Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Fitness Game

And, Oh No, Not Another One!!

First the other one. When I came home from church last night, as the garage door opened, a gray cat dashed out of the garage. Patches is black and white, Mommycat is a very dark tabby, this cat was a light gray stripey. My big concern was that there was an ominously wide shape to this one in the belly area. I have a fear, a bad fear this may be a pregnant female. The very last thing I want around here is a litter of kittens, especially this time of year. I do not need a cat colony, and the world does not need another half dozen kitties needing homes.

It's too darn cold to set the trap too, although if I put it in the hay and go out to check every hour or so, it might be all right. But then what. I have to contact one of the kitty rescues to try to get a low cost spay, but that would mean keeping the cat "in custody" until arrangements could be made. That means setting up the kitty cage in the sunroom and keeping the kitty inside for a while, all of which requires a lot of due diligence on my part.

Not that I wouldn't do it, but, "What the heck do people think!!" How did these cats get here in the first place?? They didn't just drop out of the sky. Patches has the look of a once cared for kitty and the gray cat looked pretty good too. Now, grant you, Mommycat has been living outdoors for quite some time, but she has been well fed by both my neighbor and me, and she is spayed. It could be that Graykitty has been here longer than I realized and has been eating the dry food I leave out, that's true, but did she just fly in from outer space? Somehow I doubt it. I rather suspect, as with Patches and Mommycat, that someone just decided, "Oh, here's a farm let's dump the cat here. There are plenty of mice to eat and we'll just let it fend for itself. Farms always need cats."

Wrong!! Responsible farm owners like me do love cats, but we don't need any one else's cats. In fact, I don't want any outdoor cats here as our road is far too dangerous, and I don't ever want to have to scrape another dead kitty from the pavement. I will suffer my rats and mice to live until they drive me to distraction and then I will put out some rodent bait to do them in, thank you. And I do have a few resident snakes and perhaps a fox or two who might be of assistance. Most kitties I've known are not quite up to tackling a rat anyhow--that takes a special cat with ratter instinct/skill and I've only met one in my life.

So now, all I can do it worry, keep the kitty dish full of dry food and keep my eyes peeled to see if I can see the new stray again.

Muriel mentioned in her comment about the fact that Thoroughbreds and Arabians are easy to get fit, while other breeds are not. I've never had an Arab, but, as you know, most of my horses were TB's. And yes, TB's do get fit pretty quickly. As a matter of fact, it was one of the things Patrice Edwards mentioned in one of her clinics abouthow you do not have to drill a TB too much because their muscles build so quickly. But, I also had an Appaloosa and a Saddlebred in my care years ago and both of them were also pretty fit.

So what's the key? Regular work, with variation.

I try to never do the same exercises two days in a row. I have two theories about this. As we know, muscles need to get tired, break down a bit, and then rebuild stronger. They need time to do this. The second theory is that the horse's brain also needs to process the workout/lesson. You need to know your horse's individual "learning curve." Some horses need a lesson only once, others require lots of repetition. But most I've trained need a day or so "off" from a particular exercise to process the information so it can become a part of their thought pattern. If you've ever worked on an movement--let's say shoulder-in on Monday, and then found, on Tuesday, that your horse has no clue or seems to have forgotten where to put his feet, then he may well be the kind of horse that needs a day or two in-between the sessions to process the new concept. Again, once a horse really learns an exercise, it's OK to do it more often, but do remember that repeatedly exercising the same muscles and joints in the same way day after day can lead to fatigue and breakdowns.

If you have access to trails, that's great. If you have places to go for long trots/canters/gallops, that's even better. If you have hills, that's super. There is nothing better for getting a horse fit than hill work out in the open where you don't have to make sharp turns or stops. It's even more fun if the hills actually take you someplace so the whole training session can become an adventure.

I used to board across from a State Wildlife Preserve a local fox hunting club used as its "stomping ground." The terrain was varied, there were all kinds of hunt fences scattered about of various heights and difficulty and there were tons of places where you could take a long run if you wanted to. That's the perfect place to get a horse nice and fit.

But we're all not so lucky. The land around me now is relatively flat. I do have a hill in my pasture I can use and one little one in the paddock behind the barn. I this case, when I was "fitting" Tucker up because of his stifle, I'd trot large circles, going up and down the hills repeatedly. Trotting here is the key, because it's the gait that develops muscle in a horse.

