Getting fit for the season

David Taylor is former Chairman of the EACDG Ltd and former National Champion Pony Tandem driver. He is a practising vet and lives and works in Suffolk. Here he offers a few ideas for getting your horse or pony fit to start a season of horse driving trials.


Assuming that you have roughed the horses or ponies off and given them a break over the winter and that they may have been turned out, there are some preliminaries to get sorted.


Vaccinations first. It is not a good idea to bring horses in from grass, vaccinate them and then keep them stabled from then on. There is a certain amount of evidence that any reactions to horse vaccines are in fact to the tetanus vaccination rather than the flu’ fraction; also that there is a significantly higher incidence of coughs following the vaccine where horses are brought in, vaccinated and then kept in. So vaccinate two weeks or more before bringing them in, or a few weeks afterwards.


Then, for any horse of seven years old or more, the teeth should be rasped. Over ten this should be a twice yearly event, and should always be at the back of any driver’s mind. This would be a minimum requirement and teeth condition should be considered at all times as sharp edges will have an effect on performance. On a cautionary note though, over zealous use of mechanical tooth rasps has been known to cause excessive tooth wear and damage.


Worming should be a routine matter anyway and need not have any bearing to the business of bringing in or getting fit.


The blacksmith will need to be arranged, shoes may not be immediately needed if the initial light exercise is not on the road, but horses feet vary enormously, and once you get driving or riding on the road to any degree then shoes are needed. If your roads are polished or hilly, then road nails may be needed. Remember two per shoe, not just one.


Some initial light ridden or driven work can then be started, walking out and some trotting. As soon as any amount of exercise is involved clipping is essential. Horses really cannot work with a full coat. Whether you choose to go for an initial trace clip and then a full clip in a few weeks will depend on you and your horses. I usually feel that a full clip is needed fairly soon, so might as well be straight away. I usually try to pick when a warmer spell is predicted on the end of a cold snap, but you will have to rug anyway. Don't forget to send the blades for sharpening ready for the next clip. A good vigorous brush before the clip will spare the blades a bit. You may be sensible to leave the legs on, especially if the horses are still being turned out in the day in wet muddy conditions.


When riding or driving, although a reasonable amount of the initial work will be walking make it interspersed with short trots so your horse does not catch cold. The walk should be as active as possible - this is easier ridden. All the time, as well as avoiding any 'sloppy paces', all turns and corners should be treated as though you are in a dressage arena! Work on the bends and flexibility and try to be accurate with transitions up and down and halts. Be strict with standing still.


A brief mention about 'Interval Training'; the active phases should aim to take the pulse to over 200bpm (heart beats per minute) and is aimed to result in some anaerobic work for the horses muscles. After a minutes rest, the pulse should be back to a maximum of 120bpm. Over 150bpm after one minute and the work was too much. Less then 100bpm after one minute and the work was not enough. After 10 minutes the heart rate and the respiratory rate should be down by 30%. Pulse immediately after work, gives a measure of the work done, the recovery rate gives and indication of fitness.


After a couple of weeks of work the length of the trots can be increased. It still pays to intersperse spells of active walking, which I for one have to be very disciplined about with myself. The terrain will initially probably be roadwork, unless you have the luxury of a decent school or ménage, when you can progress to some off-road tracks. If the going is muddy or heavy this increases the workload a lot, so plan your routes and choose to go the ways that result in the heavier going being down the hills, not up. It is now just a matter of building up the distances and work by degrees.


One mistake I have made in the past is to treat every exercise run as a mini-marathon, cracking on all the time and working against the clock. This tends to make the horses more and more excited at events. If they have any spirit it is usually better to have faster stages but also work on some slower collected work with plenty of impulsion, but not speed. Also even if your animals are really only driving horses, they will still appreciate the occasional hack out with a good canter or gallop. We also do spells of driven canter work with pull-ups to a halt and away again to a canter. The aim is a rapid response to commands of pace changes, but to keep them calm and unexcited by the cantering.


After working we decide whether to wash the horses down or just put sweat rugs on and then a good brush when dry, depending on the climatic conditions. We also try to cool down with a walk towards the end of drives.


If you have the facilities, separate schooling sessions under saddle or driven are also an aid to fitness, but we have to rely on doing the schooling while out when the paddocks are too wet to use in the winter.


There is of course no real reason to let horses down at all. The indoor driving season, apart from other activities, such as cross country rides, hunting, hunter trials, are all opportunities to continue to enjoy your horses all year round. If, like us, you have to bring them in the winter and stable at least overnight, doing all the work, then you might as well use them too. Horses do not need the break from work, they do however appreciate some variety in their activities. Also the closer contact that results from more stable time in the winter builds the relationship and confidence between man and horse.


There will be all manner of variations on this theme and no two horses are the same, some maintain fitness easily, some need to work at it. Before competing, a good guide would be to expect your horse to maintain a section A pace for one and half times the time distance of a normal section A and recover quickly and easily. This should allow some scope for more testing conditions.


David Taylor