View Full Version : Fitness of the dressage horses?

Aug. 14, 2008, 03:33 PM
Just asking. From what I have seen so far it seems to me that a lot of these horses are not really that fit. I know that they are probably strong, but I think stamina was left out of the preparation equation. Especially considering the fact that heat and humidity were known factors for these Games.


Aug. 14, 2008, 04:08 PM
I'd like comments on that too from people closer to the action - armchair athletes aside -

It seemed to me that the horses did not look "fit" in the normal sense of the word. They looked overweight, or chunky by build, and their stomachs were not tucked up. The test is long and requires sustained muscular energy and in the heat and humidity I can see, in the collected movements, that breathing would be hard - just struck me. Not meant to be a criticism, just a question, like the OP.

Does a GP dressage horse ever get to work out at the strong canter or gallop, or do hills, etc?

Aug. 14, 2008, 04:22 PM
Nothing but an armchair rider here. But the GP dressage horses are FIT, particularly strength wise, but also cardio. If you were to poke them, they'd be very solidly muscled. GP is very taxing, and straight dressage people tend to warm up a lot longer than, say, eventers, so horses come into the ring later in their workout. They do tend to be chunkier by build (but not overweight...their ribcages are really widely sprung) and a large number of them were hanging out in Europe this summer with less heat and humidity.

I think it was the commentator during the eventing mentioned that the horses' body temperatures - a measure of exertion - were higher after dressage than XC. And if that's true in super-fit event horses doing a 3rd level test, I can only imagine what doing a GP-level test is like. Plus, the GP test is about 8 minutes long, as long as a XC course.

I wouldn't consider huffing and puffing as a sign of lack of fitness, rather as a sign of the extent of the exertion. Also, the regular 'snorty' sort of breathing is a sign of relaxation (the rate of breathing more a sign of exertion). The two GP horses I've had the pleasure of knowing were schooled about 1 hr/day and taken out for a long walk for another 30-60 minutes/day, six days a week, plus a half day of turnout. Some riding/schooling on trails and hills - for both mental and physical reasons. No real galloping, not sure if that would be the right sort of conditioning for a dressage horse? I'm no expert.

Aug. 14, 2008, 04:26 PM
That's an amusing suggestion.

The horses were making a noise when they breathe because they were excited and up in the arena. I also think there was the heat.

The key is that their breathing was in rhythm with their strides. As long as the breathing and the strides match rhythm, the horse may be working hard, but is not working under duress.

There can be, however, a higher pitched or louder breathing sound that even in rhythm is of concern. I only heard that with 1 horse, and that horse has had a tieback surgery and may always make something of a noise. You would need to know in more depth how the horse sounds every day when it comes out and works to be really sure what was going on.

I think people here would be absolutely appalled at what most of the grand prix horse's exercise and work program is like. They do an immense amount of very hard work. They work up to it gradually, over years, of course, but they work extremely hard.

When I got my lease horse, he was so fit he would climb the walls if he wasn't worked, and i mean his a** worked off, every day. He needed an hour a day of walking, turnout sufficient for him to have a real wail, AND an hour of work. 6 days a week, or he would hit the ceiling, that's what he was doing where he came from. And he was a third level horse.

I laughed so hard I practically busted a gut, comparing how that horse was worked to the way the horses are worked at some of the local/regional barns I've been at. Those guys are serious how they work the horses. The horse had muscles on his hind end like granite.

When we looked at horses in Europe, there was none of this, 'let's give Sparky the day off, I want to go shopping'. It was a very serious business and all the good horses worked very hard.

I was told by a GP trainer that my horse had to be capable of cantering and trotting, non stop, in collection, with going from ext to med to collected gaits, doing changes, pirouettes, half steps - continuously, what he referred to as 'riding your a** off', for 45 minutes without a walk break, 5-6 days a week...to do third level....and as she said, 'I work my GP horses harder than that'. They all got galloped weekly and most were worked twice a day, not once a day.

You do see some people working them lightly, but it's usually an 'iffy' horse they're trying to 'spare' to keep it going for a given competition...competitions....

If you see a fat unfit dressage horse, it's usually because they are being ah...'spared'. There are a few horses that are just tubby and are fine, sound and fit, but they have muscles on them, muscle around the stifle, muscle on the back, muscle on the top of the shoulder...

