Pre-Season Fitness for the Event Horse

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Here we get some top tips from British Horse Feeds sponsored event rider James Sommerville on building up pre-season fitness for event horses.

Based at his family’s yard in North Yorkshire, James has a string of talented young horses ranging from four-year-olds just starting their careers, right up to his advanced horses.

Keeping Fit for Eventing

Along with intense practice in the arena on flatwork, gymnastic jumping and cross country practice, an event horse has to also put in the fitness work. Maintaining and improving stamina is essential to get them from start to finish on the cross country phase and when competing over three days.

We use a range of different methods for pre-season fitness training and keeping the horses fit. Whether they compete at grass roots level or at top 5* level, fitness is a key attribute the event horse must have.

Regular schooling in the arena, road work and hacking all play an important part of our horses’ fitness programme, building up strength and stamina.

The workload coming out of winter will gradually increase and the intensity of the ridden sessions will also increase.

Each horse is different too, they prefer different methods and have different levels of fitness depending on their breed and conformation. Working out what works best for each horse is key to success.

Scheduled cross-country schooling sessions not only get the horses ready for jumping different obstacles but they also play a huge part in developing their fitness, allowing them to gallop between fences and work over longer periods of time.

Galloping Fit

We also take the horses to the gallops. This is great for running the horses and gradually building up the distance and pace.

Starting with a walk down the gallops, we allow the horses to stretch down and loosen up. We then gradually build up the pace to form part of a warm up, steadily raising their heart rate.

Keeping the horses working long and low, stretching down, it allows them to hold themselves and be relaxed in their work. Moving on to light canter for another few minutes before giving them a short break before the first run up the gallop track.

The first run up the gallop will only be at half pace, not pushing them, just allowing the horse to travel in a relaxed manner. As we reach the top we gradually pull up and continue to trot for around 30 seconds before dropping back to walk.

We then walk the horses for around two or three minutes and then trot and lightly canter back to the start of the gallops allowing them a quick breather before starting the second run.

On the second run up the gallops, we continue to run them only at a half pace, letting them gallop, allowing the horse his head and neck, while maintaining a light contact down the reins.

We run our Novice horses up the gallops two to three times. If only twice, the second run will be a more forward run than the first. On the final run up we will tend to push the pace up slightly.

For our Intermediate horses we will put them up the gallops for three or four runs, letting them travel soft and round, not pulling the rider along. For a horse competing in three-day events we will have them running up four times comfortably.

For the Advanced horses we will eventually have them running up five times, having the ability to alter their speed accordingly without them finding the change in pace too strenuous.

It is important to remember that when you are at the gallops that you are doing fitness work, not training a race horse, therefore you should have control in the canter or gallop and be working at a slower pace which the horse can sustain. Training at high pace and speed without control you run the risk of injuring the horse.

It is also very important when you have finished at the gallops you cool down your horse properly, allowing their heart rate to lower back to normal before they are then expected to travel.

Your horse, after a few galloping sessions, should adjust accordingly and find recovery easier as you progress. When starting gallop training you should ease the horse into it slowly and move onto more runs gradually.

Nutrition for Fitness

With any training programme and level of fitness, nutrition is very important. The horses need the right amount of energy to be able to train over long periods and at high intensities.

We feed Fibre-Beet as part of a balanced diet and we find that not only does it provide the horses with a hydrated, high fibre mash it also provides plenty of slow-release energy.

With an effective degradability 50% higher than forage fibre, Fibre-Beet can improve energy intake whilst keeping dietary fibre levels at an optimum. Fibre-Beet also helps to maintain the weight and condition in the horses and provides quality protein for muscle tone and function.

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