Sometimes, without even realising it, we can become extremely rigid in the exercise we give our horses. This can either be due to a lack of ambition, or alternatively being too fixated on a certain goal. The result is a repetitive regime that lacks creativity. Regardless of why we find ourselves bogged down in monotony, it is of upmost importance to add variety to our horse’s workload, so that exercising is enjoyable for both parties.
Variety In Your Horse’s Workload
Finding A Routine
Firstly, assess your routine and make sure you’re doing a reasonably balanced amount of flatwork, jumping, and hacking. Personally, I like to be out of the ménage as much as possible, hacking three times a week, then schooling twice and limiting my jumping to weekly occurrence. Obviously, this is just a rough guide that I will tweak according to my horse’s age, fitness, my goals for them, and most importantly, their way of going. I find that being sensitive to how your horse feels is instrumental in deciding how to change their work.
Out & About
For example, if the horse has become a little sour in the school and feels behind the leg, it can be valuable to increase your hacking to give their minds a break. If you are lucky enough to have access to off-road riding, you can make use of stubble fields and long grassy stretches for canter work. Even if the grass is somewhat overgrown this can be especially useful for trot work, as asking for extension in long grass can encourage the horse to lengthen their stride. More open spaces are a great alternative to the school for both horse and rider, as both have to use themselves more effectively without perimeter fencing to rely on! Schooling without the school itself can help bring your horse in front of the leg, meaning the rider has more impulsion to play with.
Training benefits aside, the gains you make from working outside the school without even trying are massive. Riding over undulating ground, for instance, will improve the horse’s fitness. Just remember to look out for rabbit holes! If fitness is your priority, hill work is absolutely the best conditioning you can do. Some of the yards I have liveried on have had limited off-road hacking, and to keep the horses in shape I have had to rely on sharing the hills with the traffic! While this is not always scenic or relaxing, the horses really have to use their hind end to walk up the hills.
Back To School
Contrastingly, if your horses are being hacked all the time around the same routes they can become ‘sticky’. I use this term to describe when they dawdle and become heavy on your hands, making for a generally uncomfortable ride. If they surpass this stage they tend to begin displaying behaviours such as napping or spinning. In this scenario, consider concentrating on interesting schooling exercises to engage them again.
Something that has become apparent to me over the years is that there are a lot of people who perceive schooling on the flat as being boring. It also tends to be these individuals who incorporate very little in to their sessions, and thus a vicious cycle continues. They do not ask the horse many questions, resulting in the horse becoming switched off. The rider then becomes frustrated, and this fuels their hatred of flatwork. It can be easy to fall in to this cycle, so remember to have clear and realistic aims set for your schooling sessions.
For example, set a target for the number of transitions you want to do, and stick to it. Transitions are necessary to get to horse in front of your leg and responsive. When you’ve hit your target, move on to your next target (which might be some lateral work such as leg yielding) but occasionally refresh your transition work as required. Allow intermittent breaks where you allow them to stretch down, as this keeps them soft, supple and relaxed. As you can imagine, balancing this combination of transitions, lateral work and stretching makes for a physically and mentally testing session that is far from dull!
While all of the information above may seem obvious, it never helps to be reminded of the endless variations you can make on your horse’s workload to help keep both of you interested, fit, and progressing as a partnership.