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Western Dressage – Maintaining the horse’s physical fitness. By Lisa Wieben and Birgit Stutz

April 15, 2018

This month’s blog post isn’t specifically about Western dressage but applies to any horse in training or a horse going back to work after time off, such as after a long, cold winter! Since many horse owners are unsure how many days a week a horse needs to be worked in order to ‘keep their horse going’ we have outlined a few considerations below.

The answer to this question, of course, is not clear-cut and depends very much on each individual horse and what the horse will be used for. One day per week is only sufficient to maintain a horse in its current state of basic training. To begin to improve the horse’s physical fitness, two to three days a week will be necessary. To get or maintain a horse in performance ready condition, four to five days a week will be required. If your plan for the year is to move up a level in competition, five days a week is ideal. This will allow you to build your horse’s physical fitness, strength, and skills required for the new level.

Think of training your horse as similar to your own physical fitness journey. If you have decided to start the year off with a resolution to exercise, but the only time you have is one day per week, you are not going to make a noticeable change to your physical fitness. However, if you commit to exercising four to five times per week you will begin to see noticeable changes within a few weeks. Variety in your workouts is key, alternating between strength training, cardiovascular training, and flexibility work. This gives a well-rounded program to cover all areas of physical fitness training.


In-hand suppling work, turn on the forehand.


In-hand warm-up

Of course, not every session will be the same, especially with the performance horse. Approach your horse’s training with the same variety that you keep in mind when planning your own training sessions: cardiovascular, strength, and flexibility. While the horse may be ridden four to five days per week, each day can be different. To work on suppleness and flexibility, work with circles, bending lines such as serpentines, and some basic lateral work such as leg yields, spiraling in/leg yielding out of circles and turns on the forehand/turns on the haunches. Another day you may work on strength through transitions from walk to jog, jog to lope, walk to lope, as well as transitions within a gait, jog to lengthened jog, working jog to collected jog, lope to lengthened lope, lope to collected lope, and lateral work such as shoulder-in and haunches-in. Another day you may do work over poles. A search on the internet will give you plenty of options for layouts for both jog/trot and lope/canter overs. One day per week should be a recovery day. You may take your horse out for a relaxed trail ride or work on more ‘stretchy’ type work, long and low, then back to connection. Sore muscles can develop from the strengthening work, especially if the horse is coming back to work after time off. The recovery day will help release soreness from the muscles through light movement. Working the horse long and low (free jog, etc.) will help the horse release and relax all the muscles over the topline. Working in this way will also help develop the horse’s “swing” through the ribcage. Supple relaxed muscles will translate into smoother transitions and more willingness to move forward.


Suppling exercises using pylons (spiral in/leg yield out).

If your horse has had some extended time off, keep the sessions short and spend most of it at the walk. Each session should always begin with a good warm-up at a free walk, ideally 15 to 20 minutes, to increase blood flow, lubricate joints, and stretch muscles, before moving on to faster gaits and/or collected work. Your walk warm-up can also include any lateral work you plan to perform later in the ride. A nice walk leg yield can begin to warm up the muscles that will be required to do the movement at a higher gait. Groundwork is always a good option to begin each session. In-hand work, lunging, and ground driving are great ways to build cardiovascular fitness and strength while still keeping sessions short. Each week you can gradually increase the length of the workouts or increase the time at the faster gaits (jog and lope). If your horse is out of shape, be reasonable in how much you ask of him, and never push him so much that he may injure himself.


Lope work

Just as important as the warm-up is the cool-down. Keep your horse walking, either under saddle or in-hand, until his respiration has returned to normal and the temperature of his neck, chest and shoulder has cooled down. Soreness after a session can be greatly limited with a relaxed cool-down. The end of the ride is also a great time to do any stretches or massaging your horse may need. This is when the muscles are loose and still a bit warm from the workout. Never stretch a cold muscle!

In the winter time when it is cold, most of our session is spent at the walk, warming up and cooling down, with shorter sessions of jog and lope in-between.


Warming up long and low (free jog). The horse’s nose should ideally be in front of the vertical.

It’s a good idea to keep a journal of the work you do with your horse to keep you on track and also to track the changes in your horse.

Make each ride count, and remember that even slow work can build muscle for your horse.

Photos by Rebecca Wieben

This article is the 24th in a series of articles on Western dressage and is a collaboration between Lisa Wieben (see biography below) and Birgit Stutz. The articles appear in the horse magazine SaddleUp on a monthly basis.

Lisa Wieben is a Level 2 Centered Riding Instructor, EC Coach, and Irwin Insights Level 4 Master Certified Trainer. Specializing in Western and English Dressage, she coaches near Bowden/Olds, AB. Lisa is also a Hanna Somatic Instructor and Practitioner in Training, working with riders, in class or privately, to learn movement exercises that target specific muscle issues in the body brought on by stress, injuries, surgeries, and overuse. A balanced rider equals a balanced horse.

 Birgit Stutz is an Irwin Insights Level 4 Master Certified Trainer and offers horse training, lessons (English and Western), clinics, mentorship programs, horsemanship courses, workshops, short courses and demos on various topics, and working student programs at Falling Star Ranch Academy of Foundational Horsemanship in Dunster, BC. Birgit’s passion is to help humans have a better relationship with their horses through understanding of equine psychology, body language, biomechanics, as well as fundamental riding skills.


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