Flow of the training
Now that I have gone through all the general ways of training in this style, I’ll talk about how you can combine it all in practice.
How you start, what you do and how much, depends entirely on the horse you have and his stage of development. It is highly individual whether you start with only in-hand work, lunging, riding or a combination of all of these. The same applies to how long your sessions should be. If your horse is extremely unfit after f.ex. colic operation or other severe illness/injury, he may not be able to work more than 5-10 min in the first sessions. On the other hand, if your horse is fit and already well-muscled, he may be able to work up to an hour. In general sessions shouldn’t last longer than about 45-60 min. Our normal sessions vary between 20 and 45 min usually. Longest and hardest session so far has been a long hack for over 1.5 hours with quite a lot of trot and some canter, after about 1 hour our horse became notably tired and from then on we just walked home in a leisurely way. Then we do have the occasional double lessons which take in total 1.5-2 hours, but these double lessons contain mostly walk work, and while he is tired after such sessions, he copes well. And our horse has been trained according to the foundation training system for almost 5 years at the time of writing this; that is, he has a strong topline. Of course hacking sessions may take up to half or full day, but then one would judge the horse’s fitness level and choose the gaits according to that, and have plenty of breaks when needed.
The most usual way to start with this training form is to lunge. When lunging, you get to see what is going on with your horse from the ground in all gaits. Observe where he is with his body and mind, whether you need to work on getting his general fitness up with encouraging him to move more actively or whether you need to calm him down to take it easy and relax more. Observe how he carries himself, is he working through as one horse or is he made of two different parts. Observe which muscles are being used and which muscles need more work. Ask for work in all gaits to observe how they flow and what he can do. Once you have done this, you will get a clear idea where your horse is at the moment – what is his starting point in training.
In-hand work is highly useful, so it is advisable to start practicing the method and technique as soon as you can. It needs a lot of coordination and practice to become fluent in it, but once you are there, you can influence your horse’s muscle activation to such high extent that it all is very much worth it. So, persevere with it. Some horses can be fairly tricky to start in-hand work and if you are not familiar with the technique, it can be doubly difficult. The beginning of in-hand work for both horse and trainer is the most difficult phase. Hence, if you run into difficulties with starting in-hand work, stick more to lunging and practice in-hand after lunging work in each session. Also, do semi-in-hand work on the lunge as well as working in-hand with reins threaded through a loop attached to a surcingle, these two ways of working will help you out in getting the in-hand work going.
Some horses may be very unpredictable and flighty, then for sure use more lunge work to get started and do in-hand work only when you trust your horse to behave well in such close proximity. It is not at all necessary to do in-hand work to gain topline muscles, you can build all the muscle with lunge work as well. But in-hand work will give you the edge on muscle activation and your lunging and riding work will benefit from it, if you get the technique right.
You don’t necessarily need to wait for the topline to be fully developed before you start riding your horse and there are no clear guideline timeframes for when you should start riding. Obviously with young horses you should do your research and make sure that your horse’s skeletal development is fully finished before you start your horse under saddle. What comes to skeletally mature horses; once you have worked your horse on the lunge and/or in-hand and he gets the point of stretching down and out at least to some degree, you may try what happens if you ask the same from the saddle. Be sure though to have checked the saddle and your bit, so that the tack he has on is not going to restrict or annoy him. If he stretches down and out in ridden walk with nice activity, then you can start riding more regularly.
If riding is meaningful with your horse, you may find that lunging and/or in-hand work as a warm-up is very useful. If you warm up your horse this way, be sure not to over-do it so that he is tired before you hop up in the saddle. Also, if you possibly can, lunge and do in-hand work without the saddle on and only saddle up after the warm-up. This so that he can move freely without the saddle possibly moving out of position during lunging, and in-hand is easier without the saddle on your way.
Personally I have found that mainly lunging during the training weeks is the most effective way to build up topline strength. Due to location and circumstances I have been many times forced to do lunge work during weekdays (3-4 days of lunging during a week) and then only being able to ride during the weekends (both days). When I have had such a regime in the beginning of this training, I have noticed clear and distinct positive development in our horse every weekend when I would ride. Every weekend I would feel the back getting stronger under myself. So, do not underestimate the power of proper lunging.
If you feel that your horse does not start developing with lunge work, be sure to seek help, because there is most likely either something physically restricting him or you are not efficient enough in your technique. Even though building strong topline does take years of hard graft in very regular training (4-6 training sessions per week), you still should see and feel development of these muscles within a short time frame. When the back is strong enough to start coming up and you can suddenly feel it while you ride (this can take from a couple weeks to a couple months to achieve – depending on your skills and your horse’s starting point and condition), it does not mean that his topline is now strong, with time you start feeling how there is a gradient with the ‘upness’ of the back. When your horse is getting stronger and stronger through the back, upper neck and core, you feel how the back comes more and more ‘upward’ under you – or when he is tired or has stiffer days, his back is less up while still being up and carrying you. Thus when your horse is strong enough to carry himself and you with an active topline during all your sessions, there is still a long way to go to fully develop his topline – it does take many years, shortest estimated time is 4-5 years in full training with a person who knows what they are doing. But it doesn’t mean that you cannot have fun during that time, quite the contrary. Train as varied as possible in as varied surfaces as possible. Varied ground conditions (arena, roads, tracks, forests, beaches, soft ground, hard ground, uneven ground) and training sessions (arena schooling, poles, cavaletti, jumps, hacking etc) are the best possible way to give your horse an overall and balanced muscle training. Of course, start easy on other surfaces, if your horse is not used to anything else than level arena surface. And have common sense taking into account your horse and his condition. Much depends also on how your horse spends his days when you are not training him; big varied fields will help in getting a balanced horse who can cope with multitude of different surfaces fairly easily, small level paddock or staying indoors all day will mean that you need to start very gently and carefully with any uneven surface work.
Once you have started to see and feel the difference this muscle building work is doing to your horse, then it is good time to concentrate on your own seat and balance on the saddle. I would strongly suggest that you look for a good local teacher who can instruct you on your seat issues. For example, centered riding teachers are specialists on rider’s position and have a wealth of knowledge on how to guide you to a better balance with your horse. I found that especially when our horse got strong enough for working frame work, then my position on the saddle became extremely crucial – as important as the saddle fit. The more muscle our horse has gotten, the more sensitive he has become and the less aids I need to use. He becomes in fact irritable if the rider does too much when riding or if the seat is blocking him from doing what the rider asks or if the aids are muddled or too strong, he just complains immediately. He is now a schoolmaster for correct seat and light, accurate aids.