Horse trainers are constantly faced with the question of how much exercise, how much work and training, should a horse get, each day and each week? I think the answer depends on a great many factors, including the horse’s fitness, conformation and temperament.
In my experience, the majority of trainers and riders follow the maxim “if some [work] is good, then more has to be better.” But I’ve never subscribed to that theory. I believe that “if some is good, more isn’t necessarily better” and that “sometimes, less is more.”
The equine athlete needs time to rest.
Every athlete, whether human or equine, needs time to allow their bodies to recover from the rigors of training. You can’t just push and pound every day. Most humans simply can’t run 20 miles day after day, and most horses can’t gallop day after day, or drill the same dressage exercises, or do a demanding jump school, five or six times a week. At least not and stay physically and mentally sound.
Overwork of either species of athlete can easily cause mental tiredness and decreases motivation, and it usually causes soreness, stiffness and overuse injuries. Among the differences between training human and equine athletes are that horses can’t tell you in words how they feel. So, usually, we can’t tell they feel a bit tired, stiff or sore unless or until they’re lame or at least “NQR” (not quite right).
So I’m going to tell you about the typical week and month for several of my horses, who range in age from 4 to 11 and range in experience from just starting to compete to competing at intermediate level in eventing. Here in California, we don’t miss more than half a dozen or 10 days a year to bad weather (even though we don’t have a covered arena), but the work schedule for each horse accommodates giving them days off for holidays, for when I’m at competitions where they’re not running, or for unplanned disruptions like lost shoes, sickness or injury.
I can only think of one time in the last 10 years that I arranged for someone else to work a horse for me in my absence. (It was when I was covering the 2004 Athens Olympics and was gone for more than two weeks.) But, honestly, I can’t remember arriving at a competition and thinking that I didn’t have a horse fit enough or as ready as he could be. I suppose that could be partly because I just won’t take a horse if I didn’t think he’s reasonably ready.
Let’s start with Alba, my 11-year-old Appendix Quarter Horse mare who’s been competing at preliminary for the last three years and is moving up to intermediate this spring. Alba works an average of 4.5 days a week, meaning that she’ll usually work four days one week and then five days the next. She does a jump school once or twice a week, and one day a week I hack her and/or do specified conditioning work (trotting and galloping up our hill or, when the ground is too wet outside the ring, trotting for 10- or 15-minute trot sets in the ring). So that leaves one to two days a week of dressage schooling.
I also do something else with her to increase her conditioning work and to efficiently add conditioning work to our young horses: Two or three days a week, before her flat or jump schools, she spends 30 to 40 minutes ponying a young horse, sometimes just walking and sometimes doing a 10- or 15-minute trot set. This gives her additional conditioning time and is a good warm-up for the serious stuff.
For about two years, until last fall, I jumped Alba more than that, because she’d showed me that she was a horse who needed to jump often, to convince her that it wasn’t a big deal. So I’d jump her roughly three times a week, but only over a dozen to about 20 fences on a day, which I incorporated into her flat work.
Amani, my 6-year-old 7/8 Thoroughbred-cross mare, is moving up to preliminary this spring, and she has a similar schedule of working 4.5 days a week. The only big difference is that I don’t use her to pony other horses—yet. She has a “personal space bubble” that she doesn’t like to have violated, although she’s showing signs that she’s maturing out of that issue. I’m hoping that will continue, so I can pursue a similar conditioning plan with her in the future.
Amani successfully completed the training-level three-day event at Galway Downs last November, and I did increase her work to prepare her for that. But I increased the intensity and duration of her work days; I didn’t increase the number of days she worked. I’m aiming her for the CCI1* at Galway Downs this November, and I plan to do the same.
Now, let’s talk about some younger horses. I limit the number of days 2- and 3-year-olds work to three per week. Before they start work under saddle, in the six sessions over a two-week period, I’ll generally pony them three times and longe them three times. After a 3-year-old has started under saddle, I’ll generally ride them two days a week and pony them one day a week. Once I’ve introduced them to jumping, I’ll do a jumping school one day a week.
Then, as 4-year-olds, they move up to working 3.5 times a week—three days one week, four days the next. But let me show you how that can vary, using three horses, each of whom has just turned 5.
Boogie is a warmblood stallion, and I’ve definitely used the “less is more” theory on him. He’s a compactly built 15.3 hands, but he’s a very powerful, expressive mover and jumper. I’ve worked hard to keep his mind fresh and eager while developing his strength through his training, so until late last fall I strictly worked him three days a week. Now that he’s older and able to physically and mentally take more work, I’ve moved him up to four days a week. One day is usually pure conditioning; one day is jumping; one day is flat work; and one day is longeing and free-longeing.
The other two 5-year-olds are draft-crosses, standing 17.2 and 17.3 hands. My priority with them is fitness, because it’s very hard for them just to move their 1,500-pound-plus bodies, let alone do it athletically. So as 4-year-olds, they worked four days a week, and almost every day had a conditioning element to it, usually walking up hills before or after a dressage or jumping school.
I have to add a caveat here, and that is that all of these horses spend a lot of time turned out. The two draft-crosses live outside, so they’re constantly moving and keeping a base of fitness. The others are turned out at night, for 15 to 16 hours. If your horse has only a stall or a small run, he’ll likely need more exercise than I’ve described.
When it comes to exercise and training for your horse, it’s very true that there’s “more than one way to skin a cat.” This just guideline, a description of what works for me. So much depends on the climate and facility, and your horse.
But I do believe that it’s almost always best to think twice before blindly following the theory that “if some is good, more is probably better.”