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Intermediate Riders’ Greatest Challenge
Preparing your horse for competition

The show season is upon us and intermediate riders are faced with a number of challenges as they perfect their performance of a variety of movements. However, their greatest challenge may be learning how to prevent injuries to their horses.

Horses belonging to novice riders may not be so injury prone as they are often masters of their riders, rather than the other way around. Those expensive horses ridden by top-level riders are, also, less liable to be injured as they are in perfect condition and their riders are aware that one thoughtless mishap may undue years of meticulous preparation.

However, as intermediate riders develop their skills, repetitive jumping, sliding, spinning, lead-changes, etc., can take their toll on equine partners. Activities that are performed over and over again cause muscle tension and exhaustion and can lead to season-long or even permanent injuries. Continual pulling on a horse’s mouth also creates pain, muscle-tension, and resistance as the horse attempts to find relief from the discomfort.

A spectacle at a local hunter-jumper show last year was a typical example. A rider who was determined to win the show’s high-point award entered approximately 16 classes. She and her horse entered their first class at 7:30 a.m.. Although they had a half hour lunch break, by 2:00 p.m. her horse was exhausted. The rider began using her crop more and more to encourage her horse over fences. Finally, her horse began knocking down one fence after the other as he ran through the jumps. His legs were too tired to take one more jump. I do not know if he suffered any long-term physical injuries, but, he quickly learned the art of not jumping. Months of jumping practice were washed down the drain.

Here are some things you can do to prevent injuries to your horse:

During practice sessions:
• Realize that, although humans may need hundreds of repetitions to learn a movement, horses need very few.
• When you groom, give your horse a massage and gently stretch his limbs to prepare for the work ahead.
• Allow your horse to warm-up at a relaxed walk for ten minutes, before you ask for more demanding activities.
• Learn to use your weight aids instead of attempting to turn or collect your horse by pulling on the bit.
• Short practice sessions several days a week are better than one long session.
• Mix it up! Don’t drill a movement for minutes, hours, and days at a time. Work on several different movements, some that you and your horse do well, some that you are perfecting, and some new movements so that training sessions are interesting and you are not putting too much continuous pressure on one part of your horse’s limbs. Change it up every minute or two.
• Build your horse’s endurance up gradually.
• Don’t be in a hurry to collect your horse. Collection is at the top of the training scale. First teach your horse to perform a relaxed, on the forehand, rhythmic, walk and trot. Then use spirals, transitions, and lateral movements to gradually build up your horse’s ability to carry weight on his hindquarters. That is true collection; it comes naturally.
• Keep your horse’s confidence up! Reward him for the smallest efforts. Do not find fault with him for not making perfect movements or he will quit enjoying the work and become tense.
• Work in five-minute blocks: five minutes of work than at least a minute of rest.

Horse shows:
• Only expect your horse to perform half as well in the show-ring as he does at home.
• Warm your horse up gently; do not wear him down before your competitions.
• Those five to fifteen minute canters in large hunter classes can be grueling for the best of horses. If your horse becomes exhausted, don’t be embarrassed to quit the class and give your horse a break. Your horse is more important than any ribbon.
• Do not rely on your crop. Crops leave mental as well as physical bruises. If your horse begins refusing jumps, he has endurance or training problems or is sore. Finish by asking him to do something easy and leave the arena.
• Whether you are practicing at the barn or competing, always end on a good note. Let your horse feel proud of his accomplishments. Otherwise he will feel tense when you ask him to participate the next time.
• Remember tension and exhaustion are major causes of horse injuries!

In this age of one-size-fits-all, it’s important to remember that every horse is an individual. When your ride, only you can feel whether or not your horse is comfortable, tense, sore, or exhausted. As a rider, is your responsibility to listen to your horse and make sure that your activities do not injure him.

Chris Forté is the owner of the Equine Behavioral Health Resource Center. This article was first printed in the Equestrian Connection: the Pacific Horse Advertiser, April, 2013.

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