Cliff notes on the AERC Training Plan
I. PRELIMINARY CONSIDERATIONS
In conditioning, the ultimate goal is to develop to maximum potential whatever natural athletic ability any given individual possesses. The object of this chapter is to acquaint the reader with the basic principles of conditioning and to suggest some methods and time frames appropriate for preparing a horse for competition in an endurance test. Each horse is an individual and each horse’s ideal conditioning program should be tailored to the horse and to its environment. For example, horses running each day on 50 acres of hilly pasture will need far less conditioning under saddle than a horse kept in a 15’ by 20’ corral most of the time.
Know your horse: Trainers concern themselves with more than pulse rates and blood counts, although these things are surely important. The best trainers have developed an intuitive “feel” for how the horse is doing overall. They know the difference between the horse being lazy or being bored, between being eager or actually being fearful. They know if the horse likes his work—and if he doesn’t they worry about how to get him to like it. “Know your horse” is the best piece of advice you’ll probably ever get. You should also occasionally ask yourself what your horse thinks of you.
Schedule: If you skip one day you can’t make it up by riding twice as hard the next. If you are serious about what you are doing, you must maintain your momentum, and balance this with patience.
Horse Physiology: The horse’s ability to oxygenate muscle and its overall cardiovascular system are far superior to a human’s. Be leery of some of the older literature on training programs for endurance horses. These were basically attempts to adapt human running programs and probably called for far too much mileage and not enough rest for the horse.
Determine Your Goal: If your goal in endurance riding is to find a companion that can carry you quietly across the miles while you enjoy the beauty of the countryside, your needs will be quite different from the ambitious individual who plans to win next year’s national championships or to try out for the international team. It takes at least three years to get a horse ready to do a top quality 100. Rushing this process is just asking for injury. Decide honestly what you want to do and choose your horse and your conditioning program accordingly.
Your Fitness: If you are in satisfactory health, you should consider some type of exercise other than riding to improve your own fitness, because when you become fatigued you will not ride as well. Someone who is off-balance or tense from pain will adversely affect the performance of the horse, causing him to tighten or twist his back, or compensate in other ways.
Aside from developing your overall fitness, cross-training can also acquaint you with how it feels to work hard physically. It gives you a much better empathy with your horse when you are both undergoing the same remodeling. Lack of time is no excuse because you can walk or run alongside your horse as you warm him up every day. However, just as with the horse, your exercise program should be carefully constructed and implemented. Consult a knowledgeable person to help you get started with a schedule appropriate to your present state of fitness.
Riding: Excellent balanced riding really helps the endurance horse and poor riding really hurts. If you are a skilled rider, great. If not, seriously consider lessons so that you can ride with rhythm, balance, and alignment. And consider equitation lessons for your horses. Joggers tend to get stiff. The same holds true for endurance horses. More and more of the leading riders use dressage training for themselves and their horses.
Teaching your horse to jump a small course of fences or cavallettis can also be beneficial. Like dressage, it helps the horse learn to use his body in different ways and to handle himself better. Besides, you are bound to encounter obstacles on endurance rides from time to time.
II. WHERE TO BEGIN: 0 TO 90 DAYS
Before you begin any conditioning program, be sure your horse has been recently wormed and has his feet in good working order.
Start by riding two or three miles at about 5 mph. If you have already been riding the horse on a fairly regular basis for some time, then you can probably double the beginning mileage.
Many people prefer to work an endurance horse three days a week, allowing for several rest days, particularly if the horse is has lots of pasture to run in. For horses confined to small corrals or with limited turnout, some work five days a week may be appropriate but several of those days should be light.
All of your work for the first two to three months will be slow, rarely faster than a trot.
Depending on your personal preferences you may want to ride trails, make some rounds in a field, or hack down a country road. Don’t forget to do a certain amount of basic arena schooling for about 20 or 30 minutes twice a week incorporated into the other work will be of great benefit.
Concentrate on teaching transitions from one gait to another, prompt (but smooth and calm) reactions to the aids, lateral and longitudinal bending, etc.
Offer as much variety as you can in your training program. Riding over hills is excellent exercise, requiring somewhat different muscular effort than flat terrain. The more places you can go to work, the better. At these early stages, take it easy, young, unfit horses have neither the balance nor the strength to negotiate difficult terrain well. Be especially conservative as you tackle downhill grades; they are very destructive to juvenile joints.
On days that you add distance to your mileage, compensate by cutting back on the speed you usually travel. On days when you go a little faster than the previous day, cut back on the total mileage. If you go for a tough, hilly ride, don’t make it the longest distance your horse has ever attempted. Just use common sense whenever you up the ante.
