Kikkuli Principles of Horse Fitness

Thank you for your interest in my blog.

This information is from my series on horse training:

Lest people think that my insistence that horse and rider become proficient at their tasks before ever mounting up is some odd, new-fangled, or unproven, idea, I want to introduce Kikkuli, a Mittannian horse master from what we now call Turkey, whose principles were written down in cuneiform by the Hittites about 3500 years ago. Sadly, we do not know anything about the education of Mittannian horses. What we do know is that they needed to be able to get to the warzone, a four-week journey of itself, and then be fit to fight for the rest of the summer with long fast marches of up to 70 km in one day immediately followed by fighting the rule rather than the exception. Their horses had not only to be sound and physically fit; they needed to be enthusiastic about their work.

Although Kikkuli’s text on conditioning warhorses is about all the evidence that is left of the Mittannian civilization, it clearly shows that they were outstanding, observant, and successful equestrians. Kikkuli always considers three major aspects of the horse in his conditioning:

• The first third of Kikkuli’s 214-day conditioning program is focused on the bones, connective tissue, and hooves as they take 7-14 days to adapt to stress.
• The second third adds what we now call interval training to condition the cardio-vascular system as the heart, lungs and muscles respond to stress quickly
• Mounted work only begins in the last third of his program

Perhaps most important is that the psychological wellbeing of the horses is carefully nurtured:

• Horses are never worked until fatigued.
• Care is taken to make sure that the horse is confident and fit before increasing their work
• Care is taken to make sure that the horse can anticipate when they will work, rest, and eat
• Mounted work only begins when the horse is both physically fit AND psychologically confident in their efforts

Establishing sound working gaits while carrying a rider is hard work for your horse. Changing gaits and direction on demand is even harder work. Horses have not evolved to carry your weight on their back and must develop the strength and coordination to do so. But remembering that asking your four or five year old for too much too soon can cripple them before they ever grow up can be challenging when you have a talented energetic youngster to work with.

Allowing your horse time to mature before you demand intense efforts from them will save you both much grief. You can review the details of why a horse under the age of seven is physically immature, in Rider Up, Volume Four of this series. However, since horse trainers have long been trying to persuading horse owners that their horse needs another couple of years to mature before stressing them with little result, I suggest that you take advantage of the Mitannian horse master Kikkuli’s 33-century-old culling program.

His culling and conditioning protocols can help to minimize the risk of pushing your horse beyond their limits. If your horse is sound, cheerful and energetic throughout the culling test, they should hold up mentally and physically under the strain of further training and conditioning. Kikkuli’s program was designed for trained horses that have been out to pasture for at least a full season.

What is unclear is exactly how long Kikkuli considered a season to be. We do know that his conditioning program takes 217 days and the Mittanian had a war season that lasted for approximately three months. Their horses would be either conditioning or fighting for roughly 310 days out of a 365-day year. A few millennia later, the 1912 French cavalry’s manual of equitation recommended young horses have a minimum of 45 days of rest on pasture after their first year of schooling.  

So find a place where you can turn your horse out to pasture with a group of horses for a couple of months. Make sure they have plenty of room to move and socialize. Be sure you can turn your horse back out to pasture for at least sixteen days after you complete your four day test of their maturity and soundness. You can add a few extra days margin to make sure that their bones have completed any remodeling in response to the stresses of the rides before you ask anything else from them.

Since equine sports medicine has been a board certified specialty in the USA since 2010, you may be able to find a vet that specializes in equine sports medicine to work with. If you cannot find one in your area, encourage your local vet to get certified. Most veterinarians would appreciate an owner that offers them the opportunity to prevent injuries.

According to James R. Rooney DVM’s ‘The Lame Horse, a horse’s joints are designed to allow the limb to support the full weight of the horse moving at speed in their close packed most stable position as well as to freely flex so the horse can fold their legs up and reduce the effort required to bring them forward. These are contradictory needs, and it takes perfect timing as well as correct structure to prevent injuries.

If the horse’s weight lands on their limb and the joint has not settled into its close-packed stable weight-bearing position, the likelihood of injury increases. When a horse’s muscles are weak or exhausted, they cannot keep their joints in their most stable positions. If a rider asks their horse to exert themselves when they are unfit, unprepared or fatigued, the horse’s weight, plus their rider’s, is more likely to stress a joint beyond its limits.

More time to roam around at pasture would actually be beneficial for most of our horses. I suspect that Kikkuli would consider them desperately unfit simply because they spend so much time confined. I am sure that stressing an unfit overweight horse that has been standing in a stall or paddock most of their life is not what he had in mind.

However, once you have completed the schooling program outlined in the previous volumes of this series, you and your horse have been working intensely and steadily for six to nine months. They should be in good condition, neither thin nor fat. And, they have earned a mental respite as much as a physical one.

You will need to aside four full days of riding to test your horse’s maturity and soundness with Kikkuli’s four-day culling program. Pick a time of year when the weather is decent. Plan your rides over gentle terrain.

When you have completed the culling protocol, turn them loose with their horse buddies once more. Be sure that you give them at least sixteen days at pasture to recuperate from the culling test. Remember that it takes bones about two weeks to complete their response to stress.

If your horse is sound cheerful and energetic throughout the full four-day program, they are physically and mentally fit for more intense work. If you want to increase the odds of your horse staying sound, take them through the full Kikkuli conditioning protocol once they have recuperated from the stresses of the culling test. The Mitannian horse master’s seven months of workouts are carefully designed to build horse’s bones and connective tissue so they can withstand the stresses of carrying a rider under heavy work. 

Mitannian cavalry had to ride for four weeks to reach their battleground. Once they got there, they had to be in condition to fight all summer. Forced marches, up to 40-plus miles, followed by intense daylong fighting were common.

You can study the full Kikkuli protocol in Dr. Nyland’s book, The Kikkuli Method of Horse Training. Kikkuli’s workouts start with building the horse’s bone density and connective tissue by leading the horse over the distances they would later be ridden. Dr. Nyland’s study showed that horses who had been prepared for mounted work according to Kikkuli’s protocol had no elevation in heart rates when it came time to continue their conditioning under a rider.

She also found that the heart rates of the same horses doing the same work under the weight of a rider at the leading stage of Kikkuli’s protocol jumped an immediate and remarkable 30%. Elevated heart rates can indicate that a horse is suffering nearly three weeks before clinical lameness becomes visible. Since back injuries are especially difficult to diagnose, let your horse’s heart rate guide their workouts.

Make sure your horse is fit to carry a rider before you demand they exert themselves under saddle. The time and money you invest in conditioning will be returned many times over. Veterinary bills add up quickly when your horse is injured, the down time to fully recover is at least nine months and the outcome is never guaranteed.

Summary of Kikkuli Principles
Whatever Kikkuli intended to do under saddle,
he did first by leading the horse
(not in the same day – this is as a principle).
If the horse is to be trotted under saddle,
the horse should be led at the trot
(from a vehicle or other horse)
for a set period of time
(that is, over days or weeks)
prior to this.
If the horse is to be cantered under saddle,
the horse should be led at the canter
(from a vehicle or other horse)
for a set period of time
(that is, over days or weeks)
prior to this (and so on).
This way the horse’s system will adjust to the work
without the stress of weight.
By following these Kikkuli Principles
there will be no weight-bearing stress on the horse
in the initial training.

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