Training, competing and managing your horse on the hard ground

Whilst it’s not uncommon to experience a lack of rain in the summer, I feel (at least in my area) that we have been having a particularly long run of warm/hot weather and a distinct lack of wet stuff! As a result, the ground is exceedingly hard, and just the horses running in the paddock puts my nerves on edge. It really does sound like they are turned out on tarmac!

Unlike the other disciplines who can compete on all-weather surfaces, endurance relies on extensive trail riding, whether that’s forest tracks, field margins, crossing grazing land or arable fields and some roadwork of course. As a discipline, we are perhaps most at risk to adverse weather conditions than all the others (bar perhaps the cross-country phase of eventing). Many rides are cancelled when the conditions are too wet, but most will carry on when conditions are questionably hard.

It therefore does beg the question whether we need to reduce our distances, speeds, both or even competing all together whilst the ground is so exceedingly hard.

As many of us know, lameness on ride day is usually a result of pre-existing injuries (which have been picked up in training). You’d have to be quite unlucky or riding recklessly to pick up a new injury during an endurance ride and even then, I’d argue that the condition was preexisting and it’s the intensity of competition that’s made it show up.

It’s for this reason that training quality is really the most paramount element of endurance riding in my opinion. It’s the consecutive and cumulative effect of training that conditions our horses for competition but it’s also this that puts our horses at risk. It’s always a balancing act and I don’t think there’s a trainer in the land that would say they are 100% confident that they have this down to a tee – every horse is an individual after all.

That said, we can certainly mitigate risk and reducing concussion by training on hard ground is certainly one.

Some alternative training strategies:

  • All-weather surfaces. If you are luck enough to have an arena then absolutely make use of it. Endurance riders are not famed for their enjoyment of going around in circles but you don’t have to make schooling boring by just doing laps of the outside! Capitilise on this time and have some lessons, work on your horse’s balance, way of going, rideability, etc. I’m a huge advocate for schooling and I would say everyone should be doing this at least once a week. If you don’t have access to an arena at home then consider arena hires or all-weather gallops. You can still have a useful schooling session on the gallops as well as a good workout, try continuous work or intervals.

  • Hills. Working on a hill adds intensity to the session without pounding their legs unnecessarily on firm ground. I’m a huge fan of walking up hills, this has a great benefit on the horses strength vs trotting which would work more on cardiovascular fitness. Make the session more worthwhile by ranging from collected to extended walk, as well as leg-yield and shoulder-in on both reins.

  • Poles. Working over poles is a fabulous way to get your horse using more of his body without adding extra concussion to your horse’s legs. Depending on your surface you can perform these in all three gaits. There are literally hundreds of pole patterns and combinations you can do to keep things interesting. Don’t forget pole work can be done in hand too!

  • Walking. Isn’t there a saying you can walk a horse fit and gallop it dead? Schooling isn’t for everyone and sometimes you really just need to get out for a hack to add variety to your schedule. Time in the saddle is still useful training and helps condition your horse’s legs without extra loading of trot/canter. Long walks offer great bonding time too!

  • New skills – gates, loading practice, tricks. Remember that training an endurance horse isn’t always about the physical training element. Our horses still need to be well rounded individuals and even the most seasoned horse could probably benefit from improving on something. Make the most of your time and see what new skills your can teach your horse.

  • Training schedule. This isn’t exclusive to hard ground but I really feel strongly that quality over quantity is key. Consider your training schedule and whether you’re frequency could reduce in favour of intensity? Would it be better to do 1x high intensity ride followed by 2 days of rest rather than 3 consecutive days of moderate intensity? Which will have most fitness impact but less wear and tear?

Aside from adjusting your training schedule there are few management options to also help better protect your horse from the hard ground as well as help them to recover more swiftly:

  • Ice. Icing the legs makes a huge difference after any training but especially after training on hard ground. I prefer ice boots that actually go in the freezer (I bought a mini-freezer to keep at the yard) but ice boots that go in cold water, and even cold hosing will be more effective than doing nothing at all.

  • Arnica/traumeel/cooling gel. I’m also a big fan of Leovet’s Cold Pack which includes arnica among other ingredients to support further cooling effect however it cannot be used during competitions. I use Traumeel gel instead during vet gates and after rides. I tend to apply the gels after icing.

  • Joint support. I use FlexAbility PROFESSIONAL to support my horse’s joints from the inside out. It’s the highest specification joint supplement available in the UK and has scientifically proven ingredients: Glucosamine, Chondroitin Sulphate, MSM, DHA & EPA (OMEGA 3), Vitamin C, Boswellia, Hyaluronic Acid (HA), Green Lipped Mussel, Rosehip and Collagen Peptides.

You know your horse better than anyone. If they don’t like running on a particular type of ground, there’s a reason and you need to listen to what their telling you. If the ground isn’t right for them, give them a pat and put them away for another day.

Hopefully this provides some food for thought with your training and management style whilst the ground is so hard. Only you can decide if competing is appropriate for your horse and what your season and long-term goals are for your horse. Remember it will rain eventually.

If you need further advice on your training schedule please get in touch with me directly.

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