Dressage as Cross-Training for the Endurance or Distance Horse

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Not only is RW customer Joanna Zattiero a competitive distance rider, but she also is an assistant trainer in a dressage program. While this may seem like an unlikely combination of disciplines, Joanna says that dressage has been immensely helpful in making sure that her endurance horses are in their very best shape. Read on to hear how cross-training with dressage could benefit your distance horse!

(Above photo) Joanna at the first day of the Barefoot in New Mexico 50-mile AERC endurance ride in 2021. Photo credit: Linda Sherrill of Justus Photography.

Does the term “cross-training” make you think of hitting the gym in the off-season? Maybe fitting in some yoga or a barre class on your slow days? Or maybe you envision a weekend hike to counterbalance your more intense workouts during the week? No matter the focus, cross-training is an important part of any athlete’s schedule, and this applies to both humans and horses.

Varying the mental, physical, and technical aspects of training is important to building healthier, stronger, and more versatile athletes. A key element of cross-training involves incorporating different types of workouts that complement one other by utilizing different muscle groups and neural pathways, enhancing proprioception (the ability to sense the body’s movement and orientation in the environment,) and varying intensity and duration. Developing routines that regularly include these aspects of cross-training can help to encourage mental and physical flexibility, improve overall fitness, protect against repetitive use injuries, and ward off the burnout that can be driven by repeating the same workouts, often in the same places, day in and day out, week after week and month after month.

Compared to those competing in other disciplines, endurance horses tend to have exceptional aerobic capacity and stamina yet, on average, tend to be less well-balanced throughout their bodies. These horses generally spend the majority of their training and conditioning time outside of the arena, traveling on roads and trails with varying terrain, a wide variety of stimuli, and at varying speeds. While these conditions certainly help to address some elements of cross-training, there are a number of other ways to help make an endurance horse more well-rounded. I have found that basic dressage training is one of the most effective approaches available.

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Joanna's then 8-year-old son and retired 24-year-old endurance mare, Michaela, in 2020.
Dressage work has helped keep her fit and moving comfortably with all kinds of different riders!

What is dressage and why is it relevant to the endurance horse and rider?

Whether you’re a dressage disciple or you think dressage really isn’t your “thing,” it is important to understand that at its core, dressage was not developed as a sport but rather as a training method that has been refined over hundreds of years and which focuses on developing the strength and suppleness of a horse while also encouraging a calm and attentive demeanor. Dressage training is beneficial to horses of every age, breed, and discipline. You don’t have to compete to gain the benefits of dressage training, nor do you need to wear white breeches, expensive tall boots, or a tail coat. You don’t even need a dressage saddle as long as you’ve got a saddle that fits you and your horse well.

Just as trail rides or hacking out benefit the show horse both mentally and physically, dressage cross-training for endurance horses offers considerable benefits, as well. Although endurance horses are, in general, excellent athletes with well-developed cardiovascular systems, coordination, and strength, dressage work builds upon these abilities and can help develop a stronger foundation that will serve the horse long-term, allowing them to compete more effectively, safely, and comfortably over a longer period of time. In my experience, it can also help them become even greater endurance and all-around athletes, able to better balance themselves and carry a rider over varying terrain and more effectively conserve their energy through correct alignment and the ability to utilize different muscle groups. With improved overall strength, coordination, and balance the risk of injury is reduced, as well.

Many of the benefits that dressage work provides to horses can also be seen in their riders. As a rider asks her/his horse to more equally distribute its weight on all four feet at different gaits, for example, the rider must also be more aware of their own balance and weight distribution in the saddle. Similarly, as the horse learns basic lateral movements such as the leg yield on a circle, the rider must also be keenly aware of the horse’s movement and gait, helping keep their body aligned on the circle bend while also asking for movement to the inside or outside of the circle. I’ve found that not only have my horses’ bodies developed in many beneficial ways through dressage work, but so has my own. One example of this is that my physical therapist is no longer concerned that my quads are far stronger than my hamstrings, effectively pulling my pelvis forward and continually exacerbating an old low-back injury. My husband even noticed that I stand up straighter and hunch less!

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Joanna's horse Lionel and her dressage trainer Katrin Silva working on relaxation and steady tempo at the trot and canter.

How did I get to this point?

Over the past few years, I’ve developed a deeper appreciation for dressage and arena work with my endurance horses. Admittedly, I used to think that I hated arena work. It seemed so boring when I could get out on the local ditch banks, farm roads, or mountain trails instead. Why ride in circles in an arena when I could feel the wind in my face as I rode for miles and miles and saw new scenery along the way? I described it like long-distance runners describe the difference between running outside and running on a treadmill. Why be cooped up and bored if you could just get out and *go* somewhere instead?

With a deeper understanding of dressage basics, however, I’ve come to realize that there’s a place for both approaches in my life and those of my horses. I’ve learned how riding in circles in the arena can lead to stronger, better balanced, and more focused endurance horses. In fact, I’ve realized that riding a consistent 20-meter circle can become rather zen-like, allowing both my horses and I to focus on individual details and movements, one at a time. And I’ve seen this focus and attention to detail in the arena develop into greater focus and more precise communication on the trail, which makes both of our jobs easier and more enjoyable along the way. For example, I recently rode one of my horses on his first back-to-back 50-mile endurance rides – 50 miles on the first day and another 50 miles on the second day. Because he is stronger and more balanced across his topline and now moves with a more rounded, engaged frame, this horse is able to conserve more energy and recover more quickly after each competition. We both also save time and energy because our communication strategies are more nuanced and we can more quickly and effectively transition to and from (and within) different gaits in different situations. It is almost as though the energy we invest in our dressage work pays off as energy that we save on the trail!

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Lionel and Joanna at the Sleeping Lady 50-mile AERC endurance ride in 2021. Photo credit: Linda Sherrill of Justus Photography.

Where’s a good place to start?

If you’re thinking that cross-training with dressage is something you’d like to consider, here are a few suggestions:

Working with a dressage trainer familiar with endurance horses (or at least performance horses of various types) is ideal. A trainer like this should have the experience and knowledge to see both you and your horses’ strengths and weaknesses and be able to tailor your lessons to support your goals as a team.

If you aren’t able to work with a dressage or dressage-based trainer in person, consider looking for someone who gives virtual lessons and/or coaching. Some trainers will work one-on-one with students via live-streaming services such as Zoom, while others may be willing to evaluate pre-recorded videos of your riding and offer suggestions for improvement.

Don’t neglect print and digital resources. While it can be more challenging to learn without someone else’s experienced eyes on you and your horse, you can still learn a lot by reading, listening, and watching. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of resources available and you’ll need to find what works best for you and your horse, but here are a few suggestions to get you started:
  • Dressage for All of Us: How to Help Any Horse Become a Happier, More Responsive Riding Partner by Katrin Silva.
  • 101 Dressage Exercises for Horse and Rider and 101 Western Dressage Exercises for Horse and Rider, both by Jec Aristotle Ballou.
  • 101 Arena Exercises for Horse & Rider by Cherry Hill.

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Joanna crossing the finish line at the Quitaque Climb 55-mile AERC endurance ride in 2020. Photo credit: John Nowell of Remuda Photography.

If you do add dressage work to your routine, start slowly and keep your initial sessions to an hour or less per day, one to two days per week. Even though your endurance horse may be fit enough to cover 25, 50, or even 100 miles, you’re likely to find that they will become tired much more quickly when asked to use their mind and body in new ways. It won’t be long before you both see some wonderful benefits from it, though!

Shop for all of your endurance needs and more at RidingWarehouse.com. Happy riding!