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Bringing an out of shape horse (and rider) back into work.

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  • Bringing an out of shape horse (and rider) back into work.

    I have just begun to ride dressage. I'm at a barn full of pretty accomplished dressage riders. Just moved last week. I am out of shape, horses are out of shape...it's been about 4 months since I've ridden.


    I have a fatty. Like MORBIDLY obese, prone to having a very weak topline and over muscled neck from the bottom--goes around all hollow on her own. She's IR and just ballooned at the old barn with too much food and little riding.

    Today was the second time I've ridden her this week. I don't want to look like a total idiot....so I'm here for some help.

    At the walk, I can keep her rounded for a few minutes at a time and then let her stretch down. But as soon as I ask her to trot, she gets very hollow.

    In the past, I would trot her that way ANYWAY just to get her moving til she was in a little better shape before I would ask for her to be round, but I know that builds up the wrong muscles initially.

    What would you recommend if one was trying to go down the dressage path? I need to get the weight off of her (she's now dry lotted and can be ridden 4-5 times per week)...so I feel like I NEED to do more than just walk. But I'm not sure what the "classical dressage masters" would say.

    Going to ask trainer same question, but I won't see her til next week.
    A good horseman doesn't have to tell anyone...the horse already knows.

    Might be a reason, never an excuse...

  • #2
    Buddy Roo, Go For It!

    Congrats, Buddy Roo!

    It takes courage to have written what you are going through. it takes time to take the fat off both you and build the muscle. Give yourselves a pat on the back every time you work and skip the bon-bons and dessert.

    Work at the walk, aiming for long and low with soft contact. Practice the feeling of your arms sliding softly along your sides. Think of flexible, fluid elbows that follow the movement of the mouth. Think of the rein being a pole or bar attached to your hand and all the movement comes from your elbows giving and swaying gently back in the horse's rhythm. The contact eventually will stay consistant as you follow with your elbows. This takes a long time to learn, in my experience. It will give you soft "following hands".

    At the same time, your horse needs to develop a marching forward walk. Think you are going somewhere IMPORTANT. You are a man with a mission, intent on delivery. This should help you develop a forward attitude and walk. If you can trail ride, especially on hills, it will help you. Col. Podjasky of the Spanish Riding School took everybody out whenever he got the chance. Pick up the trot and practice transitions on the trail. Up hills gives you more for the time spent if the horse is round. Walk is harder than trot which is harder than canter.

    Most importantly, enjoy yourself! Don't make it so serious that you grind your teeth! If you and your horse are in harmony and relax and enjoy life, it will come much faster than if it is forced. Good Luck! I will be rooting for you!
    Intermediate Riding Skills


    • #3
      "At the walk, I can keep her rounded for a few minutes at a time and then let her stretch down. But as soon as I ask her to trot, she gets very hollow."

      This is an Irish Draught who has been off work for a while; the rider hasn't ridden in four months. The rider is new to dressage.

      How far do you want to go, and how serious do you want to be? Do you want to just have some fun at a lower level at local shows...or in the words of Mcauly Culkin, are you thirsty for more? The Irish Draughts can be incredibly talented in dressage.

      That makes a big difference. To really go for it, you want a very fit horse, even for the lower level work. If you're planning on just taking it easy and having a little fun at the lower levels, the horse needn't be so fit, a little walk trot canter-loping around. To be really competitive and to advance, the horse will eventually need to be quite a bit fitter than that. They have to have a lot of energy and really develop the back and hind quarter to be more competitive.

      People approach this in different ways. Fitting up an Irish Draught can in fact be different from fitting up a lighter horse. Many are easy keepers and hard to get weight off.

      But too... there are different approaches in dressage. A lot of trainers aren't very correct, but they are popular! They DO get the horse to put its head down and in and LOOK the part, but there is not a really correct contact and 'the look' be achieved with a harsher bit and draw reins or similar gear. Just kind of tweak the reins quickly left and right, and cue the horse to put his head down, and go around the ring like a hunter but with his nose in. A lot of people are perfectly happy doing that, but it doesn't lead to progression.

