Jec A. Ballou

Since I advocate strongly for dressage horses to also ride trails regularly, I found myself years ago implementing a rule or mantra that applied to any time spent in either of these experiences: on-the-buckle OR on-the-bit. Essentially, this boils down to riders keeping their horses in one of these states at any given time.

Optimizing how a horse uses his body often relies on making the most of every chance you can to observe him. For me, training plans benefit enormously from noting how horses stand at the grooming area and while roaming around the pasture. This can be the purest time to evaluate how they are using their bodies during a given phase of training or life. It allows me to maintain an ongoing report for how they seem to be doing or where I might need to shift the emphasis of their training.

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For those of us who can measure our involvement with horses by decades rather than days or months, showing up at the barn can feel like the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day. With a few minor variations, our days follow a similar routine. And while these routines are generally satisfying, they open the door for burnout. Even when you love your horse or horse training career wildly, this sameness gets dull.

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My conversation last month with renowned trainer and veterinarian Gerd Heuschmann did not lead where I thought it would, having started with muscles but ending with books. He said he believed many of the disappointments in modern training are due to students no longer being committed to the scholarship of dressage. In addition to physical practice, he wishes for them to read and study and think deeply. But most riders don’t see the point, he lamented.

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Gulp. I tried to work up the nerve to let the reins out another inch or two as we cantered around, but I was having a really hard time doing it. First of all, my horse might run off. Second, if I got lucky and she did not run off, she would definitely fall on the forehand and careen about like an untrained plodder.

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As an equine fitness specialist, my job is always to ask how we can improve the horse’s body. One of the simplest ways we can do this in daily riding is to think about how we ride the trot: posting vs. sitting. Certain disciplines tend to prioritize one method over another, but regardless of a sport’s traditions or fads, we need to consider our force impact on the horse’s physical structure

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For years, they sat on one end of our indoor arena — five ground poles anchored by concrete blocks. With unwavering consistency, we worked our horses over them once a week, either ground driving or riding.

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