Kikkuli Principles of Horse Fitness

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.

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

Dr. Ann Nyland who put ten Arabian horses through the program in 1991 was most impressed by the stressful effect of a rider on the horses even in the middle stages of conditioning:

The research at mid-Experiment noted the incredible difference in heartrates
between horses who are led in their training,
and those who are ridden:
as much as 30%.
For example, a horse could be led from a vehicle for 42 km ( just over 26 miles)
at speeds of 20 k.p.h. (12 1/2 m.p.h.)
and have heartrates (taken while moving)
of around 90 – 100 beats per minute (b.p.m.),
but when a rider was on,
even for a short time,
the heartrates were around 120 or more b.p.m.
The horses recorded the same heartrates
even with enormous variations in the weight of the riders.

For some ideas on how the horse’s neck and back are put together and why it is so important to develop their strength and coordination before ever getting on, click here. Personally, what I find most notable is the finding that once a horse is fit, adding a rider is no big deal. Dr. Nyland found that:

when the horse has been in work for some time,
the led heartrates will drop,
but significantly the ridden heartrates will drop
so considerably
that they match the led heartrates.
This appears to be the very point in time
when the horse has adapted psychologically to their work.

On-board heart rate monitors adapted to moving horses are no longer prohibitively priced, so you can acquire one of your own and check how your horse responds to your weight in the saddle. That information alone can change how you work your horse for the better. If you want the full details of Kikkuli’s program, please buy Dr. Nyland’s book and give it a try as:

The Kikkuli Text set down a most precise prescription
for training over a 214 day period.
Kikkuli detailed specific daily workouts,
the time of day the workouts were to be performed,
the exact length of the workouts
and at which gaits they were to be carried out,
exactly what and when to feed the horses (who were fed 3-4 times day),
he specified that the horses were to be rugged, cooled down, and cared for.
He detailed when the horses were to be fed malt and salt.

However, even if you do not want to bother with reading the book, or with checking your horse’s heart rate, do remember that:

• the presence of a rider
• regardless of weight
• is a stress to an unfit horse,
• no matter the degree of their schooling.

Expecting a horse to go directly from standing in a stall for most of their lives (or for the lucky few, a small paddock) to carrying a rider is both foolish and cruel. In our culture, the consequences may not be immediately clear, although the prevalence nowadays of equine behavioral problems along with degenerative joint disorders including those appearing in the elbow, stifle (knee), and vertebra of horses demonstrates how sorely lacking the modern horse industry is in basic horse husbandry and common sense. In a culture dependent on the horse, poor training and handling has dire consequences. The Hittites found this out the hard way:

After Kikkuli’s demise,
the Hittites were at a loss to understand his techniques,
for we have several Hittite horse-training texts in later years
which show a substantial regression of horse training methods.
The Hittite nation was destroyed
some 150 years after Kikkuli disappeared from the scene.

If you would have a sound sane willing long-lived partner under saddle, make sure your horse is physically and psychologically prepared before you ever get on top.

all quotes from: The Kikkuli Method of Horse Training by Dr A. Nyland.

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