I used to work for a trainer whose GP horses were not fit - he barely ran thru the movements at a very slow gait with very little energy - no extensions, no mediums, and very little work on pirouettes - each horse was ridden for about 15-20 minutes 3 times a week, no longeing, no redoing things, very rarely turned out, usually hand grazed. Both horses had leg problems and it was just kind of 'on a wing and a prayer' all the time. He used to be the 'master of keeping going'. He used to get out of the truck at the show grounds, go walking around and see if the drug testers were there, and if they were, come back and scratch the horses and go home....

Aug. 14, 2008, 04:28 PM
Does a GP dressage horse ever get to work out at the strong canter or gallop, or do hills, etc?

You should watch Jan Brinks train. Most of his stuff is done in trails and big fields. very little arena work. Kyra K talks alot about it too. How you have to combine strength training (which can be considered collection work in and out of gaits) then cardio for horses.
Anyway, yes........ its a big part of it with some.
But then again, this is different from race horse fit (lean), so I think that is why some think they are "fat."

Aug. 14, 2008, 04:29 PM
They're fit, just not endurance fit.

Aug. 14, 2008, 05:10 PM
Okay, but considering the heat and humidity...do you think anyone would have upped the aerobic component of their fitness routine to build stamina? Or if "sparing" the horse is an issue, do any use swimming to build stamina?

Aug. 14, 2008, 05:32 PM
I don't think you can compare the 'stamina' without knowing the *recovery rates.*

A very fit dressage horse might be soaked and blowing at the end of a test, and might have a perfectly normal heartrate and respirations very quickly after. Of course, they have to be cooled... but...

It's different muscle mass entirely. What looks like 'not tucked up' is incredibly well developed abs and loin. Well worked upper level horses develop what we lovingly refer to as 'the FEI bump' behind the saddle--muscles build up. So the more fit the horse gets, the thicker they get. Same for necks. There's a reason Brentina looks like a stallion. ;)

Compare it this way, the dressage horse is more of a wrestler, the eventing horse, more of a kick-boxer. Both are fit, just different *types* of fitness.

Oh, and yes, many dressage horses get out for a good gallop quite regularly. Not all, but many.

Aug. 14, 2008, 08:04 PM
I find it somewhat perplexing that people are asking if these horses are fit. Most of them are worked 2x per day. They are VERY fit. They are on high performance diets and heavy work out schedules. They are huffing and puffing because they have been flown half way around the world to the most air-polluted place they could possibly compete. Add humidity and heat to the mixture after LONG and taxing travel time - and you have horses that are blowing hard regardless of previous work out regiments simply from air quality issues alone. Don't kid yourself.....these riders have prepped relentlessly not only for these games but for regular international competition. You wanna see a horse "blow"??? Check out the finish line of the cross country. Those horses about about to keel over and they are totally fit. GP Dressage - just like GP showjumping and eventing are enormous workouts for horse and rider. Nobody in there is out of shape I would venture to guess....

Gucci Cowgirl
Aug. 14, 2008, 08:49 PM
Also, no amount of cardiovascular fitness can prepare a horse's system for the amount of humidity in HK. (especially when they come from north america or GB, or parts of europe)

You can take a horse as fit as possible, and without a couple months (yes, months) to acclimatize to the change in humidity, and also to recover from the very exhausting trip, they will not come out 100%.

it is foolish to think that just because a horse is reacting to extreme stress, heat and humidity and breaths a little harder, it isn't fit.

those horse are unbelievably fit!

Aug. 14, 2008, 08:59 PM
They were legitimate questions - not foolish - when you want to know something come to COTH and get some answers and some other comments, esp. in dressage.

Aug. 14, 2008, 10:26 PM
I don't know... some of those baroque horses were downright chubby. I mean I appreciate the stoutness of those breeds but they were fat and I agree with whoever posted in the other thread that they were just poor representations of the breeds. :winkgrin:

Aug. 14, 2008, 10:28 PM
If one is used to seeing lighter horses like TBs, the dressage Warmbloods can look pretty heavy and lumbering to the unfamiliar eye. The draught influence is very noticeable in some of the horses, too, and that creates a different look in their bodies and in the way they move. As far as the breathing goes, some would say that the training methods employed by some dressage riders contribute to breathing difficulties--what I have seen at the Olympics with the dressage riders has really made me think about whether the training methods have a negative impact on breathing, but then again, it is ridiculously hot and humid for those poor horses. Another consideration is that some of these horses are much more massive than ordinary horses and are having to cool a much larger body mass in general. It's amazing to me that they are performing as well as they are. Not to mention the general atmosphere that would probably freak me out completely, much less a horse. That alone could make any horse sweat and breathe extra hard.

