This might sound like an odd question but let me explain why I’m asking it.
A paper presented at a conference on Equine Sports Medicine and Science highlighted how short most dressage schooling sessions are. The majority only last around 45 minutes which is considered insufficient time to include an adequate warm up, followed by the actual training work and a period of cooling down.
If you assume 20 minutes for warming up, a cool down of 10 minutes and a work period of 30 minutes then the total length of time for a dressage specific training session should be at least 60 minutes. In fact, the researchers recommended that elite dressage horses needed 90 minute training sessions incorporating 30 minutes of warm up to ensure the full work capability of joints and tendons. They also suggested that training 2-3 times per week in 90 minute sessions was as good as, or perhaps even better than daily training sessions for developing and maintaining dressage specific skills. Replacing a schooling session with fitness training not only provides health benefits for the horse it also translates into better dressage performance by increasing the horse’s ability to work harder for longer.
So, what does a well structured schooling session look like?
The first phase is the warm up starting with an energetic walk, followed by a slow trot and then a gentle canter. This helps to ensure:
an increase in body temperature which widens the blood vessels and makes it easier for the heart to pump blood around the body.
more oxygen carrying blood is taken from the lungs to the muscles to be used for energy production.
flexibility in tendons and ligaments by gently warming them up and increasing their elasticity thereby reducing the risk of injury. (This is the difference between the stretch on a cold rubber band versus the stretch on a warm one).
Once you’ve completed 5-10 minutes of active movement (up to 20 minutes in cold weather) then you can move on to dynamic suppling which reduces tension and resistance in the muscles and connective tissues. Dynamic suppling involves rotating the joints through their range of motion as a result of movement. Exercises that have a dynamic suppling effect include:
Turns, circles and leg yielding to increase lateral (side to side) flexibility.
Allowing the horse to stretch the neck down and out to encourage longitudinal (back to front) flexibility.
Walking and trotting over raised poles to promote flexion of the hind limbs.
Your horse is now warmed up and ready to progress into the work stage of the schooling session. The focus here is on skill and strength training. This means teaching the movements that are required at the level you’re competing at as well as developing the strength needed to perform those movements. Dressage requires strength in the form of muscular endurance. Building muscular endurance allows your horse to carry more of its weight on the hindquarters for longer without getting fatigued. A great exercise for developing strength in the hindquarters, back and abdominal muscles is riding transitions within and between paces.
Once the work phase is complete it’s important to undertake a period of cooling down. This involves 5-10 minutes of slow trot / active walking around the arena to encourage a gradual redistribution of blood flow from the muscles and help remove waste products like lactic acid from the system. You can continue your cooling down routine back at the stable using manual stretches, massage or grooming to relieve any remaining tension and reduce post exercise muscle soreness.
What about those of us with limited time?
If you only have 30 minutes available to school your horse aim to do 5-10 minutes of active movement, followed by 10-15 minutes of dynamic suppling exercises and finish with 5-10 minutes cooling down time. Suppleness enhances the horse’s ability to bend, maximise stride length and increase the amount of crossing in the lateral movements (shoulder in, travers and half pass) so this time will not be wasted.
The take home message
Whilst you may not currently be training a top level dressage horse, it’s worth bearing in mind the key principles raised by this research and ask yourself the following questions:
Have you included enough fitness work in your weekly training plan?
Are you doing dressage specific training more than 2 or 3 times per week?
Do you have a warm up phase of 10-20 minutes in each schooling session and a cool down period of at least 10 minutes?
Interested in finding out more about dressage specific training try Training Strategies for Dressage Riders by Charles De Kunffy. If massage and exercise therapy is more your thing then The Injury Free Horse by Amanda Sutton may be of interest.