Vince Lombardi said “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” My Dartmouth wrestling coach had a slogan: “You lose the will to win when exhaustion kicks in.” Veterinarians spend inordinate amounts of time dealing with career threatening or career ending tendon, suspensory and ligament strains and tears. Many high school and college atletes have knee injuries that stop them in their tracks. We know all this. We know that while there are no absolute safeguards against fatigue and exhaustion, and all the various kinds of breakdowns of physical structures, that the fit athlete has a better chance of survival than the unfit athlete.
So it should follow logically that humans who ride have two goals, to make sure they have a truly fit horse, and a truly fit self.
Let`s start with the rider. There are several kinds of fitness, muscular strength, as in the ability to hold together a tough, exuberant horse who`s trying to run flat out on cross country, wind strength, as in the ability to keep up that ability to contain the galloping horse without panting and gasping for breath half way around the cross country course, and what I think of as “tensile strength”, the flexible ability to use the various muscle groups, as in being able to stay in the middle, in balance, of that galloping horse for however long it takes to get around cross country.
Most kids— from, say 15 to around 25 or 30, have an easier time with this than older adults, generally, because of several reasons, one being the general fitness of youth, another, hopefully, less toll of accumulated injuries, and the third, less likelihood of deterioration from a sedentary lifestyle.
Sure, there are unfit, sedentary kids, but there are far more unfit, sedentary adults. The word “sedentary” is derived from the Latin word “sitting”, or “to sit”, and that`s what too many Americans manage to do for too many hours, for too many days, for too many weeks—I could go on, but you get the picture!
So if you are, say, an event rider, and you don`t have the core strength to sit the trot, or the upper body strength to contain a puller, or the wind not to come wheezing through the finish flags, or the tough agility to stay in balance at the gallop, off, rather than on your poor horse`s back, then you need to (gasp! Oh No!) get your butt in gear. Go for walks, sweep the barn aisle, haul hay bales, lug water buckets, jog, go to the gym, join an excercise group, cut and stack brush as you clear cross country trails, rake, set fences, there really are many options.
But you need to decide, because if you choose not to be fit, it`s only fair to both you and your horse that you only compete at very low levels, so neither of you gets badly hurt. It`s easy enough to get in trouble when you are fit, and much more so when you aren`t.
Horse fitness is critical, because horses have big heavy bodies on little, thin legs, and those legs and hooves are exceedingly vulnerable. Go to any race track. See the bright, handsome heads looking out at you over the stall doors. Now, open the doors, and bring them out. Look at their legs from the knees down. Not a pretty sight, is it? That`s what stress and speed does to those unfit structures, just tears them up. Those youngsters didn`t get hours and hours of walking on the trails, to gradually toughen all the ancilary structures, to harden the hooves, to prepare the horse to withstand the pounding.
We all know the saying, at least all but the greenest of us do, that we must give our horse many, many long, slow hours before we give him short fast miles. This means lots and lots of hacking, much of that hacking, initially, at the walk. Then add jogging. Then very gradually add short canters, interspersed with easier work. Take months of time. Be diligent, don`t take shortcuts. This process should be thought of in terms of months, even years, not weeks. Back right off at signs of stress. Then repeat the gradual process.
Some horses, despite all our best, most diligent efforts, can`t handle much fast work. They shouldn`t be gallopers, because they`ll simply get hurt. So it`s also partly a matter of horse selection, this fitness work. Just remember, it takes longer, and it`s a slower process than many riders realize. If you haven`t had much experience getting horses fit, get help from riders and trainers who have. Go slowly. Be responsible. Assess constantly. Become a conditioning guru. It`s a key part of horsemanship.