owner liked to do with her, but she went through the motions with a vacant expression and slow, shuffling steps. She was bored and tuned out. The mare was not doing anything “wrong” per se, but she resembled a sullen child sitting slumped at her desk passively listening the her teacher.

Consequently, when the mare came to me at 7 years old she had some persistent movement and balance challenges. She could not sustain a canter for any duration, she did not bend through her spine to the right, and her body posture was disorganized and unbalanced for a horse of her age. The solution? Use entirely new exercises to encourage full mental and physical engagement. Within six months, she could sustain a very nice canter and developed much greater propulsive strength.

Your fitness goals rely on keeping your horse’s attention dialed in. Any time you notice it shifting, whether tension is escalating or the horse is fading and getting dull, you need to make a change. This might be as simple as speeding up or slowing down changing gaits, switching to a different exercise, or taking a quick break.

Conditioning Horses: Stability before Strength

For most horses, it is in the area of strength that they can—and need to—make the most gains. Evolution has given horses remarkable aerobic adaptations. Generally speaking, they make rapid gains from cardiovascular exercise and their bodies handle aerobic demands efficiently. Their musculoskeletal system, however, lacks the same adaptability. Most often when a horse cannot perform a particular task, it is due to insufficient muscular strength, coordination, or motor/sensory nerve recruitment.

So does this mean you should spend a lot of time trying to increase your horse’s strength? Yes, but with a caveat. You cannot build strength until you have stability in the system. If the nerve signals and joints and postural muscles are deficient in their effort, there is no point trying to build up the locomotion muscles for stronger outputs. The reason for this is because any strength you add to those muscles will be compromised unless they have full cooperation from the other systems. Most frequently it will be tense or asymmetrical from trying to stabilize and propel a body that is wobbly and disorganized underneath.

We must always prioritize stability ahead of strength. A stable body is one that can become stronger. The core is supported and aligned while the limbs and locomotion muscles can deliver their full power. The horse’s body can organize itself, make adjustments to balance, move without tension, and relax his back. In this state, he is able to gain the necessary strength in his locomotion muscles.

There are a few ways to address and improve your horse’s stability. It does not need to be a complicated task; it just needs to be consistent. I find the easiest way to do it is to add 3-5 calisthenics exercises to your session each day. Calisthenics are routines that target fine motor control, placing the horse’s body in various alignments during a state of relaxation in order to create fuller range of motion, new proprioceptive changes, and recruitment of postural muscles. You can find ideas for routines in my book 55 Corrective Exercises for Horses.

In just five minutes a day, you can work through 3- 5 calisthenics either at the beginning or end of your session. This five minutes is as important as the gait transitions, trot extensions, and other gymnastic routines during your actual workout.

Alternatively, you can designate a particular day or two each week to only performing calisthenics exercises. By choosing 5-10 exercises, you can put your horse through a 30- minute postural workout. If you wish to lengthen the session, you can add several minutes of brisk walking, either in -hand or under saddle, to both ends of your session.

Again, whether you choose to make it a daily staple or a twice-per-week regime all that matters is that you remain consistent with your efforts to increase your horse’s stability. Without stability you cannot have strength. And without strength neither the horse nor you will fully enjoy your rides.