Trotting loads and works each of the horse's four legs pretty evenly. For Tuck's stifles, I trotted him for 25 minutes every day--doctor's orders. This was exactly the protocol I used when I was riding and eventing Russell R., my first horse. While it does break my rule of giving a day off for muscle development to some degree, we were working on muscles in general, not specific muscles, and once we'd worked up to the 25 minutes, it was no big deal and simply kept the muscles fit. So, once the muscle is built up, it needs continual exercise to be maintained.

Galloping/cantering does build muscle too, but remember, as a lateral gait, it does not build up a horse evenly as trotting does. What this gait tends to build is stamina and wind. Listen to a relaxed horse breathe during the canter and you can almost hear his lungs at work.

I know I've mentioned this before, but an beloved Hungarian riding master I once rode with advocated galloping the dressage horse every day for at least four minutes. Again, no exercises, just a nice strong gallop--around the arena if there was no place else to do it. He said dressage horses were often worked too much in collection and did not have the stamina horses in other sports did. Again, it was a practice I used years ago and will use again once the weather breaks around here.

And don't neglect the walk. My original event trainer stressed it was a valuable gait. "But don't dawdle," she'd say. "Make sure when you are doing your road work that Russell really moves along at a good forward walk." The walk allows for recovery between periods of higher physical effort, but it serves no purpose if the horse doesn't use his muscles at all and just kind of "falls apart" into a go nowhere walk. Besides, a lazy walk makes it even harder to gear the horse back up to more intense work afterwards.

I know Tucker will be easy to get fit again. Toby, if I do ride him much will be a little trickier and need more TLC because he is now 20 and, even though his muscles were once used to some really hard work, they are very much out of shape now. I don't want to stress him too much at this point in his life, so his fitness will be less intense. Chance will be the interesting one. As a warmblood with a grade mare as his mother, he has the least Thoroughbred blood of any horse I've worked in years.

The good thing is, though, that so far, I can feel Chance start to get tired. The advantage there is that when he reaches that point, I know I need to just push him a little longer and then back off. This way, I can gauge each workout to his fitness on that day--tire the muscles, stress them, then let them rest to build up for the next time. TB's like Tucker and Toby to do not work that way. The will rarely, if ever, give up or give in if they are tired--well Tucker might start to protest. It's bred into them to never quit, which is why a Thorougbred on the track will run with a broken let. (shudder)

Good example here. Put Chance on a lunge line to work off his excessive energy--should he have any-- and after a bit he'll slow down on his own and relax. Put an over excited Tucker on a lunge line and he gallops, bucks and works himself up into a lather, feeding off the exercise as if it's a drug. Nope, I've never been able to "work him down" on the lunge.

So, I have a lot of work ahead of me. My friend noted the other day that he figured the ice in his driveway might melt by July at this rate. If so, I'll have plenty of time to plan my riding strategy for the season. *LOL*


  1. Good luck with your new kitty. I hope she finds another home soon.

    We're also thinking of our training strategies and we do pretty much the same things as you do. Lots of hill work and trotting've got a good plan in place already. We also work different horses different ways depending on what each needs to get in shape. Surprisingly they all keep themselves relatively on their own,just by being turned out all day and playing and walking around. So at least we don't have to start with a bunch of jelly bellies.

  2. They use dogs over here for rat control. Though I think it's accurate to say that the rats outnumber the dogs.

    Thanks for the reminder about trotting building up muscle, canter/gallop wind. This time of year I have only two choices, riding in the arena and walking along the road. Tetley's day off is really a day off from everything.

  3. "Most kitties I've known are not quite up to tackling a rat anyhow--that takes a special cat with ratter instinct/skill and I've only met one in my life"

    i had one - little Smudge, a relatively small female, in her first winter as an adult brought me 5 dead rats...

    she went missing the year after we moved here...

    we've got a lot of hills.. shame molly's feet don't like going down steep ones! but up is good

  4. Anonymous4:29 PM

    Very few hills here as well - Maisie could use some to keep her stifles muscled up.

    We seem to have acquired a third barn cat, too, but it seems to be a tom and not a pregnant mama cat.