Struggling to move up to the next level of competition and training? Do you feel that perhaps you may not be reaching the performance heights that you're capable of? Here are 5 ways that can help to improve your horse's performance.
1. Know your horse's baseline gait pattern, strength, fitness and symmetry - and improve it if you can!
When most professional athletes start a new year of training & competition, they undertake a screening assessment which determines where their current level of fitness and ability lies and a training program is put in place in order to to maximise their performance for the year. This doesn't just apply to professional athletes however, when any of us join a new gym or training group, we would typically undertake an assessment first so that our progress can be monitored, showing us the improved outcomes (we would hope!) at the end of our program.
We feel that it's equally important to have a good understanding of how your horse naturally moves and performs. Very few horses are perfectly symmetrical, however it's good to know your horse's baseline asymmetry in order to be able to differentiate its normal movement pattern from abnormal movements, which could be indicative of injury. It also allows us to highlight any areas in which we may be able to address, through the use of physiotherapy or with other equine professionals, which may help to lead to improved performance and even reduce potential risk of injury.
It's worth considering a regular 'check-up' for your horse, to monitor how they are going, identify any areas that could be improved on and potentially identify any risk factors for injury before they become serious.
2. Follow a consistent and progressive training schedule
You would never go out and run a marathon without training (we hope!), so it stands to reason that we really shouldn't ask our horses to perform work that they just aren't fit to do. Just because your new horse has performed at 2* eventing previously, you shouldn't expect that they would have the fitness or stamina to go and compete at the same level straight away after having only been in light work for the past year. It has been well documented in human research that a sudden increase in training load or volume is an increased risk for injury. Similarly in horses, research conducted by Hernandez et al in 2001 found that thoroughbreds that had ≥ 33 days since their last race had an increased risk of injury.
The type and frequency of training that you do is also very important. In a study conducted by Murray et al in 2009 looking at risk factors for injury in dressage horses, they found that a high number of training sessions per week and a low level of training at specific movements for each competition level was associated with the likelihood of injury. While incorporating jumping into the training schedule, spending a large proportion of training time in working paces and greater than 10% of training in transitions and extended paces were suggested as protective against injury.
It's important to plan and implement a progressive and specific training schedule for you and your horse, that will not only be specific to your discipline, but will also help to protect against the risk of injury. We recommend working closely with an experienced coach or trainer to help you with your training schedule, along with other professionals such as physiotherapists who are highly experienced in the area of workload progression and exercise training principles.
Technology is a fantastic way to help us also and there are a lot of different activity trackers available now which allow you to objectively monitor your horse's fitness and performance. These include apps that can be downloaded to your phone, heart rate monitors and sensors that attach to the girth or bridle.
3. Get yourself fit and strong
The general public may not see it, but as riders we know that we do way more than just 'sit there' on the horse's back. Horse riding is a partnership, and we don't want to be the one letting the team down because our strength and fitness isn't up to scratch.
Research published by Gunst et al in 2019 found that a rider sitting asymmetrically increased the force on one side of the saddle, which can be reasonably assumed to be also increasing forces through one side of the horse's back. Another research paper published this year by Dyson et al found that larger riders can induce temporary lameness and behaviours consistent with musculoskeletal pain in the horse.
The good news is that research has also shown that these effects on the horse can be lessened through exercise. Hampson and Randle in 2015 looked at the effects of an 8-week rider core fitness program on the horse's back at sitting trot. By the end of the program they found that subjects in the study had reduced asymmetry at the end of the 8 weeks and that on average the horse's had an increase in stride length of 8.4%.
You may think that riding your horse (and all the work that goes along with that) is enough, but in reality we find that many riders aren't as fit as they think and should be doing more work out of the saddle to improve their strength, mobility and fitness. Join a gym or group fitness class and get in some training out of the saddle. There are lots of practitioners out there now (us included!) who run rider specific exercise programs. We even offer online programs so you really have no excuse!
4. Have your saddle fitted at least once a year
When did you last have your saddle/s checked? There is a growing body of research investigating the effect of the saddle on horse and rider performance. A lot of that research is being conducted by Dyson and Greaves from the Animal Health Trust in the UK. In a study they conducted in 2013, they found that back pain and minor thoracolumbar asymmetries in the horse were associated with ill-fitting saddles. They also found that an ill-fitting saddle not only affected the horse but the rider too, with a link between poor saddle fit and rider back pain. Their research suggested that well-fitted saddles were associated with frequent saddle fit checks, and that saddle fit should be checked more often than once yearly to lower the number of ill-fitting saddles.
We recommend working with a master saddle fitter, who will have undertaken extensive training in their field. And be mindful that your saddle fitter should actually watch you ride your horse in the saddle that they are checking. After all, that's what the saddle will be used for!
5. Understand nutrition and know your horse's dietary needs
Nutrition plays an extremely important role in the health and performance of your horse, however is an area that is often poorly understood by owners. There is a wealth of information out there on horse nutrition, so much so that it can often be overwhelming to know where to start. It's important to know not only the type of food your horse should be eating based on their weight, age, condition and job, but also how much and when they should be fed.
Your vet or an equine nutritionist is the best place to start in helping you to determine the appropriate feeding program for horse in order to maximise their health and performance.
Please note that we're aware that we've only scratched the surface here, and haven't even touched on the importance of the other areas that are vital to your horse's performance, such as farriery, dentistry, environment, training surfaces, bits, coaching, training - the list goes on! Suffice to say that a well rounded, team approach is absolutely essential in order to optimise both horse and rider performance!