Reprinted from Endurance News, March 2007, monthly publication of the American Endurance Ride Conference, www.aerc.org, 866-271-2372
Most distance riders spend a significant chunk of time and energy thinking about our conditioning schedule. In fact, some of us chart it, map it, and scrutinize it. Speed, distance, terrain, heart rates, reverse splits – many of us have a strategy that would make Lance Armstrong proud.
But how often do we think about rest as part of the conditioning and competition schedule for our horses?
There are five major systems that we can affect through our physical conditioning and rest program:
- Supporting structures (tendons, ligaments, bone)
- Temperature regulating system
- Central nervous system
Part of the science and art of bringing our horses to peak fitness is in stressing each of these systems and then resting them to improve their overall function.
”Exercise does not make any tissue stronger. It makes them weaker. Only in the period after the stress does the flesh recover to greater than it’s original strength.” (John Crandell III, Winner of Old Dominion 100, Western States “Tevis” 100, and AERC National Championship 100, on Heraldic, 2006; Farrier)
Even those of us who never heard of Timothy Leary have heard the term “LSD” – long, slow distance – the miles we put on young or green horses as they start their distance career. Also known as “legging up”, it is the steady easy miles –and the rest in the days between those miles– we put on to ensure the above systems are prepared for greater distances, and eventually, greater speeds.
The cardiovascular system responds relatively quickly to physical conditioning. Within a period of weeks, most horses have achieved a significant degree of cardiovascular fitness.
As some have learned the hard way by using only cardiovascular fitness as a measure, it takes the muscular and supporting structures significantly longer to respond to physical conditioning.
Typically, with muscular conditioning, the tissue adapts to the type of work it is doing within months rather than weeks, but this is a function of not only stressing the muscles, but resting them as well. Building muscle involves micro-tears in the tissue, and it is in the period of rest following the stress that the muscle actually repairs and strengthens, leaving it better adapted for the work. This is called hypertrophy.
Most body-builders establish a workout schedule which involves alternating days for weight-training various body parts. Monday, Wednesday and Friday might involve working the legs and back while Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday would be dedicated to stressing the arms and chest. On each “off” day the muscles worked the day prior are resting and recovering and actually building up.
So how does this equate to conditioning horses?
First, it means allowing muscles to rest and rebuild following a significant effort.
Second, it means strategizing workouts so that they vary the muscles that are worked. Varying the footing (deep sand or firm footing or mud or snow), varying the terrain (uphill, downhill, twisting trails, long flat straight-aways), modifying the gait (trot vs. canter) or the variations within the gait (left lead vs. right lead, easy working trot vs. the Amish road buggy trot) are all ways that we can vary our workout routines to utilize and build all the muscle groups our horse may be called upon to use during a competition. And not all on the same day!
And last but not least is the concept of working to the limit, but never over. This means stressing the horse’s muscles adequately that we are causing micro-tears, but that we are not causing damage (i.e. muscle strain) that will not be repaired within a day or two of rest.
Even trickier than conditioning and resting muscles is balancing conditioning, or hardening, of the support structures – the bones, ligaments and tendons. There has been less research into the amount of time it takes for these tissues to grow strong, although often horsepeople talk about building these structures in terms of years, not weeks or months. Most conscientious riders give serious credence to the consequences of “blowing a suspensory” as they increase a horse’s workload significantly or go from working on relatively firm surfaces to working in deeper sand or mud.
“The metabolic clock runs more slowly here … Some of these dense tissues can in time be developed to sustain a surprisingly long series of exercises felt as one, but all things must rest eventually. A rest period of less than many days may not be significant for some very dense tissues.” (John Crandell III)
Certainly varying terrain and footing in our conditioning plan, and never asking the horse to compete at speed on footing or in terrain that it has not been conditioned to perform in are keys to developing these structures without injuring them.
With regard to heat, it’s simply a matter of getting out there and conditioning in the heat and humidity that we’ll be competing in. Just “existing” in the hot/humid conditions is not enough; acclimatization typically takes a minimum of two weeks of regular conditioning in the more extreme weather conditions.
