OTTBs Suave Lord, Sovereign and Sly Pioneer, Pie, at play in our pastures, September 2010.

When I agreed to foster and retrain two Thoroughbreds in 2009, I decided to start a retraining blog. The plan was for the blog to chronicle my training techniques and the horses' behavior for anyone who might be interested in adopting my two fosters. Of course, I fell in love with my boys and adopted them permanently myself (did I actually think I could say goodbye to them?) but I continued the blog because the horse blogging world had introduced me to many like-minded friends from around our country and even outside the US. Although we ride different breeds and use very different training methods, we are united in our love and concern for the horse. My blogging friends are all kind, conscientious, and truly interested in doing what is best for their horses.

Sadly, though, there is a reoccurring theme that runs through many of the posts I read that frustrates me and honestly was the impetus for writing about the training that is working for us. Most riders today are unaware that they ask too much physically of their horses. WHAT?!?! This sounds unbelievable and I can just imagine what my blogging friends are thinking right now if they are reading this while chained to their desk at work. They struggle hard all week and barely get to ride enough as it is and here I am saying that they demand too much physically of their horses. Unfortunately, knowledge about proper training and exercising practices in our country, for humans and horses, is sorely lacking. People embark on multiple "workout" programs throughout their life with little success and do not actually learn how to become healthy and fit. Then, they use these same poor training ideas on their horses. The result is sporadic lessons and workouts that leaves the horse injured, sore, and detached mentally. Are you a long distance runner? Have you trained and maintained the necessary fitness to hike long distances consistently? If not, then you may unknowingly be asking too much of your horse physically which can result in poor behavior and injuries. 

As an aside, when I say "injuries" I am not referring to injuries or illnesses caused when a horse is at liberty. Freak accidents and sicknesses with horses happen. We can't be with our horses every second of the day and strange and tragic things happen when horses are in stalls or free in the pasture. Horses get stones and pebbles trapped in their hooves and abscesses ensure. They twist their bodies and legs at play and can get sore. Pie is off a little on his right front today because he was playing rough with his brothers and twisted something. As owners, all we can do is try to make the time when they are away from us as safe as possible and hope for the best. By contrast, though, we do have a great deal of control over the health and well-being of the horse during the time we are riding and training. 

Some of the greatest role models in the many varied disciplines of the horse world are unknowingly causing confusion about safe and proper training. We as horse owners and riders see videos and magazines, catalogs and horse related television networks all showcasing the grand athletes, horse and human, in the equestrian world. Horses are fit and muscled and happy and sound. The 2012 Summer Olympics in London just finished and you would be hard pressed to watch any of the equestrian events without feeling inspired to aim high. The horses were clearly enjoying all the work they were asked to do. How could anyone on a much lower level of training ever be asking too much of their horse if the horses in the equestrian events at the Olympics are able to willingly (cheerfully!) work at that high level without physical problems? 

The disconnect is that these grand horses are not able to compete and achieve at the highest levels with sporadic training. These horses are the center of a small, unique universe. They are trained and cared for meticulously everyday, not just a few days a week when commitments at the office and home allow it. These uber-fit horses love the "work" they are asked to do each day mostly because the constant human attention keeps them engaged and sound. In addition, the trainers and owners and riders are completely focused on the horse and the horse's health. There are gobs of people whose 40 hour work week is spent safely getting this horse fit.

Real people and real horse owners have jobs and families away from the barn. To consistently train in any discipline without undue physical stress to the horse at the most beginning level requires a lot of time. When I look back on my own life with and without horses I realize that the only period I had the time to properly train to show my horse in the lowest local level was when I was in middle school and high school. I had zero obligations to a job, a husband, a daughter, a house, a yard, the list goes on and on. Honesty about time and real life commitments is essential to keep horses healthy and sane. 

My husband taught me a saying when I married him fifteen years ago. Brian likes to say, "You can't do everything." I used to think that was his way of being lazy and trying to get out of doing things around the house. As time went on though, I learned what kind of person he is and I realized what he meant by that saying. People are always taking on too many jobs, kids, activities, house maintenance, yard maintenance, dogs, cats, and now horses. All of these things take time and the bottom line is that not much actually gets done or it doesn't get done well. Riding a horse well takes time. Attempting to compete takes more time. Getting a horse fit enough to compete at even a beginning level in most disciplines takes a lot of time. 

We as riders get so inspired sometimes by a stunning performance that we delude ourselves into thinking "I can do that too!" We have been taught that we can do anything we want if we just put our minds to it. Yet we have no idea how much time the rider who inspired us had to train her horse. She may not have a job, she may not be married, she may not have children. There are so many variables about time that isn't visible in the magazine photo or television coverage of an amazing event. We can do anything we want, but it isn't about putting our "minds to it" - it is about putting "our time to it" - and in our over-scheduled world that is usually forgotten or dismissed as not important. 

