Physiological preparation of the dressage horse is often limited to training the required movements without utilizing an overall plan to insure the horse's fitness. There are three phases of the horse's fitness with which we should concern ourselves. These three include Cardiovascular, Suppling and Strength training. The tools used to develop individual programs vary greatly in their effects on these three phases.
Cardiovascular fitness is derived from repeated muscle contractions that increase the use of the oxygen provided to the blood stream via the lungs. Cardiovascular training is thought of in terms of Heart and Lung capacity. This is the first phase entered into when starting an immature horse. LSD, Long Slow Distance increases cardiovascular function with limited stress. This makes it the foremost tool in the starting of an immature horse. Your goals when using LSD should be to allow adequate time to develop the top line, 6 months to a year, develop forward propulsion, and for the horse to get back to the original freedom of his movement. It is important here to keep the work diverse but also allow time enough for the horse to adapt to the change in his workload.
To give a basic understanding to what is required of the horse in different situations here are some guide lines. The horses resting heart rate can range from 25 to 40 beats per minute. In a Grand Prix Test the horse's heart rate will vary between 62 and 141 beats per minute. The maximum heart rate for a horse is 220 beats per minute. In extended walk the rate is around 62, collected trot to piaffe, it will climb steadily to 141 beats per minute. Collected trot for most horse is 80 - 100 beats per minute, collected canter is 100-120. The heart rate is increased in lateral movements, rein back and all technically difficult movements, passage piaffe, pirouettes, etc. This is important to keep in mind because the repeated muscle movement that causes the increase in heart rate also causes lactic acid production in the muscles. Lactic acid build up in the muscles effects the horse's coordination, thus his ability to perform.
There are several ways to increase your horses' cardiovascular fitness without getting into the danger zone as far as lactic acid build up is concerned. Riding cross-country, especially cantering cross-country is the best cardiovascular exercise you can give your horse. Not to mention that it is wonderful for his mind and spirit. Giving your horse two shorter workouts per day also increases significantly his cardiovascular reserve. With in the work out frequent changes in direction and transitions increase cardiovascular fitness because the horse must over come forces of inertia.
Strength Training can either be overall or specific. Pinpoint the areas that need improvement. Propulsion, Carrying, Expression, Cadence are all improved with specific repetitive muscle contractions. This is the portion of the horses' fitness that is well served with the use of sport specific movements. In other words doing dressage figures and movements. When they are correctly performed, sport specific movements are the best strength fitness training. Correct technique is imperative here, as incorrect performance will only strengthen the wrong muscles. This is where the training must always suit the horses' level of ability in order to enhance his level of strength. For example, Shoulder In preformed in excess of the horses suppleness, his ability to bend, will cause tension in the horses back encouraging him to meet the angle requirement by stepping out to the side with his outside hind leg developing incorrect muscle for the exercise of Shoulder In. Rather ride the exercise within the limits of the horses ability to bend, keep his inside hind leg moving under the midline of his body and develop the musculature that will enhance his ability to perform the exercise with ease.
Overall strength training can be greatly enhanced with in a relatively short period of time using inclines. Walking and cantering up hill is and easy and fun way to develop your horses overall strength. Specific strengthening of one hind leg is often necessary to help improve the horses' straightness, thus his overall strength. Specific exercises should be developed with this in mind but should never over tax that limb or in any other way detract from the horses overall development program. Adding weight to the lower limbs to improve expression is al so a viable option. This must be done carefully and the additional weight slowly increased up to 2-LB maximum.
Suppleness training produces a greater range of motion. Suppling exercises fall into one of three categories, dynamic, passive, or natural. Dynamic suppling exercise include bending, lateral work, transitions forward and back and stretching or chewing the reins out of the hand. These cover both longitudinal suppleness and lateral suppleness. Passive suppling exercises can be done both prior to riding and after riding when the horse is already warm. Passive suppling of the shoulders, hips, back, neck and poll can all play an important role in symmetrical development, that is reducing the handedness of a horse. Some of the most effective exercises include: Hind leg forward and across the body under the widest part of the stomach, folding the foreleg and rotating the point of the shoulder up and forward, stretching the neck forward and down between the horses knees and to the side towards the girth area and belly lifts. These exercises should have a 20 to 30 second duration. Natural suppling exercises are the easiest for the horse and the rider to execute. Adequate turnout that allows the horse to perform these natural-suppling exercises is often the limiting factor. Rolling, grazing, scratching, and biting at flies are all part of the horses natural suppling routine. As horse owners we need to try to be aware that we may be taking to good of care of our horses. It has been shown that stalled horses lose bone density and thus are more susceptible to injury. Horses are made to be horses.
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