Liz Millikin is four-star eventer based in Millwood, Virginia. With over 30 years experience with horses, primarily with eventers and racehorses. Some of Liz’s accolades include making the 1996 United States Equestrian Team Long List for the 1996 Olympic Games as well as in 1999 being ranked among the top 100 in the world. Liz took some time to chat with Horse Junkies United about her fitness programs and how to keep your horses healthy and happy when increasing their workload for horse show season.

How To Get Your Horse Fit After Vacation

I do a lot of walking up and down hills and I do that for about two weeks. After that, I start doing trot sets with them. I’m old fashioned, I was raised with doing interval training and I still apply that to this day. I believe it really works. It’s like taking yourself to the gym, you have to gradually build yourself up so you stress the muscles enough but you don’t break the muscle tissue down. It doesn’t matter what level, I do trot sets on every horse. Regardless of what level it runs, it goes out about three days a week to trot the hills. I will start out with two 5 minute trots up and down the hills. I always start and finish with a 10 minute walk to stretch the muscles out and to help the horse relax and get comfortable.

Every horse is unique in itself. I’ll look at their breathing and go from there when it comes time to increase their workload. If they’re really breathing I’ll walk a bit longer, if they take a breath and are good, I will walk less and then do another trot set rep. They all walk for 10 minutes at the end though. Every horse is different, some are obese, some are a bag of bones. You have to look at the horse as an individual then make a plan for what works for that horse. That can vary from horse to horse. If they don’t have much muscle tone I go slow with them, we walk the hills and stretch over their top line. As you do interval training, you’ll start to notice when their breathing becomes more even and the workout is less intense for them.

Each Day Is Important, But Flexibility Is More Important

I make them work every day they’re being ridden, and a lot of that is interval training. On any given week, I do two days of flatwork back to back, because they’re always better the second day, but then I do trot sets with a small canter, as well as a jump day and a hack day. Sometimes I get on and we intend to do a trot set but they’re just dragging, I’ll go for a hack that day. They’re just like humans, they have good days and bad days. It’s important that the rider dig deep into their intuitiveness and learns to read their animal. Oftentimes, I’ll have every plan to jump school but then I’ll get on and I’ll start warming up and I’ll decide it’s not happening today because it doesn’t feel right. I then abandon that plan and go to plan B. I think that is the sign of a real horsemen, learning to read your animal’s energy. Obviously if you’re at a competition you have no choice. But if I have the option to be flexible, I am always flexible. I listen to what they tell me with their body language.

Liz’s General Fitness Routine

With training level horses, I don’t do a whole lot of gallops with them. We do a lot of trotting up and down the hills, teaching them how to carry themselves. Especially going downhill, I want them to learn to carry themselves up on their hocks and not trying to fall on their face. I’m lucky to have rolling hills on my farm, so I’ll start them out learning that at the walk. Then we go into trotting down the hills and working on their balance, roundness, and suppleness. I add in dressage movements to change it up mentally so they stay involved during their trot sets. Trot sets can be very boring, but I’m a big advocate for them. With training level horses I walk 10 minutes, do an 8 minute trot, walk 2 minutes, do another 8 minute trot, then walk 10 minutes and cool them out. With the training level horses I will start to teach then how to gallop with 2 to 3 minute canters. I teach them how to stay in a frame and how to teach them how to gallop up and down undulating terrain. I’ll do that a couple times before an event.

With my preliminary horses I walk 10 minutes, trot 10 minutes, walk 2 minutes, trot 10 minutes, walk 10 minutes. Then with my intermediate horse I’m now doing a 10 minute walk, trot 15 minutes, walk 3 minutes, because he’s a puffer, and then I do another 15 minute trot then we cool out for 15 minutes. When they’re going preliminary, I gallop them every 5 days and get them doing about a 5 to 6 minute gallop, depending on their fitness. They start out with a 4 minute canter, and then I work them up slowly to what they need depending on their breed and body type. You walk a very fine line between making sure they get a day off but also trying to keep them fit and work everything in. I also try to show jump them the day after a gallop to develop a better feel for how they’ll be after cross country at an event.

If you don’t have hills or a lot of space to work with, learn to work what you’ve got. If you only have one hill, ride at it on different angles. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and work with what you have available to you. It’s amazing for what you can do with a few poles and even a small hill. There’s an abundance of ways you can help create fitness and terrain for your horse if you’re creative about it. Transitions, extensions, and collections are all ways you can help your horse work more during fitness rides.

Being A Good Horseman

I treat my horse like I treat myself when I go to the gym. The first few times I’m sucking wind when I start working out. Then I start to get fitter and can add things into my workout. Every horse is unique, but I tailor my programs around that mindset. You have to adapt your program to each individual horse. Race horses don’t need very much, warmbloods need more. It becomes a real challenge in learning to read how your horse is feeling underneath you. There are days where you have to take weather into consideration. If it’s super hot and humid and you’re trying to ride your horse in the afternoon and it’s a big warmblood, you’re going to cook them if you stick to your original plan. You have to learn to be adaptable.

You have to be ready for whatever is thrown at you in that moment. You have to learn to read your horse, and every horse is different. It’s up to the rider to learn what their horse needs and how they work under different circumstances. A real horseman is very intuitive. You have to be intuitive when you work with horses. They’re emotional beings. You can’t be afraid to fluctuate your routine to do what is best for the horse on that given day in that given moment. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten on and had to change my plan because things didn’t feel right.