Horse Cross-training Success

By Terry Golson

The quarantine break of 5½ weeks gave me the incentive to get serious about doing cross-training with Tonka. When you keep your horse at a boarding barn that has an indoor arena and limited trails, it’s all too easy to stay in the ring. But after a month of total horse inactivity I was more than ready to get back in the saddle and see more than the walls of the arena. Tonka was, too. He also needed the conditioning that getting out provides. Different footing, even going from the indoor dirt and rubber surface, to the deeper outside sand arena, helps to build muscles and strengthen tendons and ligaments. Better than that is to ride out on the trails. Dr. Hilary Clayton, a leader in horse fitness, recommends schooling in a ring only every other day (hear an interview on the Dressage Radio show here.) Jec Ballou also says to get outside. If you don’t have trails, at least find some hills (even if it’s a ditch or driveway) and make use of ground poles. Tonka and I have been doing all of that.

Here’s what we did last week:

Monday: Trot and canter sets in ring.

I’ve been using a timer on my watch. Cantering is the only gait that tones the thoracic sling (that’s the muscle group that holds up the horse’s belly.) Because it’s his weakest gait, it’s one neither of us have enjoyed doing much, and so I confess to avoiding it. Now I set the timer and keep going around. I don’t care about form, we just have to get through it! I started with 1.5 minutes. Two weeks later we were up to 3 minutes and having a good time doing it.
Tuesday: Day off to rest after having a rabies shot Monday afternoon. Tonka always has a reaction. This time his legs swelled up a tad.
Wednesday: Trailered Tonka to Turtle Hill (my home, a half-hour drive from the barn.) Went for a 5.3 mile, 2-hour ride on the trails off of our property.

Thursday: Trailered 15 minutes to ride with a member of a group that I’ve joined – Maine Mounted Search and Rescue. Monica has a young Arabian named Rocky that needs to get trail miles on him, and he needs a calm horse to do it with. Tonka is just the guy to help out. We rode a little over 2 miles through her hilly trails in the woods. Tonka likes to be in the lead, but a few times I had him follow Rocky. Tonka wasn’t happy about it, but did it. It’s good for him. Tonka had a nice graze on their lawn after the ride. New trail. New friends. New grass. A good day.
Friday: A jumping lesson. The first one since March! Tonka enjoyed himself immensely (more on this in another post.)

Saturday: Trotted and cantered over poles in the arena.
Sunday: Another visit to Turtle Hill. This time I stayed in the field and on the short wooded bridle path. Added a little trot and canter to the mix.


All of this has been good for Tonka’s body as well as his mind.

Here is Tonka back in January, struggling to stay up, both physically and mentally, at the canter.


Here he is in Friday’s jumping lesson, 3 weeks after returning from our quarantine break:


Take a look at this lovely balanced and happy canter that Tonka offered in my field.


Getting fit is hard work, but it doesn’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) a miserable grind. Is Tonka enjoying all of this variety, and how much better his body feels? Yes! I can tell because of how eager he is to get on the trailer,


and how he moves in the ring.


My hope is that all of this will lead to continued soundness and longevity. In the short-term, we’re having a lot of fun together.

Do you have a post-quarantine fitness plan for you and your horse? Tell me about it in the comments.

2 thoughts on “Horse Cross-training Success

  • John Schaller

    For me, working on posture goals while walking under saddle is a big part of my own fitness plan, since I am having trouble getting more than 2x/week of more active riding in. For horses, one who’s getting on in years has been seeming quite spry and forward after his time off, so letting him burn off a bit of steam while getting the lower impact and stretching miles in initially will require some focus on my part. Haven’t taken that one out for a hack yet, though.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      I agree that walking is a great time to work on one’s posture. When I ride in a jacket with a zip front, I keep an eye on the zipper. If it bulges anywhere I know that I’m slouching my shoulders. I’ve been thinking about putting a strip of tape on my t-shirts this summer!

Comments are closed.