California Riding Magazine • June, 2011

Ask Charles Wilhelm
How Much Exercise Is Enough?

Question: I would like to know how much time to spend exercising or training my horse Some people have told me to work him only a short time and others have said to ride him into the ground. I would like to know how much time is enough?

Answer: This is an excellent question but the answer must come from you. Each horse is different. It depends on the age of the horse, the physical condition, where the horse is at in his training and his personality. By personality I mean his emotional level. Is the horse flighty or calm, willful or compliant? These factors determine how quickly the horse can learn.

Working your horse until he breaks into a sweat doesn't mean you have ridden him into the ground. Hard riding without a thought out method or goal is riding a horse into the ground. That accomplishes nothing and there is usually some negative emotion at work. Running a horse up a hill when the horse is out of shape is running a horse into the ground. If you are working your horse just to wear him out, that is the wrong approach. A horse can be soured by being run into the ground in that way. The length of the lesson must be tailored to your horse. The number one consideration is your safety followed by the safety of the horse.

When we work a horse here at the ranch, we try to work through the issue until we can see a significant change, meaning a breakthrough, a definite improvement from the previous behavior. We warm the horse up first with ground or in-hand work to get the horse listening and responding. Once we get into the saddle, we continue the warm up using suppling exercises for the neck and shoulders. These exercises help to keep the shoulders upright and help the horse to be balanced. After this we hone in on the problem or issue.

For example, a horse has been performing well at the trot but drops his shoulder and turns too quick when put into a canter. The shoulder must stay upright and not dropped. Or, a horse is heavy on the forehand. The horse must learn to come up under himself. These may be long-term, chronic issues. Depending on the horse, I may work on an issue for an hour or even two. Some people think that is too long but I believe in stopping when I see a significant change in the horse. It doesn't have to be perfect. Nevertheless, I want to feel the shoulder more upright and not dropping as radically. Both of these horses must be coming more from behind to support the upright shoulders.

If you stop the training without seeing a change in the behavior, you are approving the behavior and teaching the horse that the behavior is acceptable. Where you leave off at the end of the lesson is where you are going to start the next time. In the long run, it is easier on you and the horse to get the change initially. It doesn't have to be a huge change but it must be a significant change. You will not get the behavior totally changed in one session but you need to see some change. Then come back the next time and reinforce the learning.

Stick With It

Whether you are training a young horse or you are re-schooling an older horse that has developed bad habits, it may take weeks or months to reach the level of performance you are seeking. It is good to work a horse several days each week but you must determine the amount of time to spend in each lesson. I have had horses that are easy to work with and I see a significant change in the behavior almost immediately. That doesn't mean the problem is fixed forever. I work on the issue again the next day. I may need to spend thirty minutes a day for several days.

There is nothing wrong with taking a break during the lesson to let the horse relax, calm down and air up (catch its breath). I consider this "think time" for the horse. A quiet few minutes will allow the horse a chance to settle and process. You can stay in the saddle and just let the horse walk around or stand still. I have found that horses do process. The second or third time around, their willingness improves. The concept is to get the horses' mind engaged so that learning can occur.

All training is based on foundation blocks of learning. I always start with the basic foundation skills and build. When I teach a horse to trailer load, I complete all the related ground work exercises before I go near the trailer. I make sure the horse is respecting my space, listening and paying attention to me. The horse must respond to my forward cue by going over poles and tarps, objects that are scary like a trailer. I spend a long time ground schooling but when I get to the trailer, I may spend only 15 minutes working with the horse until he walks in. This is because I laid the basic foundation by doing the ground work.

Another thing to keep in mind is that we need to make sure the problem is a training problem and not health related. I will usually have the chiropractor or the dentist look at a horse to make sure the issue is training and not a physical problem.

It is important to learn to ride correctly and not create problems. One of my clients who has ridden for years, recently told me it is very hard work to learn to ride correctly. Old, bad habits are hard to break. When our muscle memory causes us to move incorrectly, we need to really concentrate as we ride to create correct habits. Also, when we ride improperly, we are actually schooling the horse to perform incorrectly. This doesn't mean you have to be a crack rider. It does mean that you need to teach your horse to be obedient, to be between the reins, to be elevated and use himself correctly, in other words to come from the rear. Think about your time and plan for the work out.

  • Make sure your horse has a training need and not a physical problem.
  • Create a game plan.
  • Give the horse short breaks.
  • Try not to quit until you see a significant change. Be prepared to spend the time it will take. That can mean 20 minutes or an hour and a half.

When you get a breakthrough, stop. You will be starting the next lesson at the point you left off and not from the beginning.

God bless,

Charles Wilhelm