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Conditioning & Fitness: Keeping Leah at the Top of Her Game

A few days ago, one of my Instagram followers, Shannon (@pfeventer), commented with a question regarding Leah’s training and exercise program. She asked about the different types of conditioning, lesson, and workout routines Leah experiences on a weekly basis, noticing her muscular physique throughout my photos. I thought this would be a fantastic topic to devote an entire post to, because keeping Leah in top shape is one of my highest priorities when it comes to being her human!

I like to compare dressage to the building blocks we used to play with as young children. We’d start with a foundational layer, stacking more and more blocks until the tower would get so high, and unstable, that it would tumble down to the ground. This was most likely a result of middle layers being to weak to support the added weight of more blocks. In dressage terms, we begin with a foundational layer, slowly adding more training, knowledge, and strengthening to our horse’s realm. If the horse is not physically fit enough to perform the more difficult movements, things can begin to go downhill, just like when the blocks would fall in our laps.

Does anyone remember the dreaded “run-the-mile” day during elementary school Physical Education? You’d be in the middle of your 5th Grade dodge ball game and then the announcement would come, “Tomorrow is the day when everyone runs the mile!” And the moment of sheer horror would run through you like ice-cold water.

This is how our horses must feel when we ask them to go beyond their level of fitness capability. Only, they can’t have their mom write them a note to get out of Physical Education class.

You can now understand my mild paranoia about Leah’s physical well being. Training at a more advanced level requires a heightened sense of understanding when it comes to biomechanics, stamina, endurance, and muscle strength. Chloe and I have worked tirelessly over the past few months, tweaking Leah’s fitness program to one that has suited her quite well. I’m unsure I’ve ever seen Leah in such top shape, and it is so rewarding to witness, and feel, the fruits of our labor. Please note that keeping the horse and rider equally fit is key to success!

Her canter work is truly becoming one of her biggest highlights.

Having said all of this, allow me to share Leah’s weekly exercise and training routines with you fellow readers, adding a few “takeaway tips” that hopefully you can incorporate into your own riding program. Keep in mind that our schedule does vary and heavily depends on how Leah feels on the given day.

Monday: If you are a The Blonde & The Bay regular, you are well aware that Monday’s are formally known as “AquaPacer Monday’s” around CEC Elite Training. My post detailing this facility and its benefits went viral on our Facebook page, reaching over 1500 people! For those of you that are new to this form of equine exercise, the AquaPacer is a glorified treadmill that fills with knee to chest high water, offering the horse resistance and cardiovascular training. Leah partakes in weekly, 20-minute AquaPacer sessions, working at both the walk and the trot. Because it requires muscle engagement we cannot necessarily reach while in the saddle, the horse is much more apt to use particular areas that have lain dormant. While incredibly low impact on delicate joints, sessions on the AquaPacer produce equal cardiovascular benefits when compared to a normal training session. This asset has been such an influential component to Leah’s strength gain, and its continual results are easily noticed during collected work. Click here to read more about AquaPacer Monday’s.

Takeaway Tip: We are so lucky to have such an incredible mechanism nearby the barn, but for those of you who cannot find a facility that features an AquaPacer, consider another form of muscle conditioning, such as hill work. If you happen to have a pasture with variations in the terrain, use it to your advantage at all three gaits. Hill work is an unbelievable practice to build strength, especially in the hindquarters. Plus, it is a lovely change of scenery from the daily sandbox!

In addition, incorporate frequent cavaletti-pole conditioning into your schedule too, as this is another way to build muscle if your barn does not lend itself to pasture or field riding.

Is our arena pretty or what?

Tuesday – Friday: These four days are usually devoted solely to dressage arena training, from polishing the basics to schooling the collected work. Our lessons are anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes, with only a few short walk breaks in between. As I mentioned before, what we actually focus on during these rides depends on the kind of feeling Leah is giving me through her back and contact. However, we do not school the same movements consecutively. Tuesday happened to be her day off, but for example, this past Wednesday, we pinpointed the flying changes on the long side versus the diagonal, striving to make my aids sharper and more defined. On Thursday, we touched on this particular topic again, but moved onto canter half passes from the rail to the centerline fairly quickly. On Friday, we simply practiced maintaining outside rein connection, and no lateral movements were executed. At the end of our training sessions, Leah and I take mini-trail rides down the main driveway of our barn’s property for cool down.

Takeaway Tip: Leah is incredibly smart, and keeping her mentally fit is even more challenging than keeping her physically fit. I cannot stress the importance of variety enough, and I attribute a large part of her physique to our constant change ups. Think about it – if you train the same movements everyday, you’re using the same muscles repeatedly, never giving other muscles the chance to strengthen. You then risk the chance of behavioral issue development. I won’t snowball into that side topic, but you get the gist. So, my takeaway tip is to always keep your pony thinking! Keep the change coming. Trust me, you can thank me later.

A screen-capture of one of our breezing days. Pats for the pony!

Saturday & Sunday: On Saturday’s, Leah and I usually find ourselves in the jump arena that just so happens to sit cattycorner to the dressage court. Over the past few weeks, we’ve utilized our time in this particular arena to “breeze.” Breezing is a term heard on the racetrack, used to describe working a horse at moderate speed. It can also be referred to “hand galloping.” Leah absolutely loves this particular day of work – I know I have a blast. We begin with our usual warm up routine, which consists of stretchy walk, stretchy trot, leg yields, and a forward, “jumping” canter. We then transition into hand galloping around the perimeter of the ring. Even though Leah is able to kick up her heels just a bit, she must stay round and through her back during the breezing duration. I prefer to lift myself out of the saddle just a bit; riding in a “mock” two point position. I call it mock because dressage stirrups are long and I haven’t legitimately two-pointed in almost a decade. Our breezing sessions have thoroughly increased Leah’s stamina, but I’ll also state that it has significantly strengthened my stamina as well. Which would explain the exact reasons why we resort to this form of cardiovascular exercise on certain days.

And, well, its pure unadulterated fun!

While we do not actually ride on AquaPacer Monday’s, Leah receives an additional two days of no-saddle rest during the week – usually Sunday and the other, again, just depends on her princess mood.

Takeaway Tip: Things you need in order to successfully breeze: a rider, a horse, and an adequately spaced area to ride. It’s simple as pie, my fellow dressagies. If you are confident to do so, I highly recommend taking a spin around your arena walls in a hand gallop. Enjoy yourselves, and let your horse enjoy himself or herself, too. You’ll be having so much fun that you won’t even realize just how great it is for endurance and stamina.

And what you have just witness are the many ways I keep Leah at the top of her game. She’s a magnificent creature, and seeing her in tip-top shape on a daily basis is probably one of the most indescribable feelings in the entire world. Which brings me to my next thought: how I soothe her muscles and combat any pesky soreness that may arise. But, alas, I think I’ll save that topic for another day, and another post!

Special thank you to Shannon for opening up this fitness conversation, too. You go, girl!


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