Top human athletes often work on a rigorous cross-training schedule. They devote themselves to their own specific sport, but also branch out to improve muscle strength, endurance, coordination and overall soundness. Horses can benefit in the same ways.
Some horse enthusiasts are already experts at cross-training. Horses working towards national breed club versatility awards may train in both Western and English pleasure, as well as pleasure driving and halter; however, hardcore cross-training branches out even more.
The goal of a cross-training program is twofold: you want to improve your horse’s fitness—both muscle and bone strength, as well as stamina—and provide your horse with some great mental stimulation.
Bones are dynamic tissues; they remodel and change throughout your horse’s life. Even with these changes, repeated stresses can weaken and damage bones. Changing activities can shift the stresses on your horse’s bones and will help to keep bones healthy and strong.
To compete in a specific sport, your horse will have to do a fair amount of homogenous training, repeatedly pushing the same physical aspects of his body. Think of doing jump-grid training for your open jumper. That is a lot of jumps! Yes, you can keep heights lower for much of the training, but your horse is still stressing the bones and tissues in pretty much the same way each time he jumps.
Now, throw in some dressage work. Dressage has become very popular as a cross-training sport. There is heavy emphasis on flexibility and coordination. Your horse will have to learn to both stretch and flex, working on extension and collection. Those skills and muscle memory can be very helpful for a jumper. It also shifts the endurance and stamina work over to a different set of muscles—or at least muscles being used in a slightly different way. Bones and joints will be stressed in different ways as well.
For most equine sports your horse will also need some endurance and stamina. Even if you just show in pleasure classes, if your horse has three to five classes a day, that is a fair amount of work combined with the stress of being at the event. By the end of a weekend or week of showing, your horse will be exhausted. You could simply build up stamina by doing more and more ring practice. That gives your horse the same physical stressors but does not give him any mental relief.
Changing the tack you are using will also influence different muscles and joints on your horse, and consider a dressage saddle versus a Western saddle—new muscles and joints in your body will be getting a workout too!
Think of a horse’s natural state. The horse is outside, not in a stall or confined in a small paddock. He can run, trot or walk at will. The terrain will vary with ups and downs, creeks and rivers may cross his path, as well as fallen logs. The world around him changes every day with the changing seasons and new challenges.
Almost all horses will benefit from doing some quiet hacks and trail rides. A trail ride is easy on their joints and good for them mentally. By including hills and some water work, you add new physical stressors. Most horses will splash in a pond or even take a swim at the beach. Swimming is great for building up muscle without stressing joints unduly.
If you don’t have access to trails, at least consider working your superstar on some trail class obstacles. Carefully picking his way through poles on the ground helps your horse with coordination. Walking over a small raised bridge will test his mental capacity as well as his muscles. Throw in some games. Your grand prix dressage horse might find it fun to run or at least trot a barrel pattern. The same is true of your mellow Western-pleasure mount. Try out the new sport horse soccer. You may find yourself with a new equine-oriented addiction.
Horses are aware of and stimulated by any changes in their surroundings. Think of how your horse spooked when the tractor at the stable was moved from one field to another! Since mental strength and stability are important for your competition horse, vary your routine on occasion. Change where you work your horse. Even switching back and forth from an indoor arena to an outside ring will give your horse some variation in sights, sounds and footing. Add interesting items to your usual training areas: a balloon tied to the fence or a couple of large rubber balls in the ring can stimulate your horse.
While not specifically sport cross-training, consider trying some clicker work with your horse. Many horses pick up tricks quickly and seem to thrive on the mental stimulation. Training some simple behaviors and tricks can be especially helpful if your horse is on a rehab program and has limited physical activity. Mental workouts can help with boredom and destructive behaviors, too.
From your horse’s perspective, the more you can round out his training, by providing varied physical and mental stimulation, the sounder he will be. The term “ring sour” comes from horses that no longer enjoy competing. With some effort on your part, you can keep your equine partner happier and healthier with a cross-training program and some imagination.