I'm really enjoying my new book, Equine Fitness: A Program of Exercises and Routines for Your Horse. The first few chapters go over general fitness, how muscles work within the horse, and schooling vs conditioning. The following chapters go into the exercises and describe how they help the horse. I've been learning a LOT, and I've been learning that I haven't been doing things the right way... uh oh.
But that's why I got this book!
Sometimes when I ride, it feels like I'm just riding aimlessly around the arena. I don't always have goals in mind, or things I want to accomplish. Sure, I'm trying to teach her this or that and hoping she'll pick it up, but I don't always know how to ask her for certain things and I don't always get results when I try. She's so darn sensitive that really pushing her can sometimes have a negative effect on the ride, so she really ends up being the one running the show.
All I did was practice our specific discipline: I need to get her slowed down, I need to get her picking up the correct lead, and I need her to keep her giraffe head down. Over and over. Transitions. Stopping. Backing. She does such a lovely side-pass, let's do those to end on a good note.
I figure, well, at least we're out here getting some exercise and practicing things. The year leading up to Lilly's injury we steadily placed better and better at the shows, so I figured I was doing something right.
Then she tore her ligament. I still wonder if her level of conditioning had something to do with her tearing it. The book talks about how horses will overly tense certain areas of their body to satisfy our demands and rather than becoming more fit day to day, they become more compromised until something finally gives... like a tendon or ligament. We did a lot of work that year, probably the most we've ever done in her life, but it probably was not the right kind of work. So it's entirely possible that while I thought I was doing a bang up job, I was actually setting her up for an injury.
I'm sure there are a lot of factors involved in what happened to her to cause the injury (original ICL surgery, low heels, etc), but I can't rule out my style of riding/training either. Rather than kicking myself in the ass every day (ok, I might do that anyway), I'm going to do my darnedest to keep it from happening again. Since she's even more compromised now, I want to make sure I'm doing all I can to keep her sound and bring her back to full work in a way that's going to benefit her.
Back to the book...
It contains a fitness timeline. The timeline is based around a horse who is 3 - 15 years old and who has been out of a consistent exercise program for a prolonged period of time, so it's right up our alley! The timeline starts with 2 weeks of exercises that put no weight on the horse's back, i.e. no riding. It suggests calisthenics like pelvis tucks, backing up hills, tail pulls, and stretches, exercises which are explained in the book. Along with lots of turnout, she suggests an "ample program of longeing, round pen work, or ground driving." I'm not sure what that equates to, but I'll figure something out.
So moving on... Wait, what? No riding?! I've waited all this time to start riding again and she's telling me not to ride?
Ok, ok... so 10-15 minutes of this every other day for 2 weeks. Then, after those 2 weeks I can incorporate riding into the routine and start her out at 25 minutes. She doesn't say what I should be doing while I'm riding, but I'm going to assume we are only supposed to walk (especially in Lilly's case). After 10 days of this routine, we are to add 2 of the simpler exercises from the book. Some of the suggested exercises involve trotting, so at that point I'll assume it's safe to start trotting her.
From there, the program is broken down into phases, each one adding intensity and more of the exercises to accomplish a specific fitness goal. I'll go into those more when the time for such fun gets closer.
The book also points out that if you plan to work your horse 4 to 5 days per week, 3 of those days should be spent working on discipline related things, and the other 2 should be working on cardio and strength building only. It is also important to alternate the discipline days with the cardio/fitness days, as well as her days off to give her muscles time to repair themselves.
This brings me to another point... consistency. No matter how hard I try to develop a riding routine, life just seems to get in the way sometimes, as does the weather. Summer is coming and vacations are necessary for sanity, but I'm going to try like the dickens to ride her more consistently than I have in the past. Now that I'm back to regular board I should have more time and energy to dedicate to this process.
One other hurdle I'm going to face is shows... my beloved shows! This fitness building routine could take anywhere from 6 months to a year depending on how Lilly progresses. Am I going to wait until next year to take her to a show? Hells no. I do plan on being very cautious, though, when entering her into classes. If all else fails, showmanship, a couple walk/trot classes, and trail might just have to do. I'm ok with that.
Last thing I want to point out in my long winded post is this: I'm planning on taking side shots of Lilly at least once per month to see how her muscle tone progresses (hopefully). I was originally thinking once per week, but I'm not sure it would be as noticeable as once per month.
I'm very excited to have a plan... I'm going to enjoy having a set schedule with specific things to work on each day. Hopefully Lilly really benefits and it works out well for both of us! We start tomorrow! :)