Training a Happy, Willing Athlete — Avoid Overworking

Myth: A horse needs to work on the test movements / strengthening exercises at least 5 days a week or he won’t advance.

Truth: Horse muscles, like human muscles, need time to REPAIR between work sessions. That is why you should alternate strength building days and stretchy loose days or vary your work with hacking out or other activites to help the horse build proper muscle while maintaining a fresh attitude toward work.  Trot poles, cavaletti and small jumps can be used to vary the work, too.

Remember, very few horses have a bad personality.  They are trying to tell us something with their behavior.  We need to listen to them.  Horses don’t have an “attitude problem,” they are probably in pain or confused.

From the book Balancing Act by Dr. Gerd Heuschmann:  “Every trainer and rider should be aware of the fact that a young horse, especially, is likely to experience muscle soreness the first or second day after a strong training session. It would be counterproductive to ask the horse for another intense training session during this period of soreness. Recognition of the horse’s discomfort may be evidenced by specific signs: stiffness, unrideability or resistance. If you attempt to modify the horse through force and roughness when he exhibits such signs, you are likely to hurt him! Physical stiffness particularly leads to chronic tension, nervousness, and permanent resistance in horses with a strong personality.” (Bold font mine.)

Dr. Heuschmann specifically mentions young horses but this applies to ANY horse. Muscle soreness can occur at any level of training. It is worth repeating that Dr. Heuschmann believes that overworking a horse or working a horse who is muscle sore can lead to CHRONIC TENSION and PERMANENT RESISTANCE — especially in horses with strong personalities. If your horse is resisting, don’t assume it has an attitude problem. See a vet to rule out physical issues, including being overworked.

In an article from, Sue Dyson, MA, VetMB, PhD, DEO, FRCVS, and head of Clinical Orthopaedics at the Animal Health Trust in Newmarket, England, says “Finally, trainers and riders need to be on the constant lookout for early signs of lameness … in order to treat the condition as soon as possible. While this might be a limp, it might also be much more subtle. A change in performance, saddle asymmetry, a resistance to working in a certain direction or on a certain rein, tension in the back, fighting with the bit — these could all be signs of lameness.” Read the whole article at Creating a Sustainable Equine Athlete By Christa Lesté-Lasserre • Nov 23, 2012 • Article #30905.

From the book Dressage in Harmony by Walter Zettl:  “I had to laugh when a student told me how the horse had done something wrong on purpose. A horse will never do anything on purpose . . . But the horse has a quick instinct for self preservation, an unbelievably good memory for good things and even more capacity for remembering bad things.”

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