Saturday, April 29, 2017

Conditioning and Maintaining the Endurance Horse (PNER Convention Notes)

This presentation was given by Heather Wimer at the 2017 PNER Convention.

Building a strong athletic horse is not just about the miles.

Here is what Heather Wimer suggested to improve yourself and your horse (which will, in turn, improve your endurance experience):

Become a great horse-person – the better you are the better you will be able to draw out the full potential in your horse. Horses will come and go but your skills as a horse-person should always be improving. What you take with you matters! Take lessons – learn what diagonals and leads are and switch them; become aware of how you are riding at all times; learn how to ride well downhill; never think you know it all because you probably never will know it all!
  • This pursuit includes making your personal fitness a priority. Wimer suggest that you have a fitness program that includes cardio, strength, and flexibility training. Keep track of how you feel after rides to diagnose your own fitness level and work to diagnose and fix your “problem spots.”

 Become an expert on YOUR horse – you need to know that horse better than anyone else (including your vet). You need to be the one who will know when something isn’t right because the vet (at checks) only sees them for a short space of time. Your job is to be an advocate for your horse!

Ask questions! It’s a good idea to know something about the person who you are asking for advice. Find people who ride the way you ride or remember what it was like for them when they were at your stage.

You should not neglect training in favor of conditioning. Carefully building your horse means taking time the think about thing you want your horse to learn and then take the time to teach them what they need to know to succeed. For example, you need to improve strength between necessary muscle groups, work on specific biomechanics, etc. You can get a 15-40% edge on your competition for the ride itself and soundness over the years with this kind of approach.

You can change the way a horse moves for the better by doing dressage!

Dressage will help your horse move better, more balanced, and more flexible. Things to consider: 

Balance “A horse is balanced when it has developed the necessary muscles and physical posture (or self-carriage) to facilitate distributing and supporting its own weight.” – Endurance Riding and Competition by Donna Snyder-Smith. Horses by nature are good at figuring out the easiest way to propel themselves down the trail. When a horse lacks balance they will use more energy, be harder to steer and control because they will be heavy on their forehand, be less comfortable to ride, etc. They need learn to balance themselves and distribute the weight of themselves and the rider, making themselves lighter on the front end. When the hind end drags it hollows out the back. When a horse is reaching underneath himself it lifts the back and suspends the weight of the rider more easily.
Where do you start to build balance? Get them to raise that back by stretching DOWN. Once the back is stretched out then they can use their hind end.

One trick: use polo wraps one end on the bit, feed through armpits and tie up by their withers. To help stretch down and therefore lift their back!
I now use the polo-wrap trick with Deli for her rehab and it works well.

Straightness – “The ability to use both sides of their body with equal suppleness and strength.” – Donna Snyder-Smith. On a core level there horses are not using everything equally, so when they get pushed they will wear out the side they are using more and favoring. When they wear that side out they are going to have to rely on something they are not used to – and then the consequences start piling up. It’s our job to see where their strengths and weaknesses are. Horses are the master of compensation and they are often so willing to serve us to their detriment.

Observations on adding speed…


When you speed up, it often requires a new set of skills. If you train at a different speed, you are introducing different factors. When you introduce speed work it needs to not compromise the quality of your horse’s movement! Essentially, make sure they are not compensating when they speed up.

Conquering common issues:

To conquer inversion: work on relaxation, focus, and longitudinal flexion (getting them to flex through the body).

To  conquer speed or sluggish retardation: work on balance, rhythm, impulsion, and collection. Your horses may be using either of these as a cop-out when something is hard – often it depends on the horse’s personality which one they choose!

To conquer crookedness: teach them to be supple and engage that part of themselves they are trying to avoid.

 Maintaining your horse once you are on track with all of the above...

Observing – constantly evaluate how your horse moves. Horses are masters of compensation, but it comes at a cost! This can mean putting your horse on the lounge at least weekly to evaluate how the horse is moving regularly. Things to watch for: watch length of stride for each foot; the path each foot takes;  is the movement the same going each direction; watch all the way into the hips and shoulders (not just the feet); are they able to bend both directions? Training to make that possible means building lunging skills and the ability to bend, flex, and stretch.

