We are all facing an unexpected challenge this season. We need to keep our horses in good health and to find a place of calm for them as routines and plans change.

Riders are good at adapting and bouncing back from disappointment. Horses are resilient too and take their lead from the emotional state of their handlers and carers…Riders are good at adapting and bouncing back from disappointment. Horses are resilient too and take their lead from the emotional state of their handlers and carers…

At the time of writing we are now able to ride, train and maybe even compete over the summer months. Following a fitness programme to carefully build up our ridden work is the best way to keep our horses sound and healthy. Coaches have been allowed to return to work both face to face and online. Riding Schools have started to reopen whilst maintaining strict social distancing and hygiene protocols. British Showjumping and British Dressage are exploring ways to restart competitions.At the time of writing we are now able to ride, train and maybe even compete over the summer months. Following a fitness programme to carefully build up our ridden work is the best way to keep our horses sound and healthy. Coaches have been allowed to return to work both face to face and online. Riding Schools have started to reopen whilst maintaining strict social distancing and hygiene protocols. British Showjumping and British Dressage are exploring ways to restart competitions.

Riders and yard managers will by now have agreed a care plan with the priority to help our horses adjust to new routines. Time with our horses has been restricted so how can you safely exercise your horse? Fit competition horses will have been let down and all horses will need new routines to be introduced slowly allowing them to adjust. Turnout is going to be a good option however with seasonal threats such as laminitis and colic, time in the fields need to be monitored. So, what could you do with your horse to break up their day?

This article will offer a few suggestions for creating a varied programme for your horse with a 20 minute riding plan, an outline for a four week hacking plan and some simple exercises for working your horse in hand. Do talk to your Coach about creating a tailor-made plan for you and your horse.

Hacking for the first four weeks. Make sure your tack fits and is in good condition and that you have hi vis equipment to wear. Choose a familiar route and be realistic about your horse’s current level of fitness and condition. It is a good idea to start with a short hack lasting twenty minutes to half an hour. Walking is the best pace to begin with, making sure your horse is attentive and relaxed is your priority. At the end of the first week you can start gradually increasing the time you are hacking for. This plan assumes you will be hacking at least three times a week or perhaps two hacks a week and one session in the arena. The first two weeks will be mostly walk work with short periods of trot introduced towards the end of the second week and extended during weeks three and four. Towards the end of the fourth week you can introduce short periods of canter where the ground and area is safe to do so.

We might be restricted in the time we have access to an arena so I’ve created a 20 minute floor plan which you can adapt, depending on fitness and level of training. We start in walk to warm up and ride the floor plan to familiarise yourself with the pattern. Ride a 15m circle at C, then ride into the corner and ride a 5m shallow loop on the long side before riding into the corner and riding a 15m circle at A complete the pattern by riding a 5m shallow loop on the next long side. Change the rein in free walk and repeat on the other rein. Pay attention to your horse’s walk rhythm, balance and suppleness and be conscious of how you are sitting in the saddle. Are you in balance and sitting equally on both seat bones? Where are you looking? Are you smiling as well as concentrating? Are you breathing correctly? Now you are ready to repeat the plan including walk trot transitions into the pattern. Build up the amount of time you trot for and give your horse regular walk breaks. Repeat the pattern 2-3 times on each rein, as time allows. Remember to work equally on both reins. After three weeks on the fitness programme, you can include short canters on 20m circles or around the arena depending on your horse’s level of training. This pattern can also be adapted to include teardrops and serpentines, but remember to give your horse regular walk breaks.

Working a horse in hand is a fun way to develop your connection and to focus on relaxation, suppleness and balance. It is important you are working in a safe space and to wear a riding hat, gloves and suitable footwear. Your horse needs to be wearing a correctly fitted head collar or bridle with the reins either suitably twisted through the throat lash or removed altogether. We explored lunging in a previous article so in this issue we are going to discuss simple exercises to do in walk with limited time and equipment. Walking your horse in this way is great exercise for riders too.

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Keep patterns simple, try shallow loops, squares, and smooth teardrops to change direction. Concentrate on maintaining a clear walk rhythm and look up. Use the letters if you have them to guide your floor plan. It Is easier to lead your horse on a straight line than a curved line, although you can set out markers e.g. use cones to walk through, at the tangent points. Check you have your horse’s attention by asking for walk to halt transitions, with a pause before walking on again.Talk to your horse to help them prepare for the exercise for example I would say my horse’s name and then ask for him to walk on, I would use my voice as a half halt by saying “steady” to prepare for what follows. If I wanted to go forwards to halt, I’d say “Neptune, steady… And stand” with the emphasis on the “And” so he knows something is coming. I have been working and handling Neptune for several years now so in reality I chatter to him about all sorts of things and unconsciously repeat similar patterns and sequences, so he often seems to read my mind. When I work with a new horse, I keep the conversation much simpler to help them understand what I am looking for.

When your horse is calm and confident, you can introduce turn on the forehand. Establish a clear halt - standing at his shoulder, ask him to gently flex towards you so he has a gentle bend to the inside. Then, placing your hand slightly behind the girth where your leg aid would be, quietly ask him to step over. Your aim is for him to cross his inside hind leg, in front of his outside hind leg, so that he is stepping his quarters away from you. This exercise works particularly well with quarter turns at the corners of a square, placed on an inner track. As your connection develops your horse will learn to step over with the suggestion of the leg aid with your hand hovering rather than touching him, particularly when you liberally praise each attempt to complete the task you ask for.

As with ridden work allow your horse to relax in between the exercises. Try putting a soft brush or rubber curry comb in your pocket so you can groom their neck and shoulders in the resting moments. At this time of year, theys with ridden work allow your horse to relax in between the exercises. Try putting a soft brush or rubber curry comb in your pocket so you can groom their neck and shoulders in the resting moments. At this time of year, they particularly enjoy being groomed and feeling the sun on their backs.

Rider fitness is harder to maintain when we are not riding as much, so this is an ideal time to switch our attention to our general health, fitness and wellbeing as these elements will all contribute to our overall effectiveness as a rider. Consider joining an at home exercise programme with a Pilates instructor or Fitness coach to develop your awareness of body control and breathing. There are many exercises that can be done at home with little or no equipment, provided you have an experienced coach to guide you. Cardiovascular fitness is a little more challenging if you lack space and equipment, could you skip? Skipping is a simple exercise that is easy to build up in time and intensity.

Perhaps the most important lifestyle factor is to address how you manage stress and active recovery. Sleeping well is important and if you can get into the habit of focusing on breathing correctly, it will help you to ride better too. Be kind to yourself and to one another, try to use these uncertain times to practice thinking and acting positively. Where we can challenge our negative thoughts and feelings, adjust our perspective and alter our outlook, we can positively impact our brain chemistry and wellbeing. Do your best to reflect on the good things that happen each day and where possible try to stay in the present moment noticing the small things that can add up to significant gains.