Taking the Pulse: The most accurate single indicator of condition is the horse’s pulse rate, and this is why endurance riders are so preoccupied with their stethoscopes and heart monitors. A necessary first step in learning to condition a horse is in learning to take his pulse. To use your stethoscope (which you can purchase at most drugstores or through your veterinarian), stand on the left side of the horse and put the round flat piece behind and slightly above the elbow. Some individuals are easy to hear; others are more difficult. If you cannot pick up the ticking sound with your horse at rest, exercise him and try again. Exercise will make the beat louder and faster. Most horses will have a resting count of 32 to 44 beats per minute (bpm). By contrast, the working trot for a horse over level terrain and excellent footing may be anywhere from 90 to 140 while horses at a full gallop may have a heart rate well over 200. (Note that you will only be able to observe these rates with an on-board heart monitor.) As you listen you will hear a “lub-dub” sound. This counts as one beat, i.e., lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub = three counts.
Many endurance riders use heart monitors both when they condition at home and when they compete. These monitors cost $125 and up, but they can be very useful. They are a big step up in determining working rates, because by the time you stop your horse, dismount, and get out your stethoscope and watch, the rate will have already dropped significantly—in fact, it may have dropped in half. A heart monitor is also essential if you want to do interval training later on (see Phase II). The working heart rate and the heart rate recovery as you change paces, go uphill and downhill, change footing and in general change the stress levels is one the best indicators of how your horse is doing.
One should do a “mini-vet exam” at the end of each workout, that is, trot the horse for soundness, check the metabolic factors—particularly for dehydration, check for any signs of injury, and check the pulse. See Chapter Twelve for the factors examined in a vet exam. An experienced person can perform this exam in a couple of minutes.
How quickly the heart rate drops when you stop work reflects the capacity of the horse to perform at that level. In general, no matter what the horse has been doing he should be able to recover to the low 70s within ten minutes of the time he finishes his exercise. However, during a competition, you should expect to recover to the low 60s within ten minutes of coming into a vet check. If it takes you much in excess of ten minutes to recover to the low 70s on a ride, then you are going faster than you should. If you do not recover during a ride within 30 minutes of the time you arrive in a check, you will be eliminated. Aside from overwork, a poor recovery can indicate pain from illness or injury. If your horse usually recovers to a certain heart rate within ten minutes of a particular workout, and then one day hangs at eight beats or more higher, you’d better try to determine why.
When you begin conditioning your horse, you should have at least one place to ride where you know exactly how far you are going. Experiment and see how long it takes your horse to cover the distance at different gaits. Does he walk at 3 mph.? Does he trot at 8 or 12 mph.? How slowly can he canter? How fast is his hand gallop? You must develop a feel for times and distances so that you can pace yourself in competition. You should also check your horse’s pulse reactions at various times. Become so familiar with how they work that you can accurately estimate what the rate will be. It’s all part of knowing your horse.
The basic principle in conditioning is called progressive loading. It means systematically exposing the horse to small but steadily increasing levels of demand. Once complete adaptation to a particular level has been achieved, no further training effect can be expected of that level. Only increased demands will result in further progress. Your job each day is to determine how much more difficulty to add, and to recognize when adaptation has been achieved. Keep in mind that while you want to constantly challenge the horse’s metabolic upper limits, if you go too far too fast, constructive stress becomes destructive strain. Breakdowns usually occur after a series of strains finally overpowers the body’s ability to adapt.
The backbone of any conditioning program is Long Slow Distance (LSD) work. LSD is a working trot for horses with occasional walking breaks, involving use of a steady rate of energy expenditure over increasing distances. It is aerobic work, meaning that the body is able to perform at that level without going into oxygen debt. LSD teaches the body to use more oxygen, increasing both its ability to carry oxygen to the cells and also to extract it once it gets there. The fitter the horse becomes, the faster he can go without becoming fatigued.
In the beginning, the “S” in LSD will be about 5 mph. Gradually you will be able to increase this to around 10 mph, depending on your horse, the terrain, footing, and weather. Distances will also increase, starting with two or three miles and moving to 15 or so. Aside from speed and distance, you can increase the difficulty of LSD work by increasing the difficulty of the terrain.
Throughout the first three months of work, the primary objective is to lay down a solid foundation for developing not only the cardiovascular and muscular systems, but also the bony frame (including the tendons, ligaments and cartilage).
Always be on the alert for signs of excessive stress. If a normally eager horse becomes dull, if he goes off his feed, or if his stride becomes a little shorter than usual, you should be on full alert. Most horses express how they feel very honestly. Your logical response to these signs is to give a few days off and then come back with more modest demands. Drop back to whatever level of work the horse can comfortably accommodate.
