Whether competing around the world or training at home at Stoney Lake Equestrian near Toronto, consistency is key for husband and wife dressage duo Tina and Jaimey Irwin. They credit their success to a systematic training approach based on the classical German dressage system.
In the last issue, they explained the systematic training program they employ and took us through warm-ups; this month the working phase and cool-down are explained.
“It’s very important for riders and horses to stick with a consistent training routine to give confidence to them both,” says Tina Irwin. “We have three distinct phases in our system: warm-up, work, and cool-down. While it’s tempting to focus just on the working phase, warming up and cooling down correctly are crucial for the longevity of your horse’s career and also their mental well-being.”
In our last issue, the Irwins shared some of their favourite tips and exercises for a winning warm-up. This month we learn how they approach the working and cool-down phases.
Individual training plans for each horse
While every Team Irwin horse enjoys the same warm-up – at least 10 minutes of walking followed by suppling at the trot and canter – the working phase of the training system is tailored to each horse’s unique needs. It is important to evaluate each horse on a regular basis with expert eyes.
“We look at the whole picture: the mental state of the horse, does it need more turnout, more or less grain for energy? We look at the way the horse is shod, the saddle, bridle, and bit fit, nutrition, proper dental work, soundness, weaknesses in its body. Does it need any body work, such as chiropractic, acupuncture, massage, vet work? We make sure the horse is in the best state possible mentally and physically, and then we can begin to develop an appropriate training plan,” says Tina.
“The specific movements and exercises you focus on in the working phase will depend on which level you and your horse are schooling. It’s always best to plan with your coach what you need to be focusing on,” adds Jaimey. “Horses aren’t machines, and sometimes what you have in mind for the daily working phase may not be what they have in mind. It’s important to listen to your horse and follow the steps of the training scale to make sure that you are ready to move to the next step.”
The length and intensity of the work phase will vary as well, depending on the horse’s age and fitness, along with other factors such as heat and humidity. The Irwins like to incorporate plenty of walk breaks into their training sessions as a reward for a movement performed well, a chance for horse and rider to catch their breath and an opportunity to regroup and refocus when things aren’t going to plan.
“Though we stick to a specific plan and length of time for the warm-up and cool-down in our training system, that’s not the case for the work phase,” Jaimey continues. “We believe it’s important to not over-work our horses. It puts less miles on them and keeps them happy in their work. If they have done everything that we have asked for after only twenty minutes of work, we cool them down. There is no sense in drilling movements over and over when your horse has already done them with ease. The best reward for the horse is to keep the work short and sweet if you can, and end on a happy note.”
Working phase for young horses
With young horses, the working phase is fairly short, because they lack strength and stamina. “We generally don’t work our young horses for more than twenty minutes, four to five days per week,” says Tina. “Quality is more important than quantity. We stay in the rising trot with young horses until they are strong enough in their bodies to carry themselves and the rider with properly developed muscles. Add transitions within the trot, making sure to establish a good rhythm and asking for some forward-and-back so that the horse starts to understand the leg and hand for the ‘go’ and ‘stop’ aids. Once the forward-and-back aids are well-established in the young horse, twenty-metre circles are a great tool to teach the turning aids.”
The outside rein turns the horse through the outside shoulder by neck reining. The outside hand should never cross the neck and should stay down by the withers. As you turn through the outside rein, slightly release the inside rein and ride forward from both legs. If a young horse is struggling, sometimes just setting the whip on the outside shoulder is enough for some horses to react and turn; other horses may need a little tap to get the response.
Don’t ride a young horse to exhaustion – it can happen fairly quickly, Once they have a good rhythm in the trot and accept the forward leg aid and turning aids in both directions, move on to the canter.
To ask a young horse for the canter, it is easiest and most inviting to ask when you approach the wall on the open side of the circle just after crossing the center line. This helps the horse turn and pick the correct lead, as they will be straighter.
Young horses may break to the trot because they don’t have the strength to balance, turn, and canter at the same time. Maintain the canter by riding the horse more forward than an older horse, sticking to straight lines and very large circles. Once you have cantered a young horse successfully in both directions, the working phase of the training session should end.
Working phase for confirmed horses
With a more seasoned horse, the length and intensity of the work phase will depend on the level of work. The Irwins stress the importance of creating a training plan with the help of a coach and following the steps of the training scale to make sure that the horse is ready to move to the next step.
“The work phase must be flexible,” says Jaimey. “For example, if you’re training flying changes and they are not working, you may want to take a look at the quality of your canter and your canter-walk transitions. Sometimes we have to take a step or two back in order to take a step or two forward in the coming days or weeks. The key to successful training is to not cut any corners in the work phase.”
One exercise that is fundamental to every movement in dressage is the shoulder-in. As it’s used to prepare movements such as half-passes, walk pirouettes, canter pirouettes, and even halts, the Irwins incorporate shoulder-in into nearly all their work sessions with more experienced horses.
“A correct shoulder-in is ridden on three tracks,” explains Tina. “The horse bends around the inside leg, brings the outside shoulder in and is flexed slightly to the inside, while maintaining the same rhythm. The most common mistake in the shoulder-in is pushing the haunches out and having no bend because you put the horse on four tracks instead of three.
“The best way to start the shoulder-in is to ride a 10-metre circle out of the corner to establish good bend. Once you reach the track, maintain the bend from the circle up the long side, and neck rein the shoulder in with your outside rein. Again, the outside hand should never cross the neck, but should be at the horse’s withers. The more you bring the shoulder in, the more you must ride forward and use the inside leg at the girth to bend. The outside leg supports the bend slightly behind the girth so that the haunches do not swing out. If you lose the bend in the shoulder-in, add another 10-metre circle halfway down the long side.
“Riding transitions within the shoulder-in forward and back and from walk to trot is a good way to test that the horse is honestly on the diagonal aids (the inside leg to the outside rein), does not fall in or out and is able to maintain the rhythm in the trot.”
The cool-down phase is important for horses
Although often overlooked, the cool-down phase is just as important as the warm-up and working phases. The horse and rider must both have the chance to properly stretch their muscles and relax physically and mentally. A cool-down period also gives them both a chance to absorb what they have just worked on and end the training session on a positive note. Jaimey explains the cooling down process all their horses go through:
“Once you have achieved a positive result in your working phase, allow the horse to stretch down long and low in the rising trot, following long lines and large circles for a few minutes in both directions. Sometimes we also canter the horses forward and downward in a bit of a two-point position to get off of their backs and let them play and have a bit of fun. This also lets them have a bit of freedom and fun after their work.
“Walking for at least ten minutes after the workout is crucial to allow the horse to cool down properly. When the weather allows, it is a great idea to go on a walk outdoors for some fresh air and a change of scenery. It gets them out of the dressage arena and helps to keep horses fresh and interested in their job by exposing them to different scenarios.”