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  • Thalia Edwards SMT, FdSc, BSc, MSc

The Art of Progression

The Art of Progression

If you looked at the most decorated Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps, training program you would see a process of progressive training. Same thing would be seen in a five-year-old learning to swim. That is because to improve athletic performance the ‘art of progression’ must be followed. No difference in the equine or equestrian athlete.

In order for athletes (2-legged or 4-legged) to excel in a particular form of activity the body needs to be trained so that the physical demands placed upon it during training and competition will be sustainable. To achieve continual optimal performance, consistent adaptation must be made. Without the continued challenge, little improvement will occur.

How do we insure this is happening without causing injury or over-stress? By progressing in:

  • small but effective stages

  • increasing repetitions or sets

  • and/or level of difficulty

  • and/or decreasing the rest time between sets

For example, you are wanting your horse to increase hindlimb strength. An effective exercise is to use backing up.

  1. First of all, can the horse stand and back up in the correct position with its head staying neutral and back up/core activated? Or is the first step working on activation of the core and ensuring the correct top line? Once that is achieved then,

  2. Start on flat ground and insure they are backing up symmetrically (you may need poles either side) 4-6 reps x 3 sets watching for signs of fatigue. If there is any hoof drag and swaying this means they are starting to compensate and misuse the correct muscles.

  3. Once they are comfortable with those sets and reps you can increase the reps or increase the sets. You can also decrease the amount of rest in between each set.

  4. Add a small incline. Now because you have added an incline you should decrease the amount of reps and sets to start out and build it back up again.

  5. Progress to adding turns and lateral work to your backing up. This is only done once the horse is comfortable doing the previous stages. Attempting this exercise too soon, without the proper progression, could create future issues to a horse who is not stable and strong enough.

Another example, this time for the rider. To increase stability in the upper body, the postural muscles.

  1. First of all can the rider achieve the correct position to begin with? Do they need to work on mobility before stability? Progression! A lot of riders tend to be tight in their pectoral muscles, so I would recommend a stretch to start off.

  2. Then you can focus on the posture muscles (we are just going to focus on the rhomboids at the moment). Squeeze the shoulder blades together without allowing the shoulders to rise. Find 10 x 3 easy?

  3. Add a thera-band for added resistance. Increase the reps until you are comfortable doing 20 x 3.

  4. Then you can work your way up in colour (difficulty)of thera-band and decrease the reps to start out.

  5. Use body weight instead (for example with a TRX system).

  6. Add a bosu ball to the mix to work on your stability and balance.

  7. Add weights.

  8. Position yourself differently. One of my favourites is Bird Dog Row.

  9. Once again add a challenge such as an unbalanced pad so you work on stability and balance.

Not only will the athlete’s abilities continue to improve but they are also less likely to become bored during training. While progressing every week or every month, depending on each individual, please remember RECOVERY is an extremely important aspect to achieving the best performance. You can do a recovery day every week or a 3 week build, 1 week recovery. Whatever you choose, make it part of your progressive program.

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