Designing a Training Program for Your Horse

©Alex Carlton

A correctly structured yearly training plan induces physiological adaptation and allows a horse to peak for important competitions.

At the same time, the proper scheduling of rest and therapeutic interventions reduces the risk of injury. Below I go through some helpful tips on creating a yearly training program so that you can maximize your horse’s potential. At the end of this article, you can print a template for creating your own yearly training program.

There are two main reasons for creating a yearly training program:

  • During the day-to-day operations of a busy stable, it is easy to get caught up on the immediate issues, and to forget the overall goals and what needs to be done to achieve them. Therefore, having a concrete plan allows for a trainer to reflect on a horse’s progress, and to ensure that they have not drifted far off course in executing that plan.
  • At the end of the year, it allows the trainer to reflect on what did and did not work in their program. By comparing months when the horse performed well to the yearly plan, it becomes readily apparent what combination of exercises allowed the horse to realize its’ potential. Conversely, for the months the horse did poorly, results will be at least partially explained by the training during that time (assuming the poor performances were not medically related), and these training practices can be removed from future plans.

Disclaimer: When creating your plan, the goal is not to make a rigid plan that has to be followed mindlessly through the year. Instead, it is meant to serve as a roadmap to a final destination (the goal). Roadblocks will occur along the way (e.g. minor injuries, cancelled competitions) and the best trainers are the ones who identify these roadblocks early, and select the correct detour to ensure the horse keeps progressing towards the goal.

Step 1: Goal Setting

The first step for creating your yearly plan is to determine the goal(s) for the horse and rider. Broadly speaking, there are five goals in the sport of show jumping, which may not be mutually exclusive depending on numerous other circumstances:

  1. Improvement—the primary focus of this plan is to expose the horse to the proper training stimuli and competitions to develop the horse mentally, physiologically and biomechanically for future major competitions in the years to come.
  2. Fun—here the rider’s desires will dictate the yearly plan. Likely the most important factor will be competing in locations that the rider enjoys and at a level that the rider can compete at with little stress.
  3. Money—a balance is maintained between finding competitions that offer the best chance for winning good money while minimizing operating costs.
  4. Points—at both the National and International level, numerous “point ranking systems” exist that aim to determine the best horses in the sport. In many of the points systems (e.g. FEI Longines Rankings), the acquisition of points favors those who compete often. So if acquiring points is the goal, this yearly plan will likely have more competitions scheduled than for other plans
  5. Major championships—these plans are designed to ensure a horse peaks for a few select competitions in a year, and all other competitions are seen as a stepping-stone to reach these goals.

Step 2: Competition scheduling

Once you have a clear goal in mind, it is now time to select which competitions will allow you to realize that goal. If the goal is to peak at a major championship, the schedule will likely reflect careful monitoring of the amount of work a horse does, and will include a few observation events to ensure the horse is on form before going to compete. For reference, the 2016 competition schedule for Eric Lamaze and Fine Lady 5 (2016 Olympic Bronze Medalist) is shown below (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

In Figure 2, I have included an example of a competition schedule for a horse that has the goal of having strong results at three competitions:

  • Wellington, USA in March
  • Calgary, CAN in June and July
  • Toronto, CAN in November

Figure 2

Step 3: Other Important Dates

At this point, it is also important to note any important personal dates that may influence when a horse can compete. For example, there is no point scheduling a competition if a rider has to attend a wedding or during a holiday. In Figure 3, shaded blocks indicate that there is a scheduled “personal event” that week (e.g. Christmas the week of December 19th).

Once these factors are considered, we can now fill in the location of the horse for the year. It is also a good practice to schedule veterinary visits, which may be used as ‘checks’ throughout the year to ensure no small issues have arisen with the horse’s health.

Figure 3

Step 4: Choosing the training focus

The next step is to determine what exercises will be performed on the schedule in relation to your competitions. This is by far the most enjoyable, but also challenging aspect of the yearly training plan. For this step the trainer, based on years of experience and the science of training, selects training methods in a manner that will allow the horse to realize its’ potential at the desired times.

In Figure 4, you can see that the year has been divided into “periods” that reflect the stage of training. If you recall from the previous example, the horse is being trained to peak at three competitions this year. If we consider the first goal (Wellington in March), then leading up to this date there will be a phase of preparing the horse physically and mentally (Preparation Phase 1: P1) followed by a phase where the horse is conditioned for the demands of competition (Competition Phase 1: C1).