Stretching – there are serious benefits to routine stretching. This can lead to increased flexibility and rage of motion, decreased possibility of injury, better bond with your horse, relaxation techniques you can use the morning of a ride, and it can also serve as a means to track the horse’s flexibility.
  • Hold your stretch for 10-15 seconds and release. Ideally you want them to relax into the stretch (otherwise they won’t get a good benefit from it).
  • Don’t do more than 3 repetitions with the stretches.

Other things to consider include: body work, massage, and chiropractic work to maintain your athletes.

Conditioning your horse at last:

One plan will not work when applied to every single horse! There is no one-size fits all plan.

Progressive loading – gradual increase in workload with each new level of training being maintained until the body adapts to the additional stress. This is the basic principle on which all conditioning is built on! We want to stress the body just enough to make the changes to make stronger.

The difference between aerobic (where the work still allows for oxygen to be supplied and replenished) and anaerobic (means without oxygen, working at a pace where the body cannot supply enough for the working muscles – this builds up more lactic acid eventually lading to fatigue.). Anaerobic conditioning is something you can use to tap into the next level of fitness (as with interval training). Generally most horses start to get into anaerobic around 150bpm

Remember there are cycles of work and rest. When the body gets stressed it needs that time to make changes. Your horse will get worn down if you don’t allow them to rest. A little amount of work only needs a little rest, and it scales up depending on how much effort is put forth.

There are baseline time frames for how long it takes to get structures to see changes (with serious work):
  • Cardiovascular training and fitness – about 3 months
  • Muscles 3-6 months
  • Support tissues 6-12 months
  • Bone – 3 year

Further recommendations from experienced endurance competitors

Jornaling/record-keeping. It’s helpful to have a journal to write down what you are doing – what worked, what didn’t, etc. Date, distance, time it took, electrolytes, where you rode, the weather, and recovery info (forming a routine by adding heart rates when you first hop of and 5 minutes after – it’s a great way to track their actual fitness. All the info from your actual rides (each loop, how long, etc.)

Wimer asked experienced endurance riders in the PNER group for their advice for a specific scenario. The hypothetical horse they were asked to plan for 100% sound, 6-7 years, well-trained, currently being trail ridden mostly at walk 1-2x a week.

  • Many folks said they would require a minimum of 3-4 months before an LD and 3-6 months before a 50 miler.
  • Karen Bumgarner said she wants to see a horse do at least 200 miles before doing a 50-miler.
  • When checking their heart rate monitor – needs to get down to 60bpm within 10 minutes after a 10 miles ride of almost all trotting.
  • Some folks do walk a mile trot a mile starting out; some folks use one of their rides for long slow distance (same speed, but extend distance), one fast day, one day for arena work. Many of these folks only do 3 days of riding in a week!
  • Consider your personal safety! Wear a helmet, carry a phone on your person, carry an ID and pertinent information.
  • The golden rule is: never increase speed and distance (OR difficult terrain) at the same time.

 Once your horse has a good LSD miles – once you’ve got them going – how many miles should you be riding on a weekly basis?
  • 15-20 miles if you are going LD
  •  20-40 miles for 50s per week
  •  Do a couple conditioning rides that are at least as long as the longest loop on your first 50!

How do you decide how to pace a horse on your first ride?
  • Never faster than you trained!
  • Use their efficient working pace (which will change as your horse gets more fit).
  • Watch heart rate and recoveries.
  • Take the terrain into account.
  • Practice negative splits – concept that you start the ride slower than what you finish it at. Gives your horse time to warm up, gives you time to analyze whether you were right about your horse’s level of conditioning and ability. If you start conservatively, then you still have time to adjust and adapt and still finish the ride well.
  • Don’t use what you haven’t conditioned with (tack, speed, etc.).
  • If your horse is having issues in the brain department at a ride – stop and think!

Describe average week of conditioning for a horse in their first season of 50s?
  • 2-4 days a week
  • One long ride up to 25 miles (LSD 8-9 mph may be average, but adjust for your horse) – some folks do one longer ride each week.
  • Shorter rides on hills (8-10 miles at 9-10mph or 8-10 hard but slow hill work)
  • Not forgetting arena work (at least 1 day of arena work)
  • One or two days that are two hours of walking – try and get as big and marchy of a walk as possible!
  • Some folks do hill repeats – walking up, then trotting up, then cantering up and leading them back down the hill.

And good luck on the trail!

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