Sunday, May. 19, 2024

Fit To Fight In The Dressage Ring

Top dressage riders share their techniques for maximizing their horses’ performance through fitness.

In 2005, Michael Barisone watched the Triple Crown races with special interest. He saw Afleet Alex stumble in the Preakness Stakes and still sail past his opponents, and then he read an article in The New York Times interviewing the horse’s trainer.


Top dressage riders share their techniques for maximizing their horses’ performance through fitness.

In 2005, Michael Barisone watched the Triple Crown races with special interest. He saw Afleet Alex stumble in the Preakness Stakes and still sail past his opponents, and then he read an article in The New York Times interviewing the horse’s trainer.

“He said they have the horse out all day long, in the fresh air and sun, and he does trot sets,” said Barisone, a professional dressage rider in Long Valley, N.J. “They made him really fit, and he’s so good because he’s so fit. I realized that’s where I’m failing. When my horse’s adrenaline wears off, then I’ve got nothing.”

Although his top Grand Prix horse, Neruda, is a hot, powerful and energetic type, Barisone started to see that he didn’t have a built, fit structure. So, three years ago, he called three-day eventing guru Jim Wofford for conditioning advice.

“It took six months to get him really fit,” said Barisone of the 13-year-old Dutch Warmblood. “There’s some days when I’m in my hay field, with short stirrups and a snaffle bridle, doing a posting trot for 10 to 12 miles. That’s almost an hour and a half, and I guarantee there’s no dressage rider who does that.”

He believes most riders spend too much time practicing the Grand Prix movements. “I’ve had this debate on numerous occasions. You don’t take a jumper out and jump big fences every day, or take an event horse cross-country every day. But dressage people do dressage every day and ride the Grand Prix movements, except for maybe a few people,” he said.

“There’s nothing a horse hates more than going to the ring and doing Grand Prix every day,” he added. “That’s a good way to get them to not piaffe.”

But building up to 10 miles of trotting wasn’t an easy process. Barisone had also asked his veterinarian, Brendan Furlong, who is the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s three-day team vet, how long a horse should be able to trot at a normal pace.

“He said 50 to 60 minutes, and I had no idea until I posed that question,” said Barisone. “The first day I got about 4 minutes into it, and [Neruda] was huffing and puffing.

“When I did those trot sets, I struggled myself,” he added. “He struggled, and I struggled. But then I got fit, too, and my knees and back and thighs didn’t hurt anymore.”

Barisone said his extra fitness work may or may not be reflected in the quality of his test, but it will affect how well the horse recovers and how well he ships. “I’m mostly concerned that he has the chance to be as healthy as he can be,” he said.

Barisone started his fitness routine with Neruda in the summer of 2005, and he didn’t show that fall. When he came out the next winter in Wellington, Fla., he said, his first three Grand Prix scores were 69.00, 70.00 and 71.00 percent, all earning blue ribbons.

“Everyone wanted to know what had happened,” he said. “He was so much physically stronger and able to carry himself through the test. After the adrenaline disappeared, I still had a horse left.”

With a hot horse like Neruda, it might seem counterintuitive to get him fitter. “But my experience is that it works the opposite way,” said Barisone. “The fitter he is, the better he is able to focus, and he got less stirred up. It was interesting.”

Barisone believes thinking outside the box can help with more than just fitness. He said that if a horse needs a better topline, he doesn’t necessarily develop that in the ring. “You can make them rounder and deeper in conjunction with going up and down hills,” he said.

Looking To The Past

Whether working on conditioning or anything else, Michael Barisone encouraged
riders of all disciplines to look beyond modern amenities to old-fashioned, basic horsemanship. He recalled a “Between Rounds” column in the Chronicle, written by Denny Emerson, which inspired him to go back to basics.

“At the 1974 Eventing World Champ- ionships, where the U.S. team won the gold, they had no Adequan or Legend or shockwave therapy,” said Barisone. “They only had what horsemen had used for 100 years.

“They were so concerned with fitness because they didn’t have these other things to rely on. It really hit home to me that they were that good 35 years ago, and all they had was the basics. I realized that if I’m going to succeed, I’m going to have to think about the way they did it, because they were great horsemen. I think all riders need to think a little more about what riders did back then.”


He emphasized that dressage has become much harder over the years. “Thirty years ago three horses had a decent piaffe. Now 40 horses do. The standard is getting harder, and you have to take the time to make sure you’re making an athlete and making the horse’s job easier,” he said.

When Neruda flies to California for the USEF Olympic Selection Trials, Barisone hopes all the extra work, all the sleep he sacrifices for those extra-long rides, will be worth it.

“I hope someday it will pay off with some great win, but mostly I hope it makes his life better,” he said.

Making Time For Cardio Work

Like Barisone, Debbie McDonald doesn’t school dressage every day. “Depending on the time of year, I
do a lot of riding in a big arena (not a dressage arena). You could fit three dressage rings in it. I do a
little galloping, almost in jumping position, and let them open up a little,” she said.

McDonald, who works each horse six days a week, believes the horses need cardiovascular training in addition to their dressage work, and in addition to the gallops, she adds in trotting and some interval training.

Her average work session lasts 45 to 50 minutes, including walking before and after the training. During
the 40 minutes of actual work, she’s careful to give her horses frequent walk breaks so that oxygen can get
to their muscles.

When at her home base in Hailey, Idaho, McDonald takes the horses on wooded trails that surround the
property. “I try to take them out and walk them all over and get them used to all sorts of things,” she said.

“I try to keep them enjoying their work. If you drill six days a week, it’s hard to keep them wanting to go to work every day.”

When in Idaho, her horses also enjoy turnout. “They go out regularly every day and get to be horses,” she said.