      Many times, when an out of shape horse and rider are new to dressage, the rider will decide to have a lot of riding lessons, 2, 3 or more a week, and let the instructor guide them in how hard to work the horse...and get them back into the routine of riding daily. They'll use lessons both to fit the horse and themselves up, and to learn dressage. In the beginning, the work will include longeing, and a lot of walking, and gradually, more work at the trot and canter willl be added.

      But not everyone will want to do that. What a lot of people would do if the horse was really heavy and they were really out of shape, is take about two months (some would take twice that long) and fit up the horse before having any lessons. That would mean accepting how the horse is going, basically, and just getting them moving.

      However, you have a problem that seems to be bothering you, the inverted position of the horse, so it's a little more complicated. Doesn't sound like you want to ride and fit up your horse while just letting him do something that's the opposite of the riding you have as a goal.

      What I'd suggest is this for a few months. Start getting your horse moving, work with him briefly for 2-3 days in a row, starting with walk work only for a week, and on your horse's days off, give him a good long hand walk, and spend that day taking longeing lessons from a good dressage instructor. You start to get the idea of what to do in dressage, your horse starts to get fit. If you have access to a Eurociser, to trails, to an area to hack, to poles the horse can step over to loosen his back, to a gentle slope the horse can walk up and down on, so much the better.

      It's important to get the weight off, and with the typical 'air fern' ID, that can mean cutting calories twenty five to thirty percent (YES! Hay and grass have calories!) and adding work of a fittening nature. That can mean not just turn out without grass ('dry lot'?) but ALSO reducing hay. For example, if he gets eight flakes of hay a day, he now gets six (25% cut).

      Look how differently a good dressage instructor longes horses, with a contact, and how the side reins are adjusted to provide the horse a point to reach to and meet, rather than just cranking his head in. It's pushing the horse into the bit and bending him that prevents him from inverting, and rounds his topline. Forward, bend a little, forward, bend. Instead of the kind of quick tweak-tweak-tweak of the reins many people do to get a horse's head down, this is correct, and leads to progress.

      With the out of shape horse, I think it's very important to not suddenly start doing a lot of cantering and trotting, but to start with walk work, and gradually add trotting and cantering. With an unfit horse, I actually make out a chart, and COUNT how many laps I do of the ring in each gait, and make a very, very nerdy calendar of how I'm going to gradually increase the work, and stick to it. An unfit horse is easy to injure, so I like to really stick to a program.

      With a light horse, they tend to get in shape rather easily and quickly. You can start cantering and trotting sooner. In 2-3 months, they can be quite fit. I'd suggest taking longer with a heavier type of horse, especially if they are very overweight.


      • Original Poster

        Thank you both for your input! To clarify a few things:

        -I'm out of riding shape, but still running, not overweight, and I don't do dessert.

        -Mare is a 14 3 QH/Morgan/Arab cross. Forward is not a problem. LOL

        -I ride in a simple two piece snaffle and don't really intend to change that. No one at my barn uses a lot of "gear".

        -Her feed is being restricted. She's getting about 1/2 a flake of hay 4 times daily, no grain (the old barn was dumping about 12 lbs of sweet feed in a feeder out in the pasture for all of the horses and this mare was herd boss, so guess who got it? The day I learned this (among other things) I made arrangements to move immediately. Long story. But the diet part is 100% in place right now and she'll be starting on an IR supplement as soon as it arrives.

        -As far as my goals....this mare is a conformational Mr. Potato Head with a heart of gold. She will never be a super fancy mover, but she gives everything her best shot. I started her doing western stuff...have roped off of her, lots of trail riding, got into jumping a few years ago and she is my little BN XC prospect. I do not have "lofty" goals, but I would like to do things as correctly as possible no matter what level I'm riding. I figure that if I'm going to be at a top notch dressage barn with lots of accomplished riders and two great trainers, I might as well do this right!

