Jec A. Ballou

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Most riders have heard about the need for a good warm-up before schooling each day. But what makes a warm-up good? Is an active one better than a slow, relaxing one? How long — or short — should it be? Many riders with good intentions hope that a period of moving their horses around either on the lunge line or under saddle prior to their workout counts as suitable preparation. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.

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Somewhere along the path of their learning journeys, many riders including myself became conditioned to constantly observe and correct the horse’s head and neck position. We were taught that if the horse’s head/neck was in a desirable frame, it meant everything about our ride was going well. This led to over-prioritizing the front end of the horse, often at the expense of addressing all the other critical components of a horse’s body mechanics. Without realizing it, we spent the ride fidgeting with the bit above all else.

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For years, the sage advice of classical dressage master Nuno Oliveira guided my daily rides. I had read a quote by him deriding the use of a watch or any kind of timepiece when schooling a horse. His philosophy was that riders needed to school by feeling and responding to the horse rather than by any kind of external measurements or parameters. I adopted this idea wholeheartedly for many years, modulating the duration of my training exercises and sessions based on how I felt the horse was, or was not, making gains from them.

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I call it the lameness that is not really lameness. Sometimes, a horse develops an unexplainable hitch in his movement that leads to much head scratching from vets who, after an array of diagnostics, find no clear answers. The horse is described as being “not quite right,” but beyond that, there is no reason or treatment

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Cross-training used to be something I casually promoted. Nowadays, I support it like a zealot. In fact, I might even argue that one cannot call herself a horse trainer unless she follows a cross-training program. My increasing commitment has risen in equal parts from exercise physiology research and my hands-on training results.

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It is a conundrum that many riders have faced in the midst of consistent, focused effort: despite hours of invested time and exercises, the horse’s fitness and athleticism show no improvement. Even the most wisely chosen exercises do not seem to be working. One explanation for this might be due to the precision with which they are executed. Research from the past few years, though, has revealed an alternative — and surprisingly non-physical — explanation for some of these cases.

For most horses, it is in the area of strength that they can — and need to — make the most gains. Evolution has given horses remarkable aerobic adaptations. Generally speaking, they make rapid gains from cardiovascular exercise and their bodies handle aerobic demands efficiently. Their musculoskeletal system, however, lacks the same adaptability.

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