When she’s on the road, however, McDonald said that trails with good footing aren’t available, so the
horses go on the walker at least once a day for an hour. “It gets them out of the stall in the afternoon,” she said. On Sundays, they have the day off from riding and get on the walker twice.

But she warned against getting a horse too fit. “That’s not always in the horse’s best interest either,” she said. “I’ve seen people on their horses an hour or 1 1⁄2 hours before their test, in scorching heat, and I think that’s totally wrong. I give my horse 30 minutes [of warm-up at a show], and 10 of that is walking. I want a routine where the horse doesn’t have to be ridden so hard to spend hours on his back before going down the centerline.”

McDonald believes that there’s numerous ways to physically prepare a horse, and almost every rider will have a different system. “I’ve been fortunate enough to get the job done doing what I do,” she said. “Whatever works for your team and your horses.”

Keeping The Brain Fresh

Sue Blinks, of Mt. Kisco, N.Y., works her international-level horses in some way seven days a week.
She schools each horse for one hour in the morning, riding five times per week in the ring and two days a week doing some sort of physical exercise out of the box, in a field.

“I do some variation on the theme, working cardio but not doing the hard things. That keeps the brain fresh but still gets in fitness work,” she said.

Each horse also gets out a second time per day, for a 30-minute walk hack. “It’s been my feeling that with that extra walking, you come out 50 percent of the time [that you are on their backs] to just let them enjoy the birds and the view. I think the horses look at it that way, rather than, ‘Here they come with the saddle again.’ That way some of the time they are being ridden it’s fun—you’re on the buckle, powerwalking,” she said.

“I’ve always had the experience that if you work a horse according to his job, then with that extra walk, they are always fit enough to do their job, and they’re fit enough on the third day of a Nations Cup,” she added. ”A well-rounded dressage training program does that seamlessly.”

Blinks also values turnout time for her horses “when it’s a reality without undue risk.” Most of her horses she’s had since they were young. “They’ve been taught to go out and eat and roll, not run,” she said. “By the time they’re doing Grand Prix and are valuable, they understand that.”

If a horse can’t be safely turned out, she makes sure it spends at least one hour handgrazing.


Blinks doesn’t utilize any special equipment, whether swimming, using walkers or treadmills. “I think those machines are a fantastic way of doing what my walk hack does,” she said. “Hacking is an inconvenience and not a reality in most management systems, but my focus is on small volume and quality. I choose to do it the old-fashioned way.”

Keep Track Of The Work

At his farm in Castle Rock, Colo., professional dressage trainer Grant Schneidman doesn’t have access to the hills and fields he would like to utilize in his horses’ programs, and he offered tips to riders with limited area for riding out.

“I try to vary the routine with trot poles and cavalletti, sometimes give them a day off and just longe,” he said. “I might do trot sets with a horse I’m legging up, if I’m getting it back up to the level of work it was used to doing. But just trotting around the ring dulls them; they will lose sensitivity to the aids.”

As a former international three-day event rider, he has noticed things that riders who are more focused on conditioning take for granted, which he sometimes finds lacking in the dressage world.

“With horses being rehabbed, a lot of riders don’t keep track of how long they’re riding,” he said. “Most will start easy for a day or two and then be right back to work. They don’t keep track of how long they’re trotting or use watches. As a human athlete, I don’t say I’m going to jog for a while; I set 10 minutes or whatever. Some riders get involved in what they’re doing and don’t realize they have
suddenly tripled the work the horse was doing.

“Dressage itself is an exercise program—it’s gymnastics, working out,” he said. “You need a systematic plan for increasing the level of work. You need to keep an eye on the time and use a watch rather than going until the horse is tired.”

He also emphasized not working a horse hard for three or four days in a row. “Make sure you have an easy day in there. You can get carried away when you’re really working on something, and the horse gets muscle sore.”

Some days he focuses more on canter work, for wind fitness, and some days the emphasis is more on piaffe and passage, for muscle/carrying work. “You just have to make it progressive and use some sort of measurement,” he said.

Whether living in Germany, Santa Fe, Calif., or Florida, Blinks said she’s never had access to hills, but she would use them if she did. “I’m a big believer [in hillwork], they’re just not a luxury in my geographic area,” she said.

Personal Fitness

McDonald said U.S. dressage Chef d’Equipe Klaus Balkenhol has encouraged the riders aiming for the Olympic team to undertake personal fitness as well as preparing their horses. McDonald does what she calls “kind of an old lady deal” at Curves.

“It’s resistance training, and you can get as much of a workout as you want,” she said. “You can get a good workout if you put your mind to it.”

She said the system works well for her since she’s limited by former injuries, including neck surgery and three shoulder surgeries, as well as a bad knee. The shoulder and neck injuries require her to be careful with weights, especially when lifting over her head.

“I do as much as I can without flaring up old injuries,” she said.

But she doesn’t expect Hong Kong to be much hotter than the 2004 Olympics in Athens or the 2002 World Equestrian Games in Spain. “They’re not holding classes in the day during the heat,” she said. “In Spain, I rode at midnight. Even if it’s hot, if the sun isn’t bearing down, it’s doable.”

Still, she said she’s modified her schedule to ride Brentina when it’s warmer out rather than her usual routine of riding first thing in the morning.

But she thinks it might actually be an advantage to quarantine before the Olympics in Germany, where the weather will likely be cool, before shipping to Hong Kong. “Sometimes it’s to your advantage to not be in the heat beforehand and come in a little fresher,” she said.

For herself, Blinks does core strength exercises and aerobics in addition to riding four or five horses a day. “I go to a Pilates instructor and have done one-on-one sessions with Pilates,” she said. “Elasticity and core strength is a great addition.” 

Beth Rasin




Follow us on


Copyright © 2024 The Chronicle of the Horse