What if we watch an amazing, inspirational triathlon finish and decide on the spot that we want to do that sport and compete? We might again be deluding ourselves about the time it takes to train consistently. The difference is that we would only be sporadically training and possibly hurting our own bodies. By contrast, when we take on a goal with a horse, without being honest about the time we have to properly train, we aren't just hurting ourselves. When we work our horse sporadically hard one day or one week and then our job or family needs us and we miss three days at the barn, where does that leave our horse? Possibly lame or disengaged mentally from future rides.

The good news is that there is a style of riding that allows you to ride everyday OR ride occasionally AND keep your horse healthy mentally and physically. 

Running Thoughts and Horses
I have been a dedicated, injury free long distance runner since I was 16 years old (29 years and counting). My running background has allowed me to avoid the pitfalls with horses that many beginning and advanced riders face today. This information can be easily explained to non-runners.

Me, age 44, on running trail, October 2011.

When a non-runner gets on a horse and asks for the walk, there is little doubt that the horse and rider are sharing in the same experience. The rider can easily make well informed decisions about what is healthy and correct for the horse because they themselves know what it is to walk. But as soon as the rider asks for a trot or canter, or to walk on a trail for an extended distance, then a new set of rules comes into play. If the rider is not a runner, they are asking for something they themselves have not experienced. By "runner" I specifically mean a person who is easily able to run for more than 20 minutes, continuously, multiple days in a week. The lack of understanding in this area is widespread and unfortunately can cause equally widespread symptoms of lameness, sore joints, saddle and girth sores, mental detachment, poor behavior under saddle, colic and founder in horses. 

I have witnessed, in person and on blogs, extremely kind and knowledgeable horse people unknowingly cause behavioral problems and sadly, physical ailments in their horses, because of their own ignorance in this area. I did not realize for many years how much my knowledge of running has given me an advantage with horses until a friend and exceptional runner, a non-horseperson, came to the barn to visit me. She was interested in grooming and as we worked I was talking about the ride I would have later that day. When I explained how slow I go with my boys in terms of training because of daily time constraints my friend correctly guessed the program I was using and reasons behind it. 

Although this friend is not particularly a horse lover, I knew instantly that if she worked with horses, her horses would be sound and happy like mine because she knows what I know about running and training. All consistent runners do. Common knowledge in the running world can and should be explained to non-runners in the horse world to help solve horse behavioral problems and physical ailments.

My horses stay sound and mentally happy because I follow these guidelines daily. I do not have behavioral issues with my horses primarily because they are never asked to do something that they are not physically conditioned to do. You do not have to be a runner to understand the following tips that work for me. 

Me on Pie, OTTB Sly Pioneer when he was four years old, without a bridle or saddle, May 2010. He looks swaybacked and chubby here. He isn't swaybacked. Chubby? Well...

All horses, no matter their age or physical conditioning, need to be warmed up at the walk for 20 minutes. Do you know how long 20 minutes is? It is l-o-n-g! Humans are notoriously unaware of distance and time intuitively. We just don't really get either concept. For some reason when we wear a watch we use it to worry about our next appointment and then we rush through our time with horses. Accuracy and honesty are necessary when working with horses. I wear a watch and time my warm-up. The time can be spent in the ring, on the trail, in serpentines, in figure eights, walking around trees, whatever I choose, but 20 minutes of walking every single day, every single time I ride, ensures that my horse has reduced injuries and reduced behavioral problems. Did the lesson instructor who taught you to ride only offer 30 minute lessons? What does this tell you about the mental and physical state of the horse you were riding? If I have to hurry, I do it in my daily life far away from the barn and horses. Safe, sound, happy horses do not like to be hurried. All my rides start with a timed 20 minute walking warm-up. On an off day, when scheduling will only permit a short ride of 20 minutes or less, my ride is entirely at the walk. That is only fair to my horse. At least I get to ride and my horse is not rushed through his necessary warm-up. 

Duration and Intensity
After properly warming up, your horse is ready for any workout. Is this really true? People assume for some reason that horses are just "built to run" or "built to jump" or "able to handle any trail ride" without proper conditioning. I read blog posts that make me depressed. A well-intentioned owner will complain about their recent lack of time at the barn because of work. Soon, they relay that when they finally had time to come out after a two week break, they rode hard for 45 minutes in the ring, mostly at the trot and canter. I know what is coming. The next day's heartbreaking post will tell of a mystery lameness, or worse. I recently read a post written by an owner with an older gelding. The owner had taken her gelding on a long trail ride after many months of not riding and relative inactivity. He bobbed his head nervously on the ride and the rider and her friends joked that the horse had a "tic". She proudly reported that she "lunged his heiney off" when they returned from the ride. I am holding my breath waiting to read the typical lameness or mystery sarcoid post that will follow. The sweet, poor gelding's "nervous tic" was probably caused by his own discomfort from walking way longer than his current conditioning can sustain. The owner loves her horse very much, but sadly, does not realize that sporadic rides do not maintain the horse's fitness level. Her upsetting solution was to add lunging to an already overworked horse.

