In this excerpt from Sport Horse Soundness and Performance by Dr. Cecilia Lönnell (reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books – www.horseandriderbooks.com), British Olympian and show jumping legend John Whitaker shares his personal process for being horses sound and healthy during and after their careers.
Research shows that injury can be less down to bad luck and more to training or management factors. The skill necessary to keep the horse sound and healthy is very important for a rider who wishes to stay at top level—or for a rider at any level who wishes to get consistent results. Last, but certainly not least, it is of course also important for the horse’s well-being.
When the world’s leading riders are asked to share advice it is normally about technical training and skills. Much more seldom are the questions about their huge experience of basic training and about keeping the competition horse confident and motivated.
John Whitaker has had consistent top-level results over a span of decades and has had horses with long careers in the sport. Here, then, are his seven tips for keeping the jumping horse sound and healthy:
1 Number one is to see and deal with the horse as an individual; understand and try to figure out what makes this particular horse tick, what he needs. Don’t complicate the training but keep it simple. Keep the horse happy and give him a good life, one that is as natural as possible.
2 Pay attention to the horse’s daily “form.” I want to tack up my horses myself, because I want to keep a check on how they are feeling. I go into his stable and look to see if he seems as usual, or not. Has he eaten his feed? Does he have clean water? The grooms don’t always pay attention to that—well the best ones do, but not all.
3 Ration your jumping. Don’t compete too much. It is no secret that this makes a difference. Some riders jump and jump and jump, first at home when training and then in the warm-up, and they compete often. With my international horses I hardly jump at all at home. If you ration the jumping I think horses last longer, because it gives less wear and tear.
Young horses I do a bit more jumping with at home, because they need the education. Then I jump them on Tuesdays, but only 10 to 12 jumps. If the horse goes well then that is his only jumping training session that week. If the session does not go so well I will jump him over a few fences the next day, as well. Older horses I do not jump at home if they are competing. Horses who have had a break I start off by a few jumping sessions at home before they return to competition.
4 I let my horses go in the field as much as possible. All my horses go out on grass every day. Gammon, who I had in the 1990s, was difficult in the beginning and found it difficult to relax. I started letting him out in the field as soon as we got back from competitions, unless the weather was really bad. Then he was left out in the field for two or three days and overnight. Then he got completely relaxed.
5 Vary your training. I ride out a lot, on our fields and on the small roads around us, so that the horses do not just have to go around and around in an arena.
6 Incorporate fitness work. We do roadwork: walking and trotting on roads and in the fields. We also do hill work and canter work to build their fitness. When my brothers and I grew up we only had the hilly terrain around the farm for riding. We only had a small outdoor arena, and it was on a slope, so we rode in the fields and on the lanes and noticed that it had a good effect.
7 I almost forgot: the rider’s own balance. It is important for the horse that the rider has his own balance. Some have it naturally; some need to work on it.
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