Aug. 14, 2008, 10:32 PM
...however, since I was in love with Invasor at Athens, it is great that these breeds are being shown at the top level and getting the scores to justify it. Portugal and Spain are proud of their horses - good on them. (Chubby, crests, yes!)

Actually, Cara Whitman commented that Kyra had taken some pounds off Max and that he was going better for it, so that answered some of my question. Bonaparte was my favorite.

Aug. 14, 2008, 10:39 PM
newrider, there is no 'draft influence' in warmbloods. They are not part draft horse and never were. they are bigger, stronger more muscular horses, but draft blood was not used to create that.

Aug. 14, 2008, 10:57 PM
but the blood of agricultural horses was, ie Gelderlander.

Aug. 14, 2008, 10:59 PM
Sorry, I should have said farm and carriage horses rather than draught horses. And I was referring to their roots not recent history of the breeds.

Aug. 14, 2008, 11:00 PM
Even in their 'roots'. No draft horses.

Aug. 14, 2008, 11:16 PM
I guess I am not clear on what differentiates a horse bred for farm labor (look on many of the WB breed sites and this is clearly stated as part of their breeding history) and a draft horse. My confusion probably comes from things like this definition from Wikipedia: "A draft horse, draught horse or dray horse (from the Anglo-Saxon dragan meaning to draw or haul) is a large horse bred for hard, heavy tasks such as ploughing and farm labour. There are a number of different breeds, with varying characteristics but all share common traits of strength, patience and a docile temperament which made them indispensable to generations of pre-industrial farmers. Draft horses and draft crossbreds are versatile breeds used today for a multitude of purposes, including farming, show, and other recreational uses."

The whole point I was trying to make originally is that if you are used to seeing eventing or foxhunting or other more Thoroughbred-type horses, the dressage horses look very different, in part because of their breeding. And because they don't look like they would be able to go on, for example, a four-hour hunt, someone who is not familiar with the high level of fitness required for what they do might look only at the massive bodies that don't move with speed and agility as much as suppleness and power (although they are agile too, it just looks different on an 18hh Hanoverian than on, say, a 15hh Anglo-Arab) and think that the body type indicates a lack of fitness.

Aug. 15, 2008, 12:06 AM
..I got your point!

Aug. 15, 2008, 02:12 PM
Does a GP dressage horse ever get to work out at the strong canter or gallop, or do hills, etc?

I have never been a "dressage rider", just an eventer.. but in my working student days an upper level dressage barn shared the same facility.

I ended up getting a gig working their dressage horses on the gallop track, and out on the hills that we conditioned our event horses on.

So, at least at the barn I worked with, the dressage horses did get hill work, and gallop sets

Aug. 15, 2008, 02:29 PM
The whole point I was trying to make originally is that if you are used to seeing eventing or foxhunting or other more Thoroughbred-type horses, the dressage horses look very different, in part because of their breeding. And because they don't look like they would be able to go on, for example, a four-hour hunt, someone who is not familiar with the high level of fitness required for what they do might look only at the massive bodies that don't move with speed and agility as much as suppleness and power (although they are agile too, it just looks different on an 18hh Hanoverian than on, say, a 15hh Anglo-Arab) and think that the body type indicates a lack of fitness.

Exactly. :yes: A non-horsey person was looking at the GP dressage over my shoulder at work ( :p :eek: :p ) and said, "That one looks really fat. Are they supposed to look like that?" I explained it as the difference between a sumo wrestler and a runner. Both have developed the muscles and fitness they need for their sport, but that the difference in training gives them entirely different looks.

Of course, having said that, I think I'd really rather go out on a cross-country hike with the runner than with the sumo wrestler. :p

Aug. 15, 2008, 03:27 PM
maybe the camera's just adding a couple pounds :D

I think the comparisons of human athletes to eventing vs dressage horses has been amusing, but also not accurate in my sporty mind (no offense).

Maybe comparing them using fast and slow twitch muscle fibers (power vs endurance). My thought is that the eventer needs more slow twitch muscle fibers due to needing energy to get through all the events. I believe show jumpers probably have type IIA (intermediate fast-twitch) since they require alot of power, but also need to go strongly at the same thing for an amount of time. Dressage horses need more fast twitch muscle fibers than slow to power their powerful collections and extensions. They aren't required to perform each movement for too long, though they do need to be able to perform different movements in sequence.