Just like people, horses need and deserve time to build up their strength and endurance. And, if they are not consistently ridden, they lose their fitness quickly. Also, when owners do have time to ride every day, the horse does well to have days off and easy days built into their schedule. Age and anatomical structure has nothing to do with fitness level in horses or humans. My daughter, Maizie, is young and fit. She is built to run. When she was very young she ran on her own in our yard from morning till night. Although my husband and I are both runners, we never took her on runs with us. She was too young and her bones were just developing. Then, in elementary school, Maizie became an avid writer and reader. Her lifestyle shifted indoors. She did not move as much and lost conditioning. But, her thin, runner body type remained. She still "looked like a runner" to the outside world. 

Maizie, age 12, after winning the state competition in the standing long jump. Athletic, but not necessarily sturdy for hard workouts yet.

In 7th grade, Maizie went out for the middle school cross-country team. Practices were everyday and involved fairly low mileage of varying intensity. Maizie was young, thin, and built to run. She also was the daughter of long-distance runners. She was the fastest runner in her grade and could certainly handle any type of training or competition with her genes and running background. Guess what? Maizie got a stress fracture in her left tibia in two short months. 

The moral: Even young, athletic types need to slowly build a base before increasing duration or intensity in any type of training program. Maizie went from chair to starting line too fast. She didn't have the base required to prevent injuries and all parties involved, me included, were blinded by her "built to run" structure and youth. I would never have allowed this to happen to one of my horses. Why did this to happen to my daughter? This happened because I did not enforce the five minute rule used to increase distance in the running world. Also, I did not make sure her young, immature bones were getting to rest on scheduled zero running days. Horses need to utilize both training techniques too in order to stay sane and sound. Ultimately, it is possible to compete and exercise a horse at even the most intense level if a slow and steady conditioning program is used. 

Horses at liberty in a pasture will trot and canter and self regulate their own intensity and duration. Any human involvement into a compulsory training program for horses needs to use the five minute rule for gradual increase and additionally should strive to maintain that level with alternating rest days. 

Pie, OTTB Sly Pioneer, and Sovereign, OTTB Suave Lord, at play, September 2010.

Building a Base - Beginning
After the proper 20 minute walking warm-up, you can safely ask a horse to trot and eventually canter for five minutes total. Use a watch! This can be done for two consecutive days and then one day of rest. 

Rest Days 
Rest days are as important to the health of your horse as work days. You can skip your ride altogether or have a very short easy walk of less than 20 minutes total (no warm-up necessary). Rest days help strengthen bones and rebuild strained muscles.  Make sure that multiple rest days are recognized and the horse is not expected to work at the level he was at before an extended rest. After long rest of three or more days, you must drop back to a lower level of training.

Slow and Steady Increase
After three cycles (two days of five minutes, one day of rest), you can increase the workout from five to 10 minutes. Again, two days on, one day off and three more cycles until five more minutes are added to make the workout 15 minutes long. You can continue to add in minutes as long as you are consistent in your program. This schedule prevents injuries and allows the horse's legs, joints, ligaments, feet, cardiovascular system and brain to adjust slowly and safely to the workout. 

Conditioning Program
All workouts start with a 20 minute walking warm-up. The days are consecutive. In other words "Day 2" is the very next day, not the second day of trying this after a few days off. 
Day 1 - Warm up at the walk for 20 minutes. Trot 5 minutes. Cool down at the walk for 20 minutes.
Day 2 - Warm up as above. Trot 5 minutes. Cool down as above.
Day 3 - Rest  - no riding or just relaxed walking
This is one cycle. Repeat this cycle three times (Days 1 - 9) and then add 5 more minutes to the workout.
Day 10 - Warm up 20 minutes at the walk. Trot 10 minutes. Cool down for 20 minutes at the walk. 
Day 11 - Warm up as above. Trot 10 minutes. Cool down as above.
Day 12 - Rest - no riding or just relaxed walking

Does this sound ridiculously slow to you? Usually, the least fit riders are the most unaware of the duration and intensity they are asking of their horse. Of course, if your horse is already training for a longer duration and used a slow, consistent program to get to that level, you will have to interpolate the time to meet your needs. But, remember to be fair and honest. Can you do this workout? Is your horse always sound? Do you have too many days off in between workouts? Does your horse have any behavioral problems? This slow method will help with soundness and poor behavior.