III. PHASE TWO: 90 DAYS TO NINE MONTHS
Before getting into serious training, it is highly recommended that you seek the guidance of an experienced endurance rider who can mentor you.
After two or three months of long slow distance rides, you can begin to incorporate an occasional day, but no more than once a week, of more strenuous work into your program. The object is to increase the horse’s anaerobic threshold, or the point at which his system must go into oxygen debt to perform (pulse of 150 or so). If you train at this level twice a week for half an hour, it will dramatically increase your horse’s cardiovascular proficiency.
Hill work is a great way to do this if you have long uphill climbs available. You can work the horse up the hills and then walk down the hills to minimize stress on the legs. If you have no hills then look for areas of softer footing such as sand, although sand conditioning requires care due to the strain on the tendons and ligaments.
If you have neither hills nor sand, start off with very easy gallops and gradually increase the level of difficulty by adding to the length and number of repetitions.
-For example, on the first day you might want to do two miles of warm-up, then gallop one-third of a mile. Follow with two-thirds of a mile of easy canter to allow for partial pulse recovery. Repeat the gallop-canter sequence a couple more times for a total of four miles. Finish by trotting a mile or two to allow for gradual cooling off. By the end of the a couple of months you might have worked up to six gallop sets, utilizing the format of half-mile easy gallops and half-mile canters. Remember you are not training a race horse for the track, you are training an endurance, hopefully for a long career.
Another term frequently used in sports medicine is “fartlek.” Roughly translated from Swedish it means “speed play.” It involves a random assortment of stresses at the anaerobic level (sprints, hill work, galloping), intermixed with periods of aerobic recovery (target pulse = 80). Almost any kind of trail ride or venture across country can be adopted to fartlek conditioning. You can also use these opportunities to expose your horse to as many different types of footing as possible. Trot down a gravel road, canter up a hill, walk down the other side, gallop across a field; pick your way through a bog, trot down a narrow forest path, etc. Aside from the cardiovascular benefits of this work, you will learn a lot about your horse’s personality. Different individuals have different preferences and talents. Some like to pick their way through the woods; others like to gallop down long stretches of dirt roads. Some can handle mud but not rocks; others are like mountain goats but hate to get their feet wet. It’s part of the fascination of the sport to see what each horse enjoys or dislikes.
As you condition you will simultaneously be training your horse to take natural obstacles, like logs and creeks, in stride. You should also make sure he has been introduced to cattle and other farm animals, as well as to traffic, joggers, dirt bikes, and motorcycles. Riding with an older, quiet companion is the best way to introduce your youngster to the terrors he will encounter once he is away from the security of home.
Towards the end of the first six months of training you can begin to trot down some moderate hills. Go carefully, however, because this type of activity is still very stressful to joints. Practice only until you are comfortable that you and your horse can manage to maintain control. Later on, in competition, you can use this skill to gain ground. Some horses are naturally well balanced and are easily able to scamper down a hill like deer. Others, probably due to conformation, never get really good at it. However, lessons that teach your horse to properly how to carry himself can be quite helpful. Just don’t ask the horse to do more than he is capable of doing downhill as this can lead to lameness.
As you experiment with times, distances, and training techniques, always bear in mind that it is of no use to have a cardiovascularly fit horse if he is not also a mechanically sound one. The longer and harder you ride, the more careful you must be about watching out for signs that anything out of the ordinary is going on. You should memorize the way your horse’s legs feel when you run your hands down them. Is there a small filling there today that wasn’t there yesterday? Does one leg feel a little warmer then the others? Do the hooves show signs of unusual stress? Does the stride seem a little choppy or uneven? Is the appetite failing off? Does he play with his companions in the pasture, or is he too tired to bother? Do the CRI numbers show a brewing problem? Even if you can’t point your finger to anything specific, when your “horseman’s intuition” tells you something is about to go sour, give your horse and yourself a few days off.
Experiment with all the tools of conditioning—hill work, sand work, easy gallop sets, fartleks, heart monitors, blood counts, etc. It’s fun and fascinating, but it’s also very easy to get so wrapped up in charts and monitors that you lose touch with your horse. Be aware of the methods, but be conservative in their use: one day a week of intense work is enough, even with a veteran athlete. Rest days are very important for the horse, even more so than for human athletes. No matter where you are in your conditioning program, rely heavily on LSD. Also, once a horse has achieved a certain level of conditioning and started competing, you will be approaching the point at which rest can be more beneficial than more work.
If your horse ever develops a lameness problem, consult a good equine veterinarian. If you question the diagnosis, get a second opinion. Give the horse whatever time off is recommended, and when you resume work, start back gradually. Don’t get discouraged when you encounter some “down time.” Everyone goes through a certain amount.
