I have been riding horses since I was 5. I have been professionally training horses since I was 17. Training horses is a bit like being a personal trainer. Everyone has a different way of doing things and sometimes there’s 100 ways to get to the same result (and everyone thinks their way is the best way ;). Every single horse I have trained has been vastly different, of course there will be a couple things similar but generally every horse throws you new challenges. That is what I love about training, Dressage in particular, you’re never done learning. Just when you think, man I’ve seriously got this down, you’ll get a new horse in training and have no idea how to fix it. However, I always have one goal: make the horse love his job and want to work for you every day. Let’s face it, you’re on top of a 1200 lb animal, if he doesn’t like you or his job, you’re in trouble. You have to gain your horses respect and trust and then make his daily work fun and exciting for him so that he wants to work for you. I am vertically challenged at 5’3, so “man handling” isn’t even an option for me. So here are some ways that I work to keep my horses fit, happy and ready to work.
I must say again, every horse is different. So some of these ways may not be the best options for YOUR horse but it keeps 90% of the horses I have worked with happy. My current personal horse is a 6 year old PRE stallion. I say every day that I feel like I am raising a teenage son. Trying to teach him to control his hormones and be respectful, figuring out the best diet to help him grow and become strong, and of course trying to find ways to keep him focused. He is one of the bravest, most bombproof horses I’ve ever had and I want to keep that bravery and self confidence in his brain. I generally ride Faraon 5 days a week and add a walking hack day once a week. Usually he has Sunday’s off and on his days off he is turned out as much as possible. He loves his outside time and it is great for him as a stallion to be turned out around other horses and be a gentlemen.
Day 1: Monday I usually will ride him in his snaffle bridle in the arena and work basic walk, trot, canter in a deep and round frame putting all the focus on being soft, supple and responsive. I don’t do any fancy work after his day off, I’m strictly preparing his body for a week of work. Transitions are my best friend, walk-trot, trot-canter, canter-trot, until you’re blue in the face. I have a basic rule of “does it stop, does it turn, does it go?”. Simple questions, but sometimes you find yourself itself saying, well crap no it doesn’t. I keep these rides about 30 min so he doesn’t get too bored with the basic exercises and then go on a 10 minute walk around the barn.
Day 2: Tuesday I will start in the snaffle again, starting exactly the same as Monday but in a smaller amount of time. I always warm my horses up deep and round stretching out all of their top line muscles making sure all of the “buttons” are working. Again,does it stop does it turn does it go. Once all of these answers are yes, we start playing with the funner stuff. Faraon is schooling 4th level and we are mainly working on quality and adjustability of the gaits. So once we have warmed up and have a little walk break I will pick the frame up to a higher working frame. Once again, still working transitions, but know within each gait. In the canter I want to be able to sit up tall, give a quiet half halt and he will canter in a very collected canter and take the weight on his hind legs. Then I should be able to sit there for a few strides and then quietly put my leg on, give a bit in the contact and he goes out into an extended canter. I spend the majority of my canter work doing this exercise. Even in the lateral I am always asking myself, can I collect? Can I go forward? When the horse learns to do this nicely it will be like a game for him. It keeps their brain moving and always asking what’s next. It’s a fun way to make them very sharp and sensitive to the aids and it is also very good for strength building, especially for the hind end.
Day 3: Wednesday I get out of the arena. Yesterday he worked hard so he deserves a bit of fun. Now, ideally the best thing is for horses to go out and work on hills. I live in Florida. We have no hills. Which truly is unfortunate because hills will put muscle and stamina on a horse in no time. But alas, we go out on the canals, which is fun too. There’s about a mile long trail right next to one of the canals close to the barn that is my favorite. The footing is good and it’s quiet. Hacking is the best way to make a horse brave. I can walk Faraon on the buckle pretty much anywhere and he just marches right on. I love that. Once we get over to the trail path I just do a big rising trot all the way down to let him warm up. I don’t worry too much about the frame but do encourage him to stretch down. Faraon tends to want the rider to carry him a bit too much from the connection so my main goal when I am doing this is that I can get up in two point and completely throw away the reins and he is able to stay carrying himself. I do this at the walk trot and canter. We’re usually out for a good 40 min and he loves every minute.
Day 4: so we have now had 3 days straight of pretty hard work, so usually I take this day as a walking hack day. Our barn is in a large horse community so I walk him around the whole neighborhood on the buckle. I hardly ever touch the reins, this is just for him to get out and see the world and stretch his legs.
Day 5: Friday I like to incorporate cavaletti work. There’s so many good things to come from this. I usually just set up a line of 4 in a row set at a trot length and 4 in a row at canter length. At the moment, I’m setting the trot line for a bigger stride. As a Spanish horse, it’s easy for him to be passagey and collected but harder to find an extension. I love the cavaletti because it makes the horse create the stride without the rider having to interfere too much. They have to figure it out on their own. And with the canter line I’ve been setting them for a small canter stride to encourage him to sit and take weight behind. This has taken Faraon a while to become comfortable with. I started with just a few ground poles to get him used to it and have just built up on that. He can now do 4 or 5 cavaletti set on the higher level very comfortably. Start slow and build up, and make it fun!
Day 6: I finish out with week very similar to day 2. Give him a decent workout, usually about 30 minutes. Again, start with a nice stretching warm up. This day I usually try to work all of the movements we are currently schooling, just kind of touch base with everything before he has his day off.
The main key for me is to change things up. I think a lot of times as Dressage riders we want to stay locked in the arena working on movements every day and in my opinion, that’s the quickest way to a sour horse. Get out of the ring, go jump something, cross train, and even in your arena work find ways to keep it fresh and interesting. Now go have fun with your horse!