This workout helps build a base so your horse is safely becoming fit. A base only remains as long as you are consistently working the horse. I like the two days on, one day off approach because it keeps you consistent. I actually prefer every other day workouts, but every other day gets sloppy. One day turns into two and suddenly, you haven't been to the barn in three days. That is fine as long as you are honest with yourself and your horse. Again, it is worth repeating:  If you miss more than two days, then you have to bump back to a lower level of workout time because your horse lost fitness while you were away even if he was running and playing at liberty in the pasture. Going to the barn and grooming or watching your horse have free play at turnout isn't the same as a continual, compulsory trot or canter. And, let me just say right now that going to the barn and just grooming or grazing your horse or watching him play in the pasture are excellent activities and should be honored and repeated! Visits like this are important for you and for your horse. But, these visits are not a physical workout for your horse and that is 100% ok as long as you don't delude yourself and expect your horse to work hard the next time as if your last three grooming sessions were a workout. 

Conditioning for Trail Rides
Long distance walking on a trail should also be viewed as a stress to the horse's system if not conditioned properly. Long rides that only take place on the weekends can cause problems if the horse isn't ridden consistently during the week. Any time you are asking your horse to walk farther than a few miles you need to make sure that your horse is in condition. A horse who is used to walking two miles at liberty in a pasture can safely add five minutes each day with proper rest. And any horse expected to comfortably complete a lengthy trail ride of an hour or more should use the slow conditioning schedule above. 

An acquaintance and fellow OTTB owner has a gelding who is recovering from "heat bumps" and the ensuing bald patch/sore spot. This rider and her husband took their horses on an extremely long trail ride recently and now the horse can't be ridden until the sore heals and the rider finds a new saddle. This conscientious horse owner and her husband ask their horses to travel long distances sporadically. These kind people would never think that they ride "sporadically" because they do ride most days. Unfortunately, they ask their horses to do marathon rides occasionally during the summer. This is sporadic and very hard on their horses, especially their first ride of the season. Again, what humans seem to forget is that slow and steady conditioning will allow the horse to adjust to the equipment too. Saddle sores and poor saddle fit are real problems. A saddle should fit the horse properly, but there isn't a saddle in the world that could have saved this horse from his sore spots. He was asked to travel too far without being ready for such a ride. If I had taken the rider to a hiking store and bought her the perfect trail hiking shoes for her feet and then asked her to complete on foot the ride she asked of her horse, she would have had many sore blisters. She probably would not have been able to walk for some time. Yet, we would not go out tomorrow and try to find her better shoes. She would realize that she had asked too much of her body. 

Slow and steady conditioning is always the best first solution. The muscles under the saddle are not conditioned properly with sporadic overuse. Saddles and girths are often blamed and then changed and altered when really consistent, gradual increase in distance walked would solve the problem. These types of situations break my heart because the owners are kind and have no idea what they are doing to their horses. Always ask yourself if you could do the workout you are asking your horse to do. Can you hike a sporadic workout of 2 miles a day with a 20+ mile hike two days of the month without getting sore and blistered? If not, then don't make your horse do it!

Foggy, OTTB Found in the Fog, bitless, with me aboard bareback, on a local bridle path, March 2012. Oops - I must have missed that mud spot on his silly right ear!

A slow conditioning program like the one outlined above sounds like a lot of work to get a horse fit enough to ride in the ring or on a trail for 30 minutes or more. It is a lot of work, but the pay-off is great. Horses remain sound and happy if you use this system. When you see fit runners on the road you know instantly that they spend a lot of time getting to that point. They are not able to just go out and run injury free without building up to that distance. Why should horses be any different? There is nothing about a horse that makes them fit without slow, steady, consistent base building exercise. And, just like us, they are not able to miraculously keep their conditioning after more than a few days off.

I learned to ride on lesson horses. My lessons were one hour long. The school horses were probably used too much - all day. Still, in all that overuse, they were not asked to endure sporadic training. Their workouts were consistent and they were fit enough to keep up. Sometimes, these school horses were sold. They would go home to an owner and physical problems or behavioral problems would quickly crop up. The horse was suddenly being asked to perform a workout for 30 minutes when they were only being ridden once or twice a week. Can you imagine running hard for 30 minutes or one hour, twice a week? If you do not run, you probably think that is possible. It isn't. Every consistent runner you see, runs every other day or every day. It is that simple. Slow, consistent training is the only way to stay injury free.

Avoid Sporadic Training
The new owner in the above scenario is not to blame because of their lack of riding. They can not be expected to work the horse as much as it was previously used to working as a school horse. Horse owners have jobs and other time commitments and can sometimes only ride once or twice a week. That isn't the problem. The problem arises when the rider asks the horse to exercise and perform on that one day as if it has been ridden many days in the week. The horse is no longer fit and will not be able to remain injury free. In fact, some owners are honestly more fit than their horse because they spend so much time mucking stalls, carrying buckets, and throwing hay bales during the week and don't have time to ride. These owners feel they deserve a good, long ride on the weekend, but the horse hasn't been doing all this work. They are out of shape from meandering around all week. Not only are you risking injury to your horse, but when you ask something of the horse that is unfair to him physically, he may respond by displaying poor behavior. If someone forced you to run for an hour after you sat in your office chair all week you might not be so nice either. The owners do deserve to ride after all that work! But they need to ride at a intensity and duration that will not stress their horse.

