Conditioning is Fun (for dressage horses too!)

I'm a huge proponent of equine fitness (human fitness too, but that's another post). Coming from a background in eventing, I've always had it drilled into my head that you can't expect your horse to perform at the top of his game unless he's been conditioned to do so. As a human athlete I feel it would be unfair of someone to ask me to perform outside of my capacity, so why would I ask my horse to push himself past what I have prepared him for? Basically, conditioning is common sense.
But Mom, the outside world is calling to me!
Monday's are conditioning days for Team Guinea Pig. Lots of the dressage riders I know consider going for a "trail ride" unnecessary, and they condition their horses with lots of ring work. That is possible, and not wrong, but it's not the way I approach my horse's training. Here's why:

1. As a thoroughbred, Guinness responds well to being outside. His behavior brightens and he really has a lot of fun hacking through woods and hills and roads. I like to have fun too, chock this point up to simply enjoying time with my horse.

2. When riding out, I am able to take a more firm connection with Guinness' mouth. He doesn't fuss and toss his head, and I seem to be able to be more consistent and following with my contact. It's good practice, and seems to carry over into the ring.

3. Nothing can help my horse and I get the feeling of collection like trotting or walking up and down hills with a firm connection (see above for the miracle of good connection). I also like hill work for the immense cardiovascular and muscular development it creates with very little drilling. I could trot and canter endless circles in the ring boring my horse and I to death or annoying him with my nitpicking, or I could go trot some hills to put muscle on him. I'll take the hills.

4. Developing a true relationship with your horse comes from spending time with them, better still if that's quality time. Guinness and I spend a lot of time working through "what was that?!" moments on the trail, discussions over rating our speed while galloping and convincing ourselves that you can do dressage movements in the great outdoors, not just in a level ring. It's a lot harder to get his attention (and keep it!) when riding out, but I know that when I have gotten it that I worked for it. It's rare for me to end a long ride across country without exclaiming. "God, I LOVE this horse!" There's something to be said for that.

As an example, I give you last night's long ride:
At nearly 6 miles, it wasn't the longest ride in the world, but we aren't trying to be endurance horses. There's lots of hills, some flat galloping stretches, plenty of trotting in a nice extension, and even some trotting through a creekbed (resistance training, anyone?). It was lots of fun, and also a good way to help us achieve our goals. What do you think?