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Cross-training is the solution for an athletic horse with a shaky past

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Although many horse and rider pairs focus on one or two disciplines within a style of riding, sometimes the best program for a show horse can consist of several different disciplines each used skillfully to build and maintain endurance and proper muscling.

Jenna Hughes, 20, of Lusby, Md., is one of those riders who believe in such programs, however she found herself in a dilemma last spring after returning from St. Andrews College for the summer.

Her Thoroughbred, Twister, had been leased out while she was away at college leaving her nothing to consistently ride and show for the summer. That is, until her trainer found her the ideal lease situation for those short three months she would be home from college.

At a private barn the trainer had been working at, an athletic chestnut mare had recently begun a new career as a dressage horse; dressage being the discipline Hughes had primarily focused on for the last several years.

At the time, Bella was a 12-year-old Oldenburg who had a shaky past in the hunters, a discipline requiring a horse and rider pair shows over eight naturally decorated fences in a relaxed and effortless manner. Bella did not particularly enjoy jumping and lacked the confidence to successfully canter an entire course without refusing a fence somewhere along the way. In other words, she was at a career crossroads.

Hughes and Bella compete in their first ever dressage show together. (Photo by: Brittani Bowling/Towson University Student)

“Before Bella, I’d never worked with a warmblood,” Hughes said. “Warmbloods are a little bit different. They often need a little bit more to hold them together, and Bella taught me to not be afraid of more contact. She isn’t heavy in the mouth by any means, but she was stiff and new to dressage and needed more help to connect and gather herself,” she said.

Through consistent lessons and a program heavy with cross-training, Hughes was able to bring the best out in the mare that loves attention from people, however was unconfident under saddle.

“I have always been a firm believer in cross-training. Even strictly dressage horses can enjoy popping over small cross rails or going on a hack in the woods. I think the biggest thing that helped build Bella’s confidence in herself was exposing her to new experiences and setting her up to succeed,” Hughes said. “Giving a lot of praise when she did helped her figure out that she can do what I want.”

Shannon Christ, 33, boards her two horses at the same farm where Hughes kept Bella and often watched the pair during their workouts. She agrees that a strong work ethic helped pave the road to success both in and out of the ring for the pair.

“I believe Bella was a much happier horse,” Christ said. “She craved the work and the attention. The cross-training kept her from being bored with her work and Bella and Jenna just had a connection with each other which isn’t an easy thing to achieve so quickly. She squeezed in a lot of fun training for Bella in a short period of time,” she said.

“The most athletic horses, like Bella, never seem happy doing the same routine over and over again,” Hughes said. “They strive to be challenged, to be successful, and just are not happy without a job. The best horses like to have a little variety. It takes their mind off of ‘work work work’ and allows them to have fun and de-stress. I’ve found that the more you expose your horse to, the more they’ll give you both in and out of the ring…but the key is to make every learning experience a positive one, because these horses remember everything.”

After a summer of diligent cross training, Hughes successfully competed Bella in her first-ever dressage show with excellent marks from the judge. But ribbons and medals were not the true mark of Bella’s new-found confidence.

“Bella was very stiff and resistant in the beginning,” Hughes said. “I remember that the first week or so, once we started walking, she was like ‘okay, I’m done’ and it took me another five minutes to get her to trot again. I knew she really liked her job when, even after a few months [away at college], I came back and rode her again and there was no hesitation going back to work after a walk break. And though she’d have that time off, the girl still tried her hardest to give me everything she’d learned, even when she wasn’t strong enough to do it for more than a few strides.”

To make the most of the sheer minutes each rider and horse pair has in the show ring, Hughes says it is important to ensure that as a rider, the proper learning environment is established. It takes preparation to be successful at the shows, but that preparation does not always need to be the same workout, day in and day out, she says.

“If [the horses] fail, they get mad at themselves or discouraged, and it’s our job as riders to encourage them and help bring out the best of their athleticism,” Hughes said.

Written by brittanibowling

June 24, 2010 at 11:47 pm

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