My Own Horses' Fitness Level
I own three horses and I ride every day. But, I am not able to ride each horse every day. I alternate the horse I ride from one day to the next. Very occasionally, I ride all three on one day. Sometimes I ride two. Therefore, to ask my horses to trot and canter for extended periods of time would be unfair to them. If I owned only one horse, I could safely start a program like the schedule above and slowly work up to more complex, consistent training. I am honest with myself and with my horses. I have no delusions about the time and long hours it takes to get and stay fit. I would never ask my horses to do something they are not ready to do and consequently our rides are usually 30 minutes to one hour total, entirely outside of the ring, and mostly at the walk with occasional trotting. Occasional trotting means for a few minutes here and there - not for 30 minutes! My horses are sound and seem to love our rides.

Me on Foggy, OTTB Found in the Fog, while my other boys look on from the pasture, November 2011. Too bad I can't ride all three at the same time! By the way, Foggy is a little irked at me in this photo. This is his favorite post-ride grazing spot and he is confused about why we are riding here. His ears are annoyed and he is hunched up, poor honey. That grass looks good!

Showing Off Just One Time Can Physically Stress Your Horse
It is easy for me to refrain from asking for too much physically because I have the luxury of riding my three off-track-Thoroughbreds at my own farm without an audience. I don't have boarders and my neighbors are sweet, but none of them know one thing about horses. Therefore, my daily rides are not observed by anyone except for my mother, who occasionally puts in her two cents about how I should do this or that from her own history of riding horses. I just smile and say nothing while thinking, "bull dinky butterscotch twinkie" to myself. My mother is an amazing rider whom I adore and respect, but through no fault of her own, her horses in the past had difficulty with sporadic training and lameness. Sadly, the horse world was more inconsistent and physically demanding on horses in her youth than it is now. So, when she encourages me to push it, I remember my running knowledge, my lack of consistent time to train three horses properly, and I stick to our easy program. 

Thankfully absent from our farm, is a pack of horse savvy teenage girls whose opinions at some boarding barns are enough to make the most advanced rider feel compelled to show off. When I do travel and ride other horses I get to experience this uncomfortable dynamic first hand. The only thing I know to do is listen to my horse and not to my ego. Letting go of "the show" is the foundation to becoming a good rider and being authentic with horses. Some riders never can rid themselves of this monkey and their horses eventually say, "No more" - either physically or behaviorally.   

A Sad Story Caused By a Common Training "Program"
When I was young, my mother had a very dear friend who owned a Thoroughbred. Her friend loved her horse more than anything in the world. Unfortunately, her work schedule and the distance she lived from the barn prevented our friend from consistently working with her gelding. After owning the horse for a few years and sporadically riding him, she got into a routine where she was able to go to the barn twice a week. She usually rode or lunged the horse for 45 minutes each visit.  In between visits, the gelding was out to pasture or in his stall. This commonly used exercise schedule is a recipe for disaster because it is asking the horse for too much work with too many days in between workouts. The result is injury or bad behavior under saddle or sadly, much, much worse. On one particular evening our friend had more time than usual and noticed her boy was especially frisky. She decided to lunge the gelding at the trot and canter for a full hour and then grazed him for a half hour.

This workout would be like asking a human runner to only run two days a week. Then, we would force the runner to run one day extremely hard and at the end of the difficult workout (difficult because the runner is unfit from lack of consistent, slow work), allow the runner to eat a huge sundae from Dairy Queen. The human runner subjected to such a ridiculous sporadic "program" can regurgitate. Horses can not. Toxins are released into their bodies, and colic, founder, and laminitis can occur.

I was too young at the time to understand what our friend had done wrong, but now, as a runner, I cringe to hear about that night and others just like it from non-running friends today who own and ride horses. Our friend's horse did colic during the night. The barn manager caught it and helped out in time, but the horse foundered and laminitis occurred. The horse had to be destroyed. The autumn grass was blamed as being too rich, but the grass wasn't the only culprit in this far too common scenario. The kind, unknowing person asking the horse to give a long, steady effort only two times a week is also causing an imbalance to the horse's system. Any exercise a human forces their horse to do, should be added in small increments and consistently maintained. Ask yourself what you can do in terms of running. Gradual increase starting infinitesimally small (five minutes) is necessary for humans and horses. After fitness is achieved, consistency at the same level is imperative. This is called Maintenance.

Maintenance is another aspect of horse training that needs a big scoop of honesty by the human to keep their horse healthy. Just because a horse once was a super fit racehorse, or competed at a high level and was in a training program of arena work five days a week, does not guarantee that the horse will keep its conditioning after three or more days off. 

