Thursday 20th of June 2019

Developing fitness in the Dressage Horse

Black Country Saddles sponsored rider, Gary Foggon provides advice on exercises to get the dressage horse fit and the schooling routines he has developed.

Gary has up to six horses on his yard at any one time so good management is vital to make sure all the horses receive the required level of work and training they need to compete at the top level.

Developing Fitness in the Dressage Horse

Preparing the dressage horse requires, time, attention and dedication.  To make sure you can present him to his best advantage, being fit and supple is paramount to your chances of success in the arena.

Schooling Routine

I think it is important to have an exercise routine, which can be varied to ensure that the horse doesn’t get bored or stale.   All my horses are schooled at least four or five times a week and what I do with them varies from horse to horse and whether they have a competition planned.  I spend 45 minutes to an hour schooling each horse.  

I start by spending 15 to 20 minutes warming up, walking and trotting with a deep outline.  Once I feel they are ready to progress I will then do half an hour of intense work, finishing up with 10 minutes stretching down to relax them and cool the muscles.  All the horses go on the horse walker after schooling and this is part of the warm down.

They also have individual stretches to do in the stable after exercise and are then washed off and finally groomed to help them relax.

Additional exercises

As well as ridden schooling, I like to work from the ground with all of my horses.  It allows me to see how they are moving from a different angle.  They all get lunged once a week which encourages them to stretch and work really deep over the back.  I also do work over poles and small jumps, again to add variety to their workload and keep it interesting for them. 

The last thing you want is for dressage horses to become bored and stale by going round in circles so the more variety you can give them the better.  Allowing them to enjoy themselves and be happy in their work makes for much more expressive movement.

Fitness without overstraining

I could write a book on this one! You have to give the horse time to develop and can only start pushing a horse harder when you can see his muscles developing.  You have to be much more careful with a younger, big moving horse, if you ask them too much too soon they will incur problems and strains.  I also think if you use the gallops or hack for fitness you have to keep doing this regularly so that the body is used to it.  It is no good once a month giving them a blow out, you could create problems.

Difficult Issues

Each issue or ‘problem’ horse requires a different and tailored approach.  Every horse has its own character and it’s a balance between a sympathetic but firm approach to make the horse happier.  An unhappy horse is only trying to tell you that something is not right – most are never just intentionally ‘naughty’.

What is important is to try and make sure horses are happy in their routine, they are working with you and that they have a bond with you.  Once horse and rider are tuned in to one another, working together becomes so much more enjoyable and fun.  You will also find you progress and gain confidence in one another more quickly.  Problems and issues can often be caused by rushing and trying to get to the next stage in your training when you are not ready to move up the ladder so I would say slow down, take each step as it comes and both you and your horse will enjoy the process so much more.

Schooling and Fitness change in the run up to the new season?

I do not change my routine in the run up to a new season.  I like to keep things as routine as possible and my training continues throughout the year.  I will organise the horses’ days off with the competition in mind and give them slightly easier weeks after big competitions.  Changing any routine quickly is a real no, no.  Horses are creatures of habit and routine so it is important to keep this in mind at all times.

One of the main issues for me is that they are fit, happy and well.  Horses that ooze fitness and well being will give you so much more and feel on top of the world.  A good grooming every day might not seem that important but when their skin and coat are gleaming they are bound to feel so much better.

Also make sure your tack is the best it can be.  I ride in a Black Country Dante Dressage Saddle which allows me to sit in a more balanced and relaxed position which allows the horse more freedom.

For more information contact Black Country Saddles on 01543 578 243 or visit

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