I shall never forget standing at the start line of my first Tri-Nations event watching a rider on the South African team warming up her horse. She was trotting beautiful circles with her horse moving in a perfect frame, engaged, rhythmic and alert. I remember telling myself “THIS is how it should be done” and it seems to hold true for most of the successful horse-and-rider combinations in endurance. Like with all other equestrian disciplines, good groundwork makes the difference at the end of the day. In Endurance it makes even more sense considering you have to canter for 120 kilometres on variable terrain – if your horse is not supple and balanced, the chances are pretty good that something will act up along the way. This is equally, if not more, true for the rider. An unfit rider with a poor position in the saddle will make it even harder for the horse as the day goes on.
Now let me state up front, I am not one of the superstar endurance riders, nor do I crave my next 7-hour day in the saddle. My enjoyment is working with young horses and watching them grow from scrawny little Arabs to strong, muscular and competent athletes. My incredible instructor, okay she is more of a friend, manages to look beyond the running tights and ‘tekkies’ riding gear, the synthetic tack and the pint-sized horses, and together we have worked out some ‘go-to’ exercises that are incredibly simple, but so beneficial to both the endurance horse and rider.
Exercise: Large and loose
Purpose: The start to an endurance race is exciting, the first 10 kilometres a mad blur of skills, luck and selectively functioning brakes. The horse will want to run, will want to chase the pack and will want to do so at speed. In this case, your hands, the bit and all that goes with them can become a very uncomfortable reality for the young horse. Add to that the typical young horses’ compromised position of running with their heads in the air and you are very likely setting your horse up for some unpleasant habits and experiences on the track.
Our first exercise is therefore to generate some trust between the horse and rider, more specifically the rider’s hands and the bit. In this exercise we ride large, pressure-free circles on a loose rein where all changes in pace and direction become a non-event. This may seem tedious and simple, but is critical in developing a solid foundation going forward.
What do I do?
- To start you may want to begin this exercise in an enclosed smaller area and then work your way up to a larger arena.
- Get the horse to walk on a loose rein on a large circle or large circuit. He should walk energetically, and maintain the true rhythm of the walk, i.e. one-two-three-four-one-two-three-four.
- Try to keep the reins loose but equal on either side of his neck. Follow his shoulder/neck movement with supple arms, specially elbows and wrists.
- Include simple changes of rein in walk. To ride a smooth change of rein on a loose rein, be sure to keep looking ahead, through your horse’s ears. Have your new inside leg on his girth, your new outside leg a little behind the girth. It helps to slightly turn your new inside shoulder slightly back. Try to keep your horse’s rhythm as you do this.
- Work up to being able to do this in trot, also with a loose rein. Remember to do a soft bounce to change your diagonal when you change rein.
What to look for?
- You want your horse not to rush off and to begin to accept the loose rein as a pleasant mutual agreement.
- Make sure the walk and the trot are energetic, yet calm.
- In walk, remember to feel the rhythm of one-two-three-four-one-two-three-four. It should not change, and especially not change to a jog.
- In trot, remember to feel the rhythm of one-two-one-two. It should not change.
- Over time you want your horse to relax his poll and start to stretch / lower his nose. There may be many more sessions with the head in the air – but the aim is that the horse learns that he is free to move forward and relax. Over time the physical head carriage will change, but the immediate benefit is the understanding that your hands and the bit are guides and not the enemy.
Exercise: Circles and serpentines
Purpose: We continue with the theme of a solid foundation and a pleasant association with your hands and the bit, but now we add some work in the steering department. During an endurance ride you are constantly picking the best line for your horse to travel, dodging rocks, holes and even other horses. It can be of race-saving importance to quickly and effectively change direction with just the shift of your seat. This exercise starts to build the steering platform with the aim to exclude the reins but include everything else! Again, such a simple exercise, but so effective for practising the communication between you and your horse.
What do I do?
- Add 20-metre circles to the large and loose trotting exercise if you feel the horse is losing rhythm. Then continue on your larger circuit.
- Walk three-loop serpentine to get the shape and size of the loops as consistent as possible.
- Try the serpentine exercise in the same trot that you should have developed in the previous exercise, i.e. energetic, rhythmic and relaxed. Remember to change your own diagonal as you straighten out before starting the next loop. Be sure to ‘bounce’ as softly as possible on your horse’s back to avoid him losing his rhythm.
