Benefits of Cross-Training Your Horse

By Debra M. Eldredge, DVM
Courtesy of Horse Health

Top human athletes often work on a rigorous cross-training schedule. They devote themselves to their own specific sport, but also branch out to improve muscle strength, endurance, coordination and overall soundness. Horses can benefit in the same ways.

Some horse enthusiasts are already experts at cross-training. Horses working towards national breed club versatility awards may train in both Western and English pleasure, as well as pleasure driving and halter; however, hardcore cross-training branches out even more.

Cross-Training Basics

The goal of a cross-training program is twofold: you want to improve your horse’s fitness—both muscle and bone strength, as well as stamina—and provide your horse with some great mental stimulation.

Bones are dynamic tissues; they remodel and change throughout your horse’s life. Even with these changes, repeated stresses can weaken and damage bones. Changing activities can shift the stresses on your horse’s bones and will help to keep bones healthy and strong.

Cross-Training Practice

To compete in a specific sport, your horse will have to do a fair amount of homogenous training, repeatedly pushing the same physical aspects of his body. Think of doing jump-grid training for your open jumper. That is a lot of jumps! Yes, you can keep heights lower for much of the training, but your horse is still stressing the bones and tissues in pretty much the same way each time he jumps.

Now, throw in some dressage work. Dressage has become very popular as a cross-training sport. There is heavy emphasis on flexibility and coordination. Your horse will have to learn to both stretch and flex, working on extension and collection. Those skills and muscle memory can be very helpful for a jumper. It also shifts the endurance and stamina work over to a different set of muscles—or at least muscles being used in a slightly different way. Bones and joints will be stressed in different ways as well.