Central Nervous System and Training
Horses adapt to the neuromuscular conditions required as they practice and become adept at the sport in which they’ll be competing. For distance horses, it is about learning to coordinate their on-trail efforts – avoiding a rock in the path, negotiating a narrow, twisty section of trail, learning to navigate a steep downhill section. It is fatigued horses who are most likely to injure themselves when called upon to rise to these challenges, so practicing them is an important part of our plan.
“My experience is that horses are often under-conditioned for the conditions of the day and/or the speed that the rider is riding. Riders need to slow down if they are riding in conditions that the horse has not been trained for – hard footing, heat/humidity, deep sand, deep mud, steep hills, sharp rocks – these all take their toll if the horse has not been conditioned for them.” (Art King, DVM, Long-time AERC/FEI Veterinarian)
Additionally, for all horses there is a learning curve in this sport. For some horses, there are mental and emotional challenges simply in traveling, camping and being vetted. For other horses, learning to travel at a consistent pace in the company of sometimes supercharged equine company is part of their education process in this sport. It’s not unusual to see a horse adequately conditioned for endurance, but not adequately trained. Once they become veterans, these don’t cause the same levels of stress for the horse (or rider).
For heavily competed horses, there is also some need for a break. It is a joy to watch horses go down the trail who clearly love what they do, ears pricked, tail swinging, eyes bright. Sometimes a mental break is required for the horse to continue to enjoy what we all know is a highly demanding sport.
“I also believe that mentally the horse needs down time. After my last ride, usually the end of October, I turn out my horse for 2-3 months and just let him be a horse. If I ride it’s an occasional trail ride or quadrille practice. I want his mind and body to rebuild and chill.” (Cheryl Fenton, 4000+ AERC miles, including 3000+ miles with Sanegors Secret)
All these systems, all these potential pitfalls! What is a distance rider to do?
Another important concept in conditioning is progressive loading. Most of us use this without giving it much thought – it is simply a gradual increase in the workload, utilizing rest to allow the horse to adapt to the increasing workload.
You may have heard distance riders say “Increase speed or distance but not both.”
This is part of progressive loading. On a weekly basis, the distance or duration of the workout is increased without increasing the speed OR the speed of the workout is increased without increasing the duration or distance.
“A repeated stress too early interferes with the completion of the constructive cycle. At best, this makes the training less efficient by not quite allowing full response from each exercise. At worst, it starts a new response before the previous cycle has recovered to better than original strength. This creates a destructive accumulation of stress that eventually causes a failure.” (John Crandell III)
Wasn’t This About Rest?
Rest is a part of all of this, either in a micro- or macro-sense.
Right from the start, rest is part of long slow distance, alternating the trail work on varying terrains at an easy pace with rest days in between. With young horses, this is not only part of a physical need, but part of a mental need as well. Making a young horse sore by day after day drilling is one sure way to create a partner who is not only physically uncomfortable, but mentally dull or cranky.
Even within a workout, rest is something we need to pay attention to. It is critical to know that all horses are individuals, and some are more motivated than others to move down the trail. It is up to us, the pilot, the trainer, the rider, the brain behind this endurance operation, to ask ourselves if the horse needs a break. Some competitive horses will never “ask” for a break, while the more laid back horse might seem to be asking for a break more often than he needs one physically, and might require a bit more “pushing” from its rider. As with many things equine, much of it is about knowing your own horse.
Riders have different theories about rest between competitions, and again, what works well for one horse may not be appropriate for another. Some use the rule of thumb “one day off for every ten miles of competition.” Others set the rest period at two weeks for a fifty, and anywhere between two and six weeks after a 100 mile ride.
“Six weeks minimum between 100s. Two weeks rest after each ride. If you must ride within the two weeks, then lightly, slow and not far.” (Patti Pizzo, former U.S. Team Member, 6000+ AERC miles, current AERC BOD member and self described “old timer”)
Others simply back off to a couple of easier, shorter rides a couple of days per week when their horse is competing.
Others rely less on the calendar, and more on their observations.
“A rough gauge I use to determine when my horse is ready to go back to work after a hard workout is