I have trouble with this in my own running life. I have never been injured, but occasionally after a short illness, like a cold, I forget to reduce my level of training. I assume that since I was running five miles at a certain pace, I should be able to jump right back in at that level again. When I do this, I don't get injured, but what I never noticed until recently is that I seem to get sick right away again. My wake-up call "injury" is never an injury; it is an illness because I am over-taxing my body. Horses are like this too. They don't always get injured when we over work them, but often a new, poor behavior or bad habit will come out of nowhere. Sometimes they get a mysterious case of colic or a weird sarcoid or go off their feed for a few days. Our Pie is the right age for sarcoids and has been exposed to that virus. We see "sarcoid-like" bumps/roots now and again. When I see them I stop and honestly ask myself if I've over-taxed him physically in some way. Stress can bring out latent problems.

It is worth repeating: The very best thing you can do for your horse is avoid sporadic training. If you have had a hard week at the office and need a good ride, be honest and keep it easy for your horse. He hasn't had any conditioning all week. Can you jog and run for 30-45 minutes straight every Saturday and Sunday after doing nothing all week? Why do you think your horse can? Instead have a great ride at the walk and keep your horse healthy until you can train consistently.

Cool Down
Any time you ask your horse to do anything more than walk, no matter how long the workout, he needs a cool down to relax. This is the same process as the warm-up only in reverse. A timed 20 minute walk is necessary to make sure your horse is loose and happy. I've always found that a walk outside of the ring is the very thing!

Here Sovereign, OTTB Suave Lord, is giving me the listening ear out on a cold January ride in 2011.

Arena surfaces vary, but the aspect that causes concern is the depth of the arena. One of the biggest challenges to horses today is the ridiculously deep footing we expect them to trot and canter in each day. It is no wonder there are so many joint, tendon, and ligament injuries. Even if you are not a runner, you surely have walked from your car to the water line at the beach. How does the depth of the sand effect your effort? When you first emerge onto the beach, the sand is deep and walking is arduous. As you get closer to the water, the sand is dense and packed down hard. Walking is easier in sand that is firmly packed and less deep. 

Running is easier too down by the water! My husband and daughter and I run on the beach and I always try to position myself close to the water. They are much faster and more efficient runners than I'll ever be so I need the extra advantage of running on firmly packed sand. And for all three of us, fast or fit, it is nearly IMPOSSIBLE to run in the loose, deep sand that is up, away from the water. Yet, I have been in arenas where the footing is so deep that it was almost impossible for me to walk. Horses are expected to trot and canter in that and remain injury free. No wonder horses balk when it is time to go into some rings! Their work in there is often extra difficult because of the depth of the footing. Footing depth isn't on the radar of the most conscientious of riders because they themselves don't run in the arena.

Recently, I leased a sweet Thoroughbred for a few months in Florida. I rode this horse each day on many surfaces through the streets of a horse community and to a local equestrian park. I did not ride him in the arena at all. I tried one day, but it became obvious very quickly that the footing was unbelievably deep. The kind barn manager and equally conscientious trainer were so proud of their arena and "excellent" deep footing. By Florida standards, they believed they had a lovely arena. It is true, to the untrained, non-runner's eye, their arena looked groomed, lush, and well maintained. Unfortunately, if their ring had actually been a compacted, busy parking lot of firm sand and weeds, it would have been a better surface for trotting and cantering horses. I walked dear, sweet, Max into the ring, (in his Easy Boots, no less) for one minute and turned around and walked out. I dismounted and removed his boots and emptied the inch of sand that had accumulated in our short circle. I remounted and we headed out for a trail ride.

Leaving the arena that day was one of the most difficult things I had to do recently as a rider. My ego was screaming and I had to ignore it. It would have been easy (for me, not Max) for the first few rides at that barn to go into the arena and, after proper warm-up, to work circles and figure eights at the trot and canter. I was leasing Max for the first time and riding him in the ring might have reassured Max's owner, trainer, and my new Florida friends that I was able to ride confidently and safely work with horses. But I didn't. I could not do that to Max. To do so would have stressed his legs unnecessarily. This barn is not alone. The local equestrian park had an arena of equally deep footing as do most of the upscale boarding barns in that area. 

Typical lush arena in Florida, groomed and raked with deep sand. A nightmare for horses.

Later on this trip, my husband had the opportunity to ride a horse in a charity event in the same arena. I was on the ground leading his horse at the walk. I could barely trudge through the deep sand for three short laps although I was used to running four miles daily. I have never met such amazingly caring horse people as the folks at this barn. The trainer, barn manager, and boarders are all such kind, sweet people. They have no idea what they are asking their horses to do each day. How many stables and parks have arenas like this? 

You can easily test the footing of your own arena by slipping on a pair of running shoes and running in grass for three minutes. (Time yourself - three minutes is longer than you think!) Now, time yourself running for three minutes in the arena you are asking your horse to work in each day. Compare the effort you exerted on the grass and in the arena. It should be a similar effort. If it is more difficult to run in the arena than on grass, then the arena is too deep. The most important part of this concept is not to fall into the trap where you believe that all spongy, soft surfaces are better for legs and tendons and joints and ligaments than hard surfaces. Tartan tracks at most schools, made of rubber tires, are soft and are an excellent surface that prevents injuries. Tartan tracks are not DEEP! You want your horse to have the proper give, like that of grass or the firm sand at the water's edge on a beach, or rubber, without the strain of deep footing. There is a big difference.

