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All About The Show Dog


Top equestrian on how to build muscle, balance, and agility in order to stay sound and healthy for rigorous show ring competition whether equine or canine!





Catherine Hunter


In order to have a safe, fun ride, your horse must be not only well trained and cooperative, he must be strong and agile. All good athletes, including show dogs, must have muscle, balance, and agility in order to perform at their best.


Whether trail riding, roping, jumping or riding a dressage test, your horse must be conditioned to perform the required work. Young horses are often rushed through training and though they understand signals, they do not have the physical ability to carry a rider safely over uneven terrain, over jumps or through the fast, quick movements of a reining pattern.



MOVE-1: WALK - Meredith Mackenzie on Macmilan demonstrates the fast or extended walk on loose reins allowing the horse to stretch his neck and back muscles.


Lack of strength and agility often show up as poor performance such as pulling, rushing, refusing or stiff, uncomfortable movement. If the problem is allowed to continue, the horse may begin to exhibit dangerous behavior such as rearing, bucking, kicking or running away.


When asked to perform beyond his physical ability, a horse is more prone to injury. Bucked shins, bowed tendons, chipped knees, back problems, spavins, broken wind can result.


There are several easy, basic exercises you can practice to create a conditioning foundation and they apply equally to horses and dogs. Gradually increased over time, they strengthen your horse’s wind (breathing), leg muscles, tendons and joints and build his back muscles to properly carry a rider.


In a show dog, the same exercises enhance timing and coordination.


These exercises can be performed by most riders capable of riding at a walk, trot and canter safely in an open field. The guidance of a qualified trainer will also help keep you on track.


Muscle condition and agility can be divided into longitudinal and lateral skills. Longitudinal agility is the ability of the horse to shorten and lengthen its stride. Lateral agility is his ability to bend around a turn.


The show dog will become smoother on the triangle and will start on stride for the down and back.


Though these descriptions sound simple, there’s a lot involved. A horse can handily shorten and lengthen stride can balance a rider over uneven terrain, negotiate dangerous ground, and quickly adjust speed according to the rider’s directions.


When your horse is longitudinally agile, he has a smoother gait and transitions. He’s able to respond to your signals and therefore is more cooperative, safer and more pleasant to ride.


A laterally agile horse is easier to turn and carries its rider in a more balanced state. He is willing and capable of turning in response to the rider’s commands and safer to ride in tight quarters or rough terrain.


Longitudinal exercises vary from simple changes of speed at the gaits to work over cavaletti poles or up and down hills. Begin by changing speeds at the walk and trot. This exercise can be started on a lunge line without a rider or in a standard size ring with a rider.


Start with approximately four to six steps at the fast, then the slow walk and gradually increase the number of steps and frequency over several days. When starting out, repeat the exercise no more than twice during a training session to avoid boring or souring the animal.



MOVE-2: CAVALETTI - Meredith Mackenzie on Macmilan demonstrates trotting over ground poles to lengthen the horse's stride.


Walking or trotting over cavaletti poles develops longitudinal agility and many dog handlers have adopted this technique.


Use six or eight poles approximately four to six inches in width and eight to twelve feet long. Place the poles on flat, even ground and make certain the poles are evenly spaced to fit your dog or horse’s stride.


Once the animal is going quietly over the poles at a medium walk or trot, adjust the space between the poles to lengthen or shorten the stride.


Raised cavaletti are an excellent exercise for building back muscles. Begin with poles evenly spaced and adjusted for your horse’s normal walk or trot stride.  Raise the poles and gradually increase the height up to 12 inches for the horse, 1 to 3 inches for the dog.


Walk or trot through the cavaletti approximately four to eight times during a session. Be sure to ride in both directions so as to develop muscles evenly on both sides.


Exercises with cavaletti poles take a fairly accomplished rider to sit in the saddle while performing. A less experienced rider can practice this exercise by standing in the saddle so as to allow the horse free use of its back.


Another excellent exercise for longitudinal agility is riding over uneven terrain. Begin with easy walks and trots in a small field and gradually increase the time and distance.



MOVE-3: HILL - Meredith Mackenzie on Macmilan demonstrates trotting up hills to build muscles in the horse's back and hindquarters.


After a few rides in a small field, you can begin short trail rides, if possible in the company of older, more experienced, quiet horses. Once your horse is going well over short trail rides, you can begin walking and trotting up and down hills. Hill work increases balance and agility for both horse and rider. Gradually increase the length and steepness as your horse progresses. One of the top Afghan kennels made great use of hilly exercise paddocks and their dogs were known for flawless movement.


Standing up in the saddle will again allow the horse to lift and stretch its back. Riding on loose reins or light contact will also allow your horse to stretch its head and neck and have more freedom to balance during the exercises.  These simple exercises will take approximately three to four months and lay a strong foundation for more strenuous work. With proper conditioning, your horse will be able to smoothly transition into jumping, reining, higher-level dressage or those day-long treks into the mountains.


The same exercises afford your show dog the strength and confidence he needs to be fresh, powerful and “on” for Groups and Best In Show competition.

estb. 1998 Copyright ? April 2009



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