Fitness foundations

Posted in Cross Country Flatwork Hacking Jumping

Want to get your pony in peak condition? Here’s how to get started...

Long hacks for fitness

Whether you compete your pony or just have fun together, it’s really important that he’s fit enough for his job. Being fit will not only help him clinch some red rosettes, but it will go a long way to keeping him sound, too. 

There’s so much you can do to improve your pony’s fitness and having variety is really important. The foundations, however, are often best put in place while you’re hacking because you’ll have lots of space to work with and things to keep you interested. Getting fit can be split up into four phases to help you achieve it safely for your pony. 

When your pony gets fitter, his…

  • cardiovascular system (heart and blood vessels) becomes more efficient
  • muscles build up and are more effective
  • bones, tendons and ligaments get stronger
  • recovery after exercise becomes much quicker

Phase 1: Long and slow

Aim: Increase the distance

The first thing you need to do is increase the time and distance your pony can go for. If you’re starting to build his fitness from scratch, begin with a short walking hack (about 20 minutes), then make it a little bit longer each time you ride. Keep extending your rides until you reach a time you’re happy with – 90 minutes is a good aim. It should take you around four weeks (riding four times a week) to build up to this if you’re starting from nothing.

TOP TIP – If you don’t have much access to hacking, you can work on his fitness in a field. 

Phase 2: Short and speedy

Aim: Increase the pace

The next thing you want to achieve is going a bit faster. This doesn’t mean you’re ready to take your pony galloping – it’s still important to take it steady. The best way to do this is make your rides shorter, but add in some short trots. Over the next few weeks, make your trots longer and more frequent, and add in some short canters too.

Did you know? You can use hills to make your pony work harder. They change the way he uses his body so he’ll be working different muscles.

Phase 3: Faster for longer

Aim: Work harder for longer

Now it’s time to start making your rides longer again, keeping the level of intensity (how hard your pony’s working) the same. It’s important to think carefully about when to step up your pony’s training – if you do it too soon, you risk injury, but too slow and he won’t make much improvement. Avoid making your rides longer and harder at the same time – first increase the time, then decrease it again when you start to make it harder work. Keep building until your pony is working harder for longer.

Faster fitness work for ponies

TOP TIP – Don’t forget to warm up your pony and cool him down every time you ride. 

Phase 4: Mix it up and make it specific

Aim: Get ready for your fave discipline

Once your pony is comfortably working for an hour with lots of trot and canter, it’s time to tailor his work specifically to what you want to do. For example, if your pony mainly does…  

  • dressage, you’ll need to up his schooling time to make sure he’s feeling strong and supple
  • showjumping, you’ll need to incorporate some polework and jumping to build up his jumping muscles
  • eventing, you’ll need to make sure he can cope with an XC course, so along with schooling and jumping, more fast hacking is a must

TOP TIP – If you can, spread out your pony’s fitness sessions. It’s much better to ride him every other day so that his body can recover, rather than three days in a row and not again for the rest of the week.

For the fitness fanatics

Another way to step up your pony’s work once you’ve got to phases three and four is trying out interval training. This is quite an advanced level of training that challenges your pony’s cardiovascular system by having a period of fast activity, followed by a recovery period. It allows him to almost recover before going again, making each time even harder. 

How to: Begin with trotting for two minutes, followed by one minute of walking, and repeat this five times. If your pony finds this easy or is starting to get fitter over time, next time you can either…

  • repeat it more times 
  • increase the time you trot for by 30 seconds
  • shorten your walking rest time by 15 seconds
  • try it in canter (this is quite a big step up, so you’ll need to shorten the time first)

Interval training for fitness

It’s important that you only change one thing at a time and, each time you do, think about how well your pony coped with it. If you’re unsure, it’s always best to step back down a level and reassess how he’s doing – ask your instructor for advice, too.

TOP TIP – Ask a friend to help you with timing at first until you get the hang of it.

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