- In the serpentine, simply change a loop into a circle for one or two circuits if your horse is rushing.
What to look for:
- The horse should manage to keep his rhythm throughout the circle or the serpentine. You must be carefully to keep your own balance or he will undoubtedly lose his rhythm.
- He should follow the line of the serpentine by showing willingness to bend on each loop, then travel a short distance straight and then begin the new bend on the next loop
- At this stage the horse will probably be looking around a lot, but that is to be expected and to a certain extent he should be allowed to do so.
- In the long term, the serpentines will help him to begin to focus on the work and the rider, rather than what is happening outside of the arena.
- Serpentines give the horse an opportunity to experience the arena from many different views, so they are also a way to familiarise him to a new place.
- The rider should be able to achieve the serpentine with his/her seat and legs, maintaining a quiet position in the saddle as she changes direction, and be as independent of the reins as possible as a steering mechanism.
Exercise: Trot-walk-trot transitions
Purpose: By now we can hopefully walk and trot on a loose rein with some changes in direction thrown in. My endurance comrades will know that this is quite some progress with a young energetic Arabian horse. For our next exercise we want to start working on the quality of the movement, get the correct muscles to engage so that on race day we have 4-wheel drive activated. Furthermore, this exercise helps practise both a downward and an upward transition so neither is a drama when asked for. In addition, it teaches the young horse to change his pace and at the same time keep his quarters in line with his shoulders, not something that horses do if left to their own devices, as most prefer to swing the quarters sideways in either or both up and downwards transitions. This exercise also encourages the horse to engage his hindquarters, in other words, to step under with his hind legs. In the long term, it is a great strengthening exercise for the hindquarters.
What do I do?
- Start either on a straight line or a 20-metre circle in walk. Ask your horse to move into trot, using both legs equally on the girth. If he is lazy give him a sharp kick with your lower legs. If he is too sharp, just think, breathe in and start trotting.
- In the long term, you want a willing calm transition without having to kick him at all, just to breathe in and go. Even a naturally lazy horse can be taught this.
- Then, to ask him to come back to walk, keep your legs on his barrel, and start to ‘shrink’ your rising trot until the horse starts to slow down and change pace to walk. By holding him with your legs, you are helping to keep him straight, and you are controlling the pace with your body, rather than with your reins.
- When the horse is walking, try to feel the one-two-three-four rhythm of the walk for a few strides. Then ask again for the upward transition.
- Remember to try to reduce the amount of leg needed for the upward transition. This may take weeks or even months. Likewise, if the horse is too excited, teach him to accept that your legs never leave his side, but he responds from ‘breathe and go’ without exploding.
What to look for:
- The horse should remain straight in the transitions. Remember that straight means that his hindquarters are behind his shoulders. So even on a circle, he can be straight. The main thing is that he does not swing the quarters out. This prevents him from remaining engaged. When time is critical, this slows down reaction time.
- Remember to look for clear, correct rhythm in both walk and trot.
- In the long term, his head carriage should not change in the transitions.
The exercise: Trotting poles
Purpose: I am almost sure no explanation is needed here. Most riders on merely an out-ride have been victim to a sleepy horse not picking up its feet, a situation that is even more likely (and terrifying) when cantering across country. Having your horse alert to its own feet and used to adjusting the length of its stride will prove invaluable in a sticky situation where you have no choice but to over that rock. Trotting poles can be used in various configurations to keep your horse attentive and figuring out how its own body works whilst carrying you around! Google is your friend here, but here are some steps to get you started.
What do I do?
- You will need poles suitable for trotting over. They can be any safe poles; preferably ones that are heavy enough to not roll easily and wide enough to allow the horse to move straight over; they do not need not be smartly painted show-jumping poles. Three poles are good, four or five poles are even better.
- You will need to set them the correct distance for your horse’s trot stride. This is usually about 90 cm to one metre, but can vary, depending on the fitness, size and excitability of your horse. For example, if he is very hot, rather start with three poles and slowly increase the number of poles.
- Place the set of poles more-or-less in the centre of your working space, to allow an approach from either side.
- Allow him to just walk over the poles a few times, so he is familiar with them. If the poles are set for trotting, he will need to put in an extra stride or two in the walk, to cope with the distance. This is a good way to remind him to think about his feet and adjust his stride as necessary.