Remember to be flexible and imaginative in tailoring a program to your individual horse. Everyone is different. Some horses thrive on a heavy work schedule. Others can’t handle it and don’t need it. Some horses don’t show much of an aptitude for endurance work at first, but eventually come around and develop into real stars. Remember that the “eye of the trainer” makes all the difference.
Extremes in weather pose special hazards to horses in a strenuous conditioning program, and as such deserve to be noted separately. The effects of a combination of high heat and humidity, especially early in the spring when the body has not yet had a chance to adapt, can be devastating. Even veteran riders are sometimes shocked by the extent to which these factors can influence performance. Any time that the combined temperature and humidity total 150 or more, you should consider conditions to be dangerous. If you notice that you horse’s breathing is becoming very rapid (130 breaths per minute or more), he might be overheating. Take his temperature, and if it is 104°F or more, you’d better quit whatever you are doing. A temperature much above this is getting dangerous, and you should take steps to remedy the situation as fast as possible. Cold water, even ice water, applied to the veins of the legs and neck, is usually an effective course of action.
If you have a horse that is unfit, overweight, heavily muscled or thick-bodied, or if he is a “senior citizen,” be especially careful when the heat season comes around. Make sure that your horse has an ample supply of water and salt at his disposal at all times, but especially in the hot weather. You will also want to supplement the free choice salt with extra electrolytes in the feed.
The other side of the coin is wet, cold weather, and this also requires some special precautions. Warm up and cool down more carefully under these conditions. When you get back to the barn, if your horse is still steaming, cover him up and walk him dry. Keep in mind that stress from the extremes of conditioning can make the endurance horse more prone to chills and colds. Give him the extra consideration he has earned when the weather is extreme.
After about six months of steady conditioning you should be ready to scout out a fairly undemanding 25 mile competition. The object of the mission will be to see how your horse handles the unfamiliar situation, as well as the distance. You’ll want to see how he behaves in company, whether he will eat and drink away from home, etc. Relaxation, even boredom, is your goal. No matter what happens, don’t speed up or lose your temper. Perhaps your horse is perfectly capable of covering this particular 25 miles in two hours, but that isn’t the issue. You are teaching him that endurance riding is a nonthreatening situation, that he can trust you to keep him safe, and that it doesn’t matter what is going on around him. The ideal scenario is to find someone who plans to go slowly and is on an old veteran endurance horse. Pace with them, and your horse will probably calm down as the day unfolds. Plan to start after the lead group goes out, ideally several minutes behind them.
If your horse goes ballistic at the beginning of the ride, you might have to let the herd get out of sight before you even mount up. Once you get started down the trail keep everything as low-key and as relaxed as possible. This is not to say that you should dawdle along, however. On the contrary, be businesslike. Aim to keep your horse trotting at a steady rate. Gauge it so that when you arrive at the vet check the horse’s pulse will be right on target. If you have been practicing at home, you will know just how fast to go to do this. If your horse has not recovered to normal ranges within the rest period, you’ve been going too fast.
You can expect that things will be a little rough at first. Perhaps your horse will shy at everything in the woods. Perhaps he will whinny at night at camp and keep everybody awake. Perhaps he will view every creek crossing as a threat to his life. Just be patient. Remember that it’s all new to him. Give him a chance to understand how you expect him to behave. On the other hand be alert to issues that can cause serious problems such as not drinking properly. It may take only a few rides, or it may take a lot, but until you feel like you have the situation under control you should not try to move up to the more taxing 50 milers.
IV. MOVING ON: NINE MONTHS AND UP
If your horse is now 5 years old by the calendar, and you have given him nine to 12 months of steady conditioning and three or four novice rides, you should probably be able to handle an easy 50 miler, both physically and emotionally. However, at this point it would be wise not to have any fixed aspirations as to your placing. Be very aware of how your horse feels after he completes a ride; that will be your signal about how soon to do it again and whether you can be more demanding next time.
While some naturally athletic horses have done their first 100s as 6 year olds, you should probably plan on doing your first 100 with your horse after at least two full years of conditioning. And that first 100 should be a slow, steady 100. Upon completing that first 100 in good shape you can pat yourself on the back for a job well done. You have now arrived as a real endurance rider and proved your competence as a horseman.
Once you let your horse go out of training at the end of the season, the first thing he will begin to lose is his speed. Studies have shown that this process begins to take place after about the first three weeks. Within about four to six weeks he begins to lose muscle tone, and between three and six months his endurance will have begun to decline.
To bring the horse back into a work program after he has already been fully conditioned at some previous time, you should schedule 30-45 days of LSD for gradually building back up, and another 30-45 for coming back into full performance mode.