No matter what discipline, if any, a horses’ training programme needs to be fully balanced and progressive to include all aspects of fitness (cardiovascular, speed, stamina, endurance, strength, suppleness, flexibility, coordination, agility, balance), plus working through the scales of training; rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness, collection, and improvement of skill level. A training programme needs to progressively overload the systems of the body for optimal and functional adaptation. Training and conditioning for all disciplines is a very fine balance between optimal adaptation and an overuse injury. Trying to work on all of these factors within one discipline can only be done through repetitive movements which is the major cause of overuse injuries such as ligament issues, mainly suspensory, tendon issues, muscle strain, wear and tear on the joints.
What is cross training?
Cross training involves adding different types of exercise, movement, disciplines or modalities into a training routine to achieve an overall more rounded fitness level and set of skills that the body can then call on when needed. If a horse is constantly trained dressage on a perfectly harrowed surface, one day for some reason there is a rut on the surface or a slightly hard patch due to frost or drought, causes the horse to roll on its step that it is not used to doing which takes the limb rotation into a different plane it is not used to, this can cause a strain on the DDFT or other soft tissues for example. If this horse was regularly ridden on varied or uneven terrain, grass, roads, hardcore, its tissues of the limbs in particular would be better conditioned to the variety in movement and would have no issue in coping with this minor anomaly in the surface.
Why cross train?
In human research athletes who specialise in a single sport had an 85% higher chance of injury than those who that do multiple activities (McGuine et al. 2017), this is expected to be higher in horses.
For a horse specialised in an individual discipline (ie exclusively a show jumper, exclusively a dressage horse), the repeated loading and strain from the one particular movement in one plane, doing the same thing day in day out will have the same effect. But also repeated riding in a poor movement pattern or with compensatory mechanisms in play being repetitively overloaded will also cause training overload associated injury, e.g. lack of flexibility, suppleness, fitness, subtle lameness/ unsoundness or asymmetry, pain, unbalanced rider as a one off may not cause much of a problem to the horse but if this is a repeated pattern will lead to injury. Hence, this is also another major reason for:
a.) Having your horse regularly checked and treated by an advanced qualified and experienced equine physical therapist to pick up on these minor anomalies in symmetry, posture etc. and correct these before they are repetitively loaded, affect performance, and cause lameness.
b.) having a coach that is dedicated to your horses’ correct way of going, global body mechanics and correct rider biomechanics rather than getting you to jump that big jump, perform movements that neither rider or the horse are ready for.
Cross training also allows for muscle recovery time, allowing the horses body time to repair and replace any damaged tissues. DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) caused by build up of lactic acid that the body needs to remove and repair of muscle and free radical damage takes around 48 – 96 hours, replacement of muscle glycogen takes around 48 – 72 hours. Other types of exercise can be done within this time just not the same type of repetitive loading and alternative exercise and movement can actually help with these times.
Therefore, we cross train so we can continue to work them just in a different way, to work on different aspects of the scales of training or fitness to prevent excessive overload, to give them a better rounded education and to protect them against injury:
For horses cross training is adding a variety of exercises and training:
Overall, to prevent injury, for your horses health, fitness, sanity, and increasing their performance in your chosen discipline, cross training is essential for long term benefits.
Rider biomechanics is such a massive subject area and one that I am very passionate about, but I don’t want to get in too deep in a simple blog but it is important to me not only as a coach, trainer and rider, but also as an equine physical therapist, it is such an essential aspect of riding that for some reason is so often over looked by coaches. Everyone knows that poor riding can have a negative effect on the horse, their health and way of going. No one likes to think of themselves as a “poor rider” but to me this includes poor rider biomechanics too, as this can massively have a negative influence on the horse. Its not just about having a pretty position it is so much more than that.
So many riders have been taught incorrectly or using out of date research over many years and this has become their body’s default riding position. There is now so much more data that shows how we need to sit, our weight aids, posture, harmony, neutrality, and now it is not been corrected by many coaches and because you can now “ride” you go to coaches that are going to get you jumping higher, wider, bolder, braver, doing higher level dressage moves etc., rather than concentrating on these foundations and the basics of your own biomechanics which if they are not correct, your centre of balance is in the wrong place, your weight aids are incorrect, the horse can’t carry you properly in balance, or you cause him to brace through his back, blocking him, which affects his dynamic posture, he doesn’t move right which over time leads to a long term compensatory lameness issues, but not because of his own compensations (he has those to deal with as well any way!), but because of compensating for you. So in a nutshell; YOU CAN MAKE YOUR HORSE LAME! I see it so often, more often than I would like. Even in some riders at quite a high level, they don’t understand why their horse is blocked through the back when they ride, struggles with certain movements and I can feel it when I come to treat them. Then when I strip everything back and watch them ride, look at their biomechanics on the horse it all becomes obvious. Sometimes all it takes is a few tweaks to their dynamics here and there and it can make a massive difference to the horses comfort and way of going.
A lot of the time when I first start coaching people I take lots of photographs and video’s and use an app called the coaches eye so I can slow everything down, draw on it and show riders exactly where the issues lie, and we can compare the beginning of the session to the end, or in a few sessions time to see the differences that such small alterations make to the horses performance. So often when riders look at videos people take of them they are looking at the horse; is his head in the right position, how much is he clearing the fence by, etc. not at themselves, or they can pick out their flaws but are not sure how to correct them, and some are completely oblivious that their posture is causing the horse to shorten his stride, tighten on the left side etc.
Studies have shown correct seat and position are the basis for a good performance. One study in particular aimed to measure deviations from the correct seat, test a seat improvement program (dismounted exercises), and investigate whether horse behaviour was affected by the rider’s seat and found that in particular improvement of backward tilted pelvis, which I see very often, showed a reduction in horse behaviour classed as “evasive,” and the horses’ heart rate decreased (elevated heart rates are associated with stress and pain). Heart rates of riders decreased therefore it was a either a lot less effort for them to ride in a biomechanically more efficient posture or it was less stressful for them too when the horse is less evasive. 78% of riders felt the exercises improved their riding performance.
It also applies if you have any physical medical issues, tightness, old injuries in your body that affect what you can do, your posture, movement etc. This is when you need to go see a good human body worker yourself, get yourself sorted, as again you will be affecting your horse. Most people put their horse first but there is no point in getting the horse treated if their problem is being caused by you. I work in conjunction with some really fantastic human bodyworkers so that together, both specialists in our own field can get you and your horse to be happier, healthier, sounder, in better harmony and balance so that you can achieve your goals.