        I have another mare who I intend to pursue more advanced training with, but the mare in question here is 18, I've had her since birth, and she is safe and fun to ride. Other mare is a sensitive ride and I intend to do more lessons on her than the fatty just because I could really use some eyes on the ground.

        The trainer suggested that I put a few weeks on each before starting lessons...keeps telling me to "Have fun! Get out and ride! Enjoy yourself!" Very "up" barn environment.

        The only person putting any pressure on me is ME. I am an engineer type...I like to do things right but I also want to understand the "why".

        This mare has had an injury to her stifle so longing at this point is a little more risk than I'm willing to take. What I have available:
        -large indoor arena--but I hate riding inside when the weather is nice
        -several open pasture areas--my preference because I can do long lines.
        -outdoor arena--it's a little deep for her IMHO with the stifle thing at this stage in her fitness.

        I do realize that "headset" is a dirty word and I'm not concerned about that aesthetically, she's still driving from behind but I swear to God, her belly is in the way and she just inverts at more than a walk. I'm glad to hear that you both think it's fine to just be working on a correct walk initially.

        Thank you for taking the time to post such thorough comments/suggestions. I really appreciate it!
        A good horseman doesn't have to tell anyone...the horse already knows.

        Might be a reason, never an excuse...


        • Original Poster

          SLC2--I think when I typed "IR" you thought "ID"...IR=insulin resistant (which I know you know) But that's why I was clarifying her breeding. (if you can call it breeding...I call it a whoops!)
          A good horseman doesn't have to tell anyone...the horse already knows.

          Might be a reason, never an excuse...


          • #6
            You're right, I thought it was a 'D'. I need new glasses. No seriously, I do, I've been missing a lot of 'R's' lately. And all the other letters. Anyway, whatever breeding she is, one gets as much out as one puts in. Fitting up horses is hard work, but dressage is basically about muscles.


            • Original Poster

              Originally posted by slc2 View Post
              You're right, I thought it was a 'D'. I need new glasses. No seriously, I do, I've been missing a lot of 'R's' lately. And all the other letters. Anyway, whatever breeding she is, one gets as much out as one puts in. Fitting up horses is hard work, but dressage is basically about muscles.
              No worries...aside from the "forward" issue, I think everything else was on track regardless of breed. I appreciate your input.
              A good horseman doesn't have to tell anyone...the horse already knows.

              Might be a reason, never an excuse...


              • #8
                I think that getting the weight off is key--it's hard on them and likely to result in injury to start asking for more and to start getting really fit until they aren't lugging all that extra gut around.

                It's taken six weeks to get my embarassingly fattie down to a weight where the vet who just left said "he looks really good where he is," and that's with just handwalking and solitary turnout. His diet has been pretty restricted, but I've kept a close watch to make sure he's getting plenty of protein so he's lost most of the big gut without totally losing his topline. (He's recovering from a suspensory injury. And I get start walking him under saddle now! Wheeee!!! I'm so happy!!!)

                It's frustrating to us perfectionists to be waddling around on an overweight horse when the rest of the barn is doing the fancy stuff, but I decided to look at it as perfecting the weightloss and recovery process, and showing off how good we could be at that

                So, the long and the short of it is, if I were you, I'd just tootle around on the trails and in the pastures until you've got an acceptable weight going on, then look at building correct muscle. I would, however, encourage her to not be completely inverted during the weight loss process, but without forcing the issue. You are probably in for a six month deal here.


                • Original Poster

                  Thanks ATR....that's kind of what I was thinking. And I DO get the whole "waddling around on an overweight horse when the rest of the barn is doing the fancy stuff" LOL You said it perfectly. I'm not even CAPABLE of doing the fancy stuff...I was just hoping to TROT! But still, we shall perfect our walk--hey, I hear that's one of the hardest things for dressage! LOL
                  A good horseman doesn't have to tell anyone...the horse already knows.

                  Might be a reason, never an excuse...


                  • #10
                    You might want to ask the same question in the eventing forum. IMO, those guys (and competitive distance riders) do the best job-- the kind that would please your engineer's heart, protect your mare's stifle, and give you a clear plan and project.

