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Fit to event

- eventing with Katharine van Tuyl -

We catch up with popular eventing rider Katharine van Tuyl and Double J Sunshine, and she explains to us the importance of fitness training.


“Once you start heading away for competitions at the weekend it can get quite complicated and hard to get enough fitness work in.”

© Show Circuit Magazine

Words: Pip Hume  l  Photos: Show Circuit

The fitness programme

Following a string of successes and his third placing in the 3* at the National Eventing Championships at Taupo in May, Sunny had a break before starting the long build-up to Adelaide.

“He had a really big 2015/16 season, and he’s still a relatively young horse” explains Katharine. “He didn’t get a big holiday out in the paddock though, because he gets fat very quickly and it takes until Christmas to get it off!”

Instead, Sunny continued to be stabled every night, going into the paddock during the day and having a few low-key rides to keep him ticking over. This system suited the very wet winter conditions, minimising the amount of mud he created in his paddock, and he came back into work looking great.

Katharine likes to keep things very cruisey and enjoyable for her horses when they start their fitness regime. She might lunge the odd horse for a day or two first (although she doesn’t bother with this step with Sunny), and the horses generally don’t see the arena for the first week or two. In the first month, there’s no fast work or hill work; just hacking and light schooling. As the fitness starts to come, there’s more arena time, and the farm hacks become more intense, building up to trotting around the hill tracks for an hour or so.

About ten weeks out from a significant event, the fitness work steps up. Katharine is careful to leave herself enough time, saying that if you leave the fitness work too late, you end up chasing fitness all the way to the event. You risk overdoing it in the last couple of weeks and having a tired horse when ideally you should be backing off the work a little in the last week to have the horse feeling bright and well.

Sunny goes into the hills and onto the beach twice a week. At this stage in his training, the hill work sees the pair using a long, steep climb, gaining fitness week by week. Katharine starts by going halfway up and then goes further and further each time.

Fast work on the beach consists of timed canters, and once Sunny is finding it easy, the canter work is increased by a minute each week. Katharine likes to change it up – sometimes she will do three sets of canters, sometimes two sets of longer canters, but always building a little each week.

Monitoring the horse is crucial. Katharine says that recovery time is incredibly important and she is very aware of how long it takes the horse to recover after each set, and how much the horse is blowing. A good test is whether the horse is eating up - if Sunny doesn’t eat at night after a hard canter, she backs off the work a little.

“If the horse is pulling up well, eating and then going for a bit of a run-around and maybe a buck and a roll when he goes out in the paddock, then you know you are on the right track.”

© Show Circuit Magazine

Top tip

The rider needs to be as fit as the horse!

© Show Circuit Magazine

Katharine usually includes lead-up events as part of her fitness programme. Typically, she would have three or four eventing starts leading up to a major event; however, for Adelaide, she has only one definite lead-up event (a 3* at Taupo three weeks before they fly out) with one other possible eventing start.


However, they will also have some showjumping and dressage outings.

“Once you start heading away for competitions at the weekend it can get quite complicated and hard to get enough fitness work in,” she says. “I don’t canter or do hill work the day after Sunny’s day off.  If I have competed at the weekend, I might canter him on Monday and Thursday, give him Tuesday off, Wednesday in the arena and if we are away competing again, give him a bit of schooling on Friday once we have arrived at the venue.”

“I’m quite lucky with Sunny – he loves going away and competing and thrives on lots of variety, which keeps him quite bright. I need to be careful not to stay away overnight at shows too much because it’s too disruptive to our programme.”

Top tip

Keep it fun for the younger horses

Looking after the legs

One of the chief dangers for an event horse is the risk of damaging a tendon, through either a strike injury or a strain. A key element of Katharine’s fitness regime is ensuring that her horses work on the best ground available. She finds Himatangi Beach, about 40 minutes away, is ideal for fast work and is always on the lookout for new places to do conditioning work.

“I’m always on the lookout for new places to ride and trying to find the best surface possible – a new farm track, an airstrip, a closed roadway, the river, equestrian parks, showgrounds – I will see somewhere that looks like a good track and find out who to ask for permission. People invariably help me out by allowing me to use their tracks, and they are used to seeing my truck parked in random places all around the district,” she laughs.

© Show Circuit Magazine

Places to ride

Always get permission and be respectful. If it’s a public space, check with your local council that horses are allowed.

Respect others using the area and be aware. People can be frightened by a fast-moving horse so if you are doing fast work, make sure there is plenty of room to keep well away – for their safety and yours.

Watch out for dogs, especially if it is an area where dogs are allowed to be exercised off the lead. Dogs can become excited, forget their manners and develop selective hearing!


On the beach

Check the tide times before you go. Aim for low tide when there is likely to be more room for everyone, and you can use the firm sand below the high tide mark.

Make sure the surface is suitable for the work you are doing – as you warm up, check for soft spots.

Save going into the water for cooling off. Besides the risk of injury from a stumble or fall, trotting and cantering in water is very hard work for the horse.

Make sure your horse is wearing the appropriate gear, including tendon boots with a strike pad. Sunny is very fine-skinned and prone to rubs, so Katharine uses sheepskin-lined products where possible.

If possible, have water on board so you can give the horse a thorough hose-down before putting him on the truck or float. That way, he will be dry and comfortable by the time you get home.

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