Though the classic slow vs fast twitch muscle fiber uses the analogy of sprinter vs marathon runner as an extreme example, I don't think the horses have that much of a difference between disciplines. I'm not sure if my muscle fiber thoughts are accurate at describing the difference, but it's the first thing that popped into my head while reading this. :)

Aug. 15, 2008, 04:56 PM
Thanks for the info in this thread! I was wondering that same thing, because some of the dressage horses looked really chubby to me. I guess I'm just used to skinny-minnie TBs. ;P

Anyway, a decent amount of good information here. Stuff like this is why I <3 COTH!

Aug. 15, 2008, 05:03 PM
I was glad to read slc's post. At the first barn where I ever took dressage lessons I was surprised to find that most of the riders rode for maybe 15-20 minutes, in the indoor. That was the average length of a schooling session.

Having come from hunter/jumper barns in the "distant" past, I thought those were very short rides, but the norm for dressage riders and horses.

Apparently not.

And, Applecore, I was also glad to read your post! Now I know what shape I'm in--it's not that my tummy's fat, it's that my ribcage is really widely sprung! :winkgrin:

Aug. 15, 2008, 05:14 PM
it's not that my tummy's fat, it's that my ribcage is really widely sprung!


I no longer have cellulite, I have celluheavy!

Aug. 15, 2008, 06:40 PM
In my copy of "My Horses My Teachers" by Podhajsky, he has a series of pictures of Nero, his TB (OTTB?). Beginning of dressage training, six months later, one year later, etc. Granted, Nero never looks like today's WB, but the changes and development of the muscles during training is remarkable. He started out looking like a fresh OTTB. By the last pic, he certainly looked closer to my mental "dressage horse" peg than my mental "TB" peg. Not tucked up at all. Beautifully glowing coat in the last pic at age 20, in grand condition and obviously fit.

Aug. 15, 2008, 09:13 PM
as far as what sort of work they do, I loved the Horse in Sport videos and recently watched them all again. In the dressage video, they interviewed Chris Bartle who rode a horse he had ridden over the Badminton course. He then switched to Dressage, and rode to GP. He rode his horses over whatever he had, jumps fields etc. They also interviewed Anna Greta Jensen with Martzog. She never turned him out loose. No one else was ever allowed to sit on him. I think all that stuff just depends on the individual rider but I feel sorry for a horse who never gets turned out to run and buck and roll.

Aug. 15, 2008, 10:01 PM
Well I may have my facts mixed up. But I remember reading an article about Jan Brinks training facility in Sweden. He has a race track around his property in and I would assume puts it to use. As an aside he trained under Kyra didn't he? M Barisone was quoted in an article as saying that to up his horses fitness level he started doing interval traing and trot sets. I remember it as really long trot sets.

Aug. 18, 2008, 11:45 AM
Well, having seen most of the dressage rides....I stand by my comment that some of these horses would have benefited by being fitter. I do know the difference between dressage horses and eventers. I do know these horses are extremely strong and cardiovasularly fit for normal conditions. I know they work hard and that their muscle mass is different than eventers and show jumpers. I realize they are not unfit chubbies. But I still think that some were clearly affected by the heat and humidity as evidenced by some lack lustre rides.

Some of the horses were prepared differently for these games due to the expected heat and humidity and some others might have benefited from that as well. And for some reason, the stallions seemed the hardest hit.

Aug. 18, 2008, 12:43 PM
but the blood of agricultural horses was, ie Gelderlander.

Yes.... and you hit the bulls eye with this remark. We need these kind of horses to regain a hindleg and a strong back again. To many horses these days look like they are cut in the middle. IMHO a very big mistake of the German and Dutch breeders to leave out this kind of blood. Please bring us back the horse with a strong hindleg and a solid back.:lol:

Back on topic ALL horses didn't perform at their best. And like the Olympic judges stated some days ago, "it was extra difficult to judge all these tests, because none of the horses were in their normal shape"


Aug. 18, 2008, 01:40 PM
I keep hearing how hard it is on our (US) horses with the weather conditions. Except for the extreme pollution we are hotter and more humid in a large portion of this country and horses are training every day.

So now in hind sight was the air conditioned barn and indoor a help or a hinderance to the horses conditioning?