- Then ask him to trot quietly over the poles. It is best to approach off a gentle curve, then straighten out the last ten metres, over the poles, continue straight another ten metres and then return to your track.
What to look for:
- The horse should approach the poles willingly and confidently. He should keep his rhythm and move into the poles straight and out the other side also straight.
- If he rushes, circle first in trot and then walk the poles again. Repeat until he stops rushing.
- Most horses don’t do it perfectly the first time. So, don’t panic, just keep calm and try again.
- It is advisable/helpful to have a friend nearby who can adjust the poles if necessary.
The exercise: Turn-on-the-forehand
Purpose: This exercise has got a less direct link to endurance (unless you include the twisting and turning in the grooming area). However, once again this serves as a muscle activation exercise and is an opportunity to identify some weaker spots in how you communicate with your horse. It adds some lovely variety to the schooling work and can help to slow down an excited horse and get them to refocus.
The turn-on-the forward requires the horse to move his hindquarters around his front end. When it is perfected, the horse will cross his hind legs over, while ‘marking time’ with his front legs. He will move in a semi-circle and end up facing in the opposite direction.
What do I do?
- Choose a place in your arena or schooling area with a wall or firm barrier.
- Halt your horse close to and parallel to the wall. Ideally the halt should be square, but that might come a bit later with more schooling.
- Have your reins short enough so your horse cannot move forward. Drop your weight onto your outside (the side against the wall) seat-bone and move your outside leg back about five centimetres.
- Firmly but calmly, nudge your horse with your outside leg, until he starts to move his quarters towards the inside of the arena.
What to look for:
- The horse should move quietly and obediently away from the ‘asking’ leg. His head position should remain more-or-less the same.
- You should not have to pull him around with your reins; in fact your hands should only gently prevent him from stepping forwards.
- When he does it well, you will feel the benefits of the lateral movement of his outside hind leg.
- The ideal turn-on-the-forehand will be rhythmical and the crossing-over steps taken by the hind legs will be of equal length.
The exercise: Sitting trot …with a friend
Purpose: Sitting trot is something usually reserved for the Dressage purists and I look on in envy as they effortlessly become one with their horses and float across the arena. So I was a little surprised the first time my instructor said that we will slowly introduce some sitting trot into our repertoire. I was horrified as I felt like a blob of human mass unsuccessfully trying to look elegant and still press all the right buttons. My horse was equally unimpressed with the sudden change in riding but over time, and introducing it little by little once we both warmed up, it has added such value.
Firstly, it clearly highlighted my dependencies in the saddle and what I needed to work on. Secondly, my horse became less bothered when for some reason (read “spook across the field”) I am flopping around on his back. Mostly, however, it provided opportunities to do all the exercises above more effectively, with clearer communication and better execution. It does also help prepare the horse for your cantering both in the arena and on the track. To really maximise the benefit of this exercise draw on the services of a friend and the video feature on their smartphone (and leave your ego at the arena gate).
What do I do?
- Wait until your horse has warmed up and is working fairly quietly. This is not an exercise for a cold horse or a very tense, rushing horse.
- Choose a riding pattern that is familiar, like a 20 metre circle. Just relax your body: your core, knees, ankles, elbows and all the rest and sit the trot one or two strides.
- If your horse really gets tense, go back to rising trot.
- Keep doing this until you can remain sitting for about five or six strides.
- The aim is to adjust your riding to your horse’s natural stride, and not try and make his stride shorter or slower for your benefit.
What to look for:
- Make sure the sitting trot does not alter the horse’s way of going. If he puts his head up and gets tense, you are probably causing him discomfort. Then, rather go back to riding trot, instead of upsetting your horse. This tells you that you need to get yourself suppler and balanced, rather than creating a sore back for your horse.
- In the long term, the sitting trot is used for preparation and balance before the canter transition.
- Equally, as you become more skilled, sitting trot is ridden as the first few strides after moving into trot from walk, and the last few strides as you transition to walk.
These exercises won’t have you riding Dressage competitions anytime soon, but they are a fantastic combination of simple challenges you can take on in the schooling arena to add some variety to the training of your endurance horse. Your work will however only bear fruits through patience and the rider taking an honest hard look at their own riding…but more on that later!