It can be said that the preparation phase lays the athletic foundation for the horse, so that it can develop and peak in the competition phase. Following the competition phase, the horse enters a short recovery phase (Transition Phase 1: T1) where the horse is able to recover from the demands of competition, and prepare for the cycle to repeat again to get the horse ready for Calgary. Thus the horse enters ‘Period 2’ for Calgary, and ‘Period 3’ for Toronto.

Figure 4

In Figure 5, we have included the types of exercises that will be used in the training of the horses (i.e jumping, flatting, longeing and supplementary). It is important to note that although a week may be shaded indicating that there will be gymnastics jumping, it does not mean that every day will have this exercise. Instead, it simply indicates that at least one day a week will have that type of exercise.

Furthermore, the variations of each exercise will be adapted through the year. For example, early in the preparation phase most of the work flatting on hills will be at a trot, but it will likely transition to canter work in the competition phase. Finally, elite trainers will vary the duration and intensity of exercises throughout the year based on the needs of the horse.

Figure 5

As mentioned above, the exercises that are predominantly used in the preparation phase are different than those used in the competition phase. The preparation phase is performed to ensure the horse has a solid athletic base, and that the horse will be ready for the sport-specific training that predominates in the competition phase. Thus, General Preparatory and Specialized Preparatory Exercises predominate in the preparation phase, while Specialized Developmental and Competitive Exercises predominate in the competition phase. Below, descriptions and examples of these four types of exercises are provided.

Four types of exercises (adapted from Dr. Anatoliy Bondarchuk)

General preparatory exercises: These exercises are nonspecific in nature. The movement of the exercises does not resemble the competitive movement (i.e. jumping movements) in either whole or component parts (mechanical; i.e. movement patterns, point of force application, etc.) or content (physiological system; i.e. what energy systems are used, neural activation patterns). These exercises develop general physical qualities and coordination. They are useful exercises for warming up, cooling down, restoration and building fitness in low-level athletes.

  • Walker
  • Treadmill
  • Water treadmill (water depth dependent)
  • Relaxed walk / trot under saddle
  • Trail rides

Specialized preparatory exercises: Like general preparatory exercises, these exercises do not follow the competitive movement patterns. However, similar muscle groups take part in their performance. These exercises stimulate activity in those body system functions that provide for improvements in the competitive exercises.

  • Longeing at canter
  • Longeing at trot with side reins
  • Transitions under saddle
  • Leg-yield, half pass, shoulder–in , etc.
  • Walking or trotting up/down hills
  • Water treadmill (water depth dependent)

Specialized development exercises: These exercises follow the competitive movement exercises in its separate component parts. The same muscle groups (or their significant parts) participate in their performance, and similar body systems are activated. They follow not only the regimes of muscle work in the competitive exercises, but exceed them in certain conditions.

  • Bounce work
  • Cavalettis
  • Cantering hills
  • Technique jumps
  • Small jump work
  • Single jumps

Competitive exercises: This term refers to the exercises that exactly replicate competition movements and goals for the athlete. The exercises are executed in the process of competition as well as in training. In the latter case, they can model the competitive conditions in easier or more difficult conditions.

  • Jumping full courses
  • Jumping Shortened Courses
  • Gymnastics
  • Jumping Longer Courses
  • Competitions

Although certain types of exercises predominate at certain times throughout the year, it is important to note that all exercises do play a role through the year. The amount they are used will vary, but they are all useful in contributing to the overall athletic development of the horse.

Step 5: Rest

The next step is to ensure that easier weeks are built into the program to ensure the horse’s body has sufficient time to recover from a series of difficult weeks (see Figure 6). The data on the appropriate work/rest ratio in horses is lacking, so this decision must be left up to the trainer, rider and support staff. Care must be taken to identify chronic fatigue issues early, and to reduce the workload until the body has recovered.

Final comments

And there you have it, a quick blueprint for building a yearly training program. Every yearly plan needs to be customized to the horse based on age, gender, experience, goals, available facilities, and so on. This document is meant to provide a starting point for planning, such that more complex topics (e.g. transfer of training to performance results, best practices for peaking, construction of weekly and monthly training cycles) can be discussed at a later time.

Download a free Training Schedule template to get started.

Bompa TO, Haff GG (2009) Periodization: theory and methodology of training. Champagn IL: Human Kinetics
Bondarchuk AP, yessis M (2007) Transfer of Training in Sports. MI: Ultimate Athletic Concepts

About the Author

Dr. Tim Worden has worked as a sport scientist with numerous FEI-level show jumping riders. He has a PhD in biomechanics and specializes in applying human high-performance training techniques to horses.