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Fitness - Do you really understand it?

So you decide you want to buy a Thoroughbred for dressage. They are great athletes with a super work ethic - sometimes too much work ethic - which is misunderstood. You make your choice, rather to buy directly off the track (if you have connections), from an intermediary placement center (CANTER, Thoroughbred Athletes, Remember Me, etc.), of perhaps purchase one from an individual that has had some training.

You now have this wonderful new horse home and you are going to begin training for it's second career. New bridle, new saddle, new routine. In dressage, we are constantly reminded that circles are your friend. Bend, flex, inside to outside rein. Let's step back and think about this. If I take my dressage horse (showing 3rd level, schooling above) and work him 3/8 of a mile (relatively short distance) on the racetrack would this make him sore? I will guarantee 100% it will. He is not fit for this job. So when we take the thoroughbred off the track and start with all our circles, bending and flexing - they are not fit for this work. They are conditioned to use their body in a forward motion, tending to be on the forehand and flat. When we start asking them to use their abdominal muscles to raise the back and step under with the inside hind they are using a whole new set of muscles. I feel the off track horse gets a bad rap for being unsound when a lot of the time it is poor understanding of basic fitness for the new career. Training must be judicious, never rushed or pushed beyond the horse's ability. Just because the horse is fit to race a mile does not mean they are fit to carry themselves even in a training level dressage frame.

The above photo is of Keen (Thoroughbred) and Hilda Gurney. Keen and Hilda competed in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, placing fourth individually in the Grand Prix and helping to earn the first U.S. Olympic dressage medal since 1948, a team bronze. Compare the two photos, I think we can agree that the muscles being used are completely different. A bit of information on Keen's work ethic -

At the 1979 Puerto Rico Pan Am Games, Hilda’s coach didn’t allow her to ride Keen in the morning before the competition, which she had always done previously. “He kept saying, ‘He’ll be tired.’ He wouldn’t even let me work him in the warm-up. Well, I went into the Grand Prix and we passaged the whole walk work. We never took a step of walk! That’s how Keen expressed his energy. He didn’t get tense or hold himself tight. He made himself looser by passaging or extending the trot. The next day, the guy realized that I really did need to work my horse. And we ended up winning the gold medal.”

Keen’s exuberance was often as challenging to contain from the ground as it was from the saddle. Throughout his life, unless he was in absolutely familiar surroundings, the big horse required two people to lead him, one on each side. His enthusiasm was never ill-tempered, however, says Hilda. “He was the friendliest, sweetest, most wonderful horse. He would knock all his feed out of the bucket and let the squirrels and rabbits under his feet eat it because he wanted to share.”

A bit of trivia - Keene was Kathleen Raine's mount in the young rider division. He was a generous soul that taught others after Hilda stopped competing him on the international stage.


The thoroughbred is a uniquely talented and over generous workaholic horse. If these are traits you desire, by all means acquire one (or two!) for your dressage journey. Just be mindful if you start with an off-track horse, give them time to develop the correct fitness for their job.


Janelle Wiliams

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