                    I think you might have to spend more time walking and trotting that you have considered. That's true because horses lose bone density and strength in their tendons, ligaments and points of attachment to bone. It takes a long, long time to rebuild these. If you skip this step, or go to building muscle before collagen, you create the risk for injury to tendons and ligaments.

                    There's more to this kind of old skool approach to starting horses from nothing. I try to remember that race horses do (or used to) get handwalked. A lot. And their grooms, perhaps, got in shape as a side-effect. For me, this meant that if I wanted to show in May and my beast had had a month or two off during the winter, we started handwalking in February.
                    The armchair saddler
                    Politically Pro-Cat


                    • #11
                      Think: Pilates for her, Pilates for you. And this is going to take time.

                      Hills are great (and you can also walk those hills beside her, doesn't have to be in the saddle!). Get Janice Dukak's book "Pilates for the Dressage Rider."


                      GOOD LUCK!!! And have a blast!!!!
                      a 501(c)3 organization helping 501(c)3 equine rescues


                      • #12

                        At first, maybe in-hand. And then undersaddle.

                        Get a lesson or two or six and have the trainer teach you how to keep her back up while you walk. Then walk.. a lot.

                        She will get fit enough to trot in better carriage this way. Wasted steps are just that, pretty useless, so don't bother.

                        If she walks in a productive way, you will be surprised at how quickly she loses weight and gains fitness

                        And turnout w/a friend who motivates her to move is a good thing, too. Standing in a dry lot eating hay is counterproductive. If she has to do this, at least spread the hay all around the place so she has to walk to get it.
                        "Kindness is free" ~ Eurofoal
                        The CoTH CYA - please consult w/your veterinarian under any and all circumstances.


                        • #13
                          When I started with my horse three years ago he was very out of shape. Being in Illinois hills are sometimes hard to come by. So we started walk - trot for 15 minutes a day and worked up slowly to an hour 6 days a week over 6 months. This may be slow for some people but I was not in a hurry and felt no need to push him. I also found during this time that he got more fussy at the walk and would have a more difficult time pushing from behind unless I had a brisk walk. I was always more concerned about what I felt through the back if the back was loose and flat I was happy at the walk and for a long time just let him reach forward. At the trot I would ask for more contact by picking up my reins slowly and always being careful to have a well established outside rein and bending my inside rein before the transition to trot. And at the trot I was more concerned about what I felt through the back. Is he flat to slightly rounded if so I would keep everything the same. If he went hollow I would make sure that my hands have not dropped ( I am prone to doing that) if they have I fit them. I they have not I give a half-halt and open my outside rein slightly in till he reaches to the bit. But our biggest obstacle is me letting my hands dropping below the bucking strap and bracing. It's a funny habit that I have picked up along the way but I have worked really hard on it and it is getting better.
                          Life's a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.
                          -Auntie Mame


                          • #14
                            Trail rides are great--if she is that unfit, a 30 minute walk on a loose rein in the pasture is a place to start. Poles will help her drop her head. You can ask for some round and stretching, but take it easy--if she's mega fat, just get her going, period. Fat off, then muscle on.


                            • #15
                              I actually avoid ups and downs and uneven ground at above a walk if a horse is really unfit. If there's a place where they can walk outside of the ring, that's often ok, but I'd be more hesitant to trot and canter a very unfit horse on hills and uneven ground - if the horse was on stall rest for an injury of the leg, I'd be hesitant to try and fit him up on unlevel ground - IF the nature of the injury suggested caution was necessary. When they're unfit, their legs and tendons and bones and ligaments also are not in condition and they have a much bigger chance of getting hurt. I stay in the ring on level ground until they are fit enough to withstand a little up and down and working on a little uneven ground. I know, I know, someone is going to get all huffy and say I 'stay in the sandbox' and don't believe in doing good, natural things with the horse and am one of those horrible riders who doesn't get out of the ring. I'm not saying that. I'm saying with a horse that is completely out of shape and soft in the leg, or rehabbing from a tendon/leg injury I'd be a little bit careful to start.