Avoid Burnout with Your Horse: Have a Plan
For those of us who can measure our involvement with horses by decades rather than days or months, showing up at the barn can feel like the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day. With a few minor variations, our days follow a similar routine. And while these routines are generally satisfying, they open the door for burnout. Even when you love your horse– or horse training career– wildly, this sameness gets dull.
When you sustain any routine for an extended time– a hobby, an exercise program, a health habit– burnout lurks around the corner.
The obvious solution, and the right thing for our horses, is to avoid the sameness. In so doing we avoid burnout. For our purposes, I’m defining sameness as exercises of similar type or intensity every time we work with our horses. Once upon a time as young trainer, I put my training horses through 45-minute dressage schooling sessions 4 to 5 days per week operating from the belief that in order to get better at dressage, we needed to do dressage as much as possible. Sometimes I substituted a day of longing or ground driving for riding, but generally our daily routines were very similar.
With small variations in the exercises we rode or the amount of time in each gait, the bulk of our arena schooling was repetitive in terms of work effort, seriousness, duration, and objectives. As a note-young-anymore trainer I admitted to myself that I felt a little burned out. Maybe not entirely toasted yet, but definitely burning around the edges.
Luckily it was at this time that I began studying equine exercise physiology in earnest and learned the horses needed me to change my Groundhog Day approach anyway. To become better at dressage, my horses needed to become better athletes, not necessarily to do dressage every day. Funny enough, adapting my routine for this (with the convenient side effect of preventing burnout for me) involved drafting in many ways a more rigid weekly schedule. This new plan had built-in variety and cross-training, variations in duration and intensity of training days, and prevents me from obsessing over the tedium of dressage any given day. I probably don’t need to tell you it made made both me and the horses happier.
Adhering to this plan has helped me make better equine athletes, for sure. But more notably, it keeps me from burning out. It allows me to arrive at the barn each morning with a bright mood, a clear and focused mindset, and still after all these years a little eagerness. In a general outline, my weekly schedule is below. Obviously, there are times on any given day when I scrap the plan in favor of addressing a horse’s particular need that arises. More or less, though, our weeks follow a rhythm like this:
Monday: basic gymnastic work, 30-45 minutes of riding in all three gaits, several transitions between gaits, lots of stretching. No fiddling with dressage movements.
Tuesday: Cavalletti day. A warm-up followed by 20 minutes schooling an exercise from my books.
Wednesday: Dressage schooling session
Thursday: Trail ride
Friday: Dressage schooling session
Are You Fixing It or Working on it?
The physical training of horses finds us trying to resolve issues so much of the time that we must be careful not to get trapped in them. What I mean is that we can devote such efforts to rooting around in these issues—stiffness, postural habits, one-sidedness—that they can become a daily norm. Our consistent toil then forms a familiar reference point. We can lose sight that these issues are in fact fixable. As in, we fix them and then move on.
A reputable trainer once said something that stuck with me. Noting how riders can cultivate a prolonged obsession of niggling with the same challenges every training session, she said, “There are problems that you ‘work on,’ and problems that you fix.” She added that the majority of problems are fixable. Some challenges, like refining the timing of flying change sequences, require consistent ‘working on.’ But most of our daily training focus—weakness, crookedness, acceptance of aids—should be treated as fixable and moved past.
If your horse is stiff on circles to the right, for instance, fix this. Aim to not still be tinkering on it a year from now. Much of our time in the physical development of horses is spent teaching them postural habits. These habits that make them stronger, balanced, and looser can often be accomplished more swiftly than we think. A horse that frequently hollows his topline, for example, can make measurable improvements in a week or less. Often, though, I see riders still struggling with this issue fo months down the road. It becomes a reference point they orbit around.
In order to not get lost in all there is to work on with a horse at any given time, I like to set priorities and apply absolutely all my tools for a prescribed time period. I’ll explain what I mean. Let’s go back to the horse with a habit of hollowness. For the next two weeks with this horse, I would incorporate specific bodywork maneuvers, un-mounted calisthenics, and ridden gymnastic patterns all aimed at fixing the problem. This trifecta of body mechanics and movement will resolve the problem much quicker than any one of those tools alone.
At the end of my brief timeline, I should see measurable results and then be able to shift my attention to a different issue of his physical development. If for some reason I do not see measurable results, I will assess and alter my current toolbox and routine and set a new timeline for moving the issue under the “fixed” label.
As we begin a new year, think about your horse’s physical needs. Rank them on a priority scale. Then, think about fixing them rather than ‘working on’ these issues, and resolve to make a measurable difference. Make sure you don’t get stuck in habits of “working on” issues that should be moved past. Here is a helpful checklist for you. Let’s say you have settled on issue X to fix. Now ask yourself:
- Which specific 2-3 riding exercises are going to help solve this physical issue?
- What 3-5 complimentary maneuvers (i.e. bodywork techniques, stretches, calisthenics/groundwork) can I do to help?
- What lifestyle changes can I make to help the horse? (access to turnout, diet, socializing, etc).
By answering the three questions above, you will have a plan to follow. By executing this plan, you will be well on your way to fixing problems that might otherwise linger around for months or years in a semi-solved status. Happy new year!