If you are lucky enough to ride on the beach, make sure you are only walking if you have to ride in the deep sand that is far from the water. Even better, always try to ride in the firm sand a few feet back from the water's edge. 

If you find that the arena surface where you ride is too deep, then start riding elsewhere on the property. It will not be long until other riders start to notice that your horse is injury free and more willing to do what you are asking. Then, you can explain why. I was only on vacation at the Florida boarding barn for two months, but within a few days people started to notice how "good" Max was for me. It is no mystery to me why. I wasn't asking him to perform the impossible. 

Lovely Max, OTTB Maximiliano, on a grassy ride with me in Florida, December 2011.

I do not lunge my horses, and thankfully, more and more people share my distaste for the practice. As new and better training tools are developed, lunging is becoming recognized as the primitive training technique that it sadly has been for decades. As a runner, I know how hard it is on legs and joints and psyches to run in a circle. It is not pleasant. Running on a 400 meter track is tedious enough. Running in a smaller circle for even a short amount of time would be pointless.

Lunging is often used to "take the edge" off of a horse or to "get the bucks out" before riding. This practice is terribly misunderstood and unnecessary because of the Krebs cycle. Without getting too much into physiology and biochemistry it is important to know that the body, horse or human, works more efficiently as any workout progresses. The workout starts out anaerobic, or without oxygen, and changes over to aerobic, or with oxygen. This is because of the Krebs cycle and its ability to make us and horses use energy more efficiently.

Many non-runners do not know the simple truth that every runner, no matter how long they have been running, feel bad, sluggish, or "icky" at the beginning of every single run!  I hear people say all the time that they can't run. They explain that they hurt or just feel bad when they start running. Well, guess what? Everyone does, every single time they run. This is because our bodies are working inefficiently for 10 to 15 minutes. During this part of the run, it would be easier to stop running than to keep running. The body is begging to stop and walk. But, if you keep jogging slowly through this period, the Krebs cycle kicks in and we become an efficient running machine. As a runner, when that happens you feel euphoric. You feel fast. You feel good. You want to kick up your heels. You feel like you can run forever!

My husband, sweet Brian, right after he won his age group in The Harrisburg Mile, July 2010. His 47 year old Krebs cycle was working efficiently that night!

Horses are exactly the same. They are tired and sluggish at the beginning of every workout. Since I am not working my horses in a more advanced training program, I like to keep them in this safe, non-adrenaline based zone. I want them to feel nice at the walk, calm and quiet. If we trot I like that they are a little sluggish and could walk at any moment. That is how I keep them safe. 

To lunge them would be foolhardy. Why would I want to flip them through the Krebs cycle and get on a horse that feels higher than a kite, like they could run and play forever? Over the years, unfortunately, I have witnessed hundreds of horses being lunged to quiet them before a ride, and I have never seen the horse's energy remain as calm as the system I use with my horses. My horses are turned out in a pasture for much of their day. This is where they get their bucks out. I never use a whip to encourage them to run around. They play and run at the duration and intensity that is correct for them. 

If there is a particularly windy or chilly day and one of my young OTTBs is nervous and worried as I groom and tack up, I will walk beside him in the ring or out on the trail before I ride. This is very useful if we are riding in an unfamiliar location. I gently hold on to the bitless bridle and walk in straight lines or do circles and figure eights with my horse. I am right beside his nose on the near (left) side, holding the reins and leading. As this walking progresses, with possible and probable flare ups, I stay with my horse. I am rewarded by my horse snorting a calm, bored sigh in a relatively short amount of time. This is my signal. All is well and I can mount.

Cautious riding on a cold grey November day in 2009. Me on Sovereign, OTTB Suave Lord. 
I walked with him on the ground for a few minutes. Then, after he snorted a relaxed sigh and release, I knew it was safe to mount.

As described in the Putting the Cart Before the Horse chapter, lunging is a very obvious act that tells the world that someone is indeed putting the cart before the horse. To me, lunging immediately signifies a system that is either antiquated or full of fear. Often a fearful rider will lunge to avoid riding. They delude themselves into believing that they are "working with their horse" daily. Sometimes an impatient trainer, propelled forward by a watch and calendar, lunges a horse in a futile attempt to hurry things along. And sadly, the last decade has given us many kind, conscientious trainers who lunge horses on lunge lines or free in round pens as a means to "naturally" teach bonding and respect. I am hopeful that the horse world truly does evolve even further in its natural approach and realizes that lunging is counter to nature and inhibits our bonding as two compatible species.

Any training that I would need to do on a lunge line, I can do on my horse's back. If I am working with a horse who is too young to ride, then he will especially need me to be close on the near side by his muzzle while he discovers whatever new equipment or experience I am introducing. Just like when I walk beside my nervous, skittish Thoroughbreds before mounting, I may end up walking with a horse for a short amount of time or for quite a while. This requires patience and a huge amount of fitness level on my part. Patience and fitness are essential to being a good trainer. Lunging does not require either and explains why you see it so often used. If I were to lunge my horse in order to reassure, work, or teach him something in a certain way then, surely me standing in the middle of a circle or round pen and not working with him would be counter to our desired outcome as a team. 

Recently, I was riding a relatively green horse on a group trail ride. The young horse started balking and trying to turn toward home if he was near the other horses. When I softly urged him forward with my seat and legs, he would pin his ears. I thought that he wasn't physically uncomfortable - I was bareback and bitless so he did not seem to have pain from the equipment. But clearly, there was a difficulty. I slipped off and walked beside his head, quietly talking to him while we walked with the other horses. He was fine - happy to walk forward. I let the other horses go on without us and I remounted. We stood still for many minutes and he was perfect again and willingly walked anywhere I asked. I learned later that the horse I was riding had been cornered in a pasture by one of the horses on the trail ride. My horse had jumped out of the pasture from a stand-still and was injured. To have lunged my horse before my ride or at a later point in order to instill his respect in me as his safe leader would have been completely ridiculous. In this case, I learned about what was causing the discomfort, but we do not always know their stories - why they are doing something, why they won't do something - but I always give a horse the benefit of the doubt. This gelding needed my assurance at that very moment out on our ride and by dismounting and walking with him, he got it. In no way did I override his natural flight defense system. I was able to achieve my goal of keeping this horse rideable. Lunging later or ever would do very little to instill his respect and trust. I had many safe and happy group rides in the following weeks on this horse. He appreciated and remembered the time and energy I took to walk beside him on the ground. 

If I suspect my horse might be slightly off or lame, I do not lunge and aggravate an already possibly stressed leg or foot. Instead, I trot my horse in a straight line while leading for another person to evaluate. Or, if I am alone, I walk my horse on a hard, flat surface like the driveway. I can hear hesitations and uneven weight shifts in their cadence.

Lunging is sometimes the system employed to "change a horse's mind" or "kindly encourage" a horse to stand at a mounting block or walk on a trailer or "successfully" accomplish some other type of obstacle or impasse. The horse is introduced to the desired goal, like standing still at the mounting block, and if they are unable to accomplish the goal, they are lunged for a few minutes. They are then reintroduced to the obstacle. Every failed attempt elicits more lunging. Lunging is used as a punishment in this scenario and ultimately accomplishes little in the way of working with your horse. A better, more perceptive way to train a horse to want to do what you are asking is to quietly observe and reward any step, however small, in the desired direction. Training by acknowledging good behavior will be discussed at length in a later chapter, but it is important to note here as an alternative to lunging. Lunging appears to "work" quickly, but the results are short lived because punishment induces fear and avoidance, not actual learning.

Lunging occasionally is used to put a little spring in the step of an overly calm horse. At least this makes sense biochemically, but I would never risk the possibility of undue physical and mental stress. If ever I need more impulsion after warm-up than my horse is willing to give, I start to ask myself why my horse is excessively lazy today, or always. Is he getting what he needs calorically and nutritionally for this exercise? Is there pain? Is he the correct build or age for this discipline? Is he bored? Empathy, discussed in the next chapter, reminds me that just because a certain discipline is exciting to the rider, heading to the ring for the fourth time in a week might be enough to make a horse appear dead calm when in reality he is becoming brain dead. Sometimes in these instances, weird physical ailments can suddenly appear. Just like in humans, mental stress can "pop" out in many different ways. Skin problems and tumors and illness can sometimes be traced back to boredom or mental anguish. Lunging to get the adrenaline going for impulsion might just be aggravating a deeper problem. 

Lunging is a practice that has become accepted in the horse world and now the most conscientious horse owners and trainers just do it, often without using empathy to fully understand or think about exactly what it is they are asking the horse to do. Lunging, in my mind, should require a test to be taken every time you wish to lunge. The test would consist of two parts: 1.) A question - Are you (the human) less than five pounds overweight right now? and 2.) Please run in a tiny circle, relative to your body size, for ten minutes (time yourself). Do your ankles, calves, and mind, feel good upon completion? If you can honestly answer "yes" to the these two questions and you still want to lunge, then you have passed the test and have earned the license to lunge this time. This test questions your fitness level and your understanding of just how difficult physically and mentally this task is to a horse. There are many lunge sour horses today who do not look forward to working with their rider in any capacity because they dread the constant lunging that happens when their owner appears in their life. 

Happy Max, OTTB Maximiliano, interested and engaged on a ride in the woods. Here he watches Brian and Maizie discover a geocache hidden under a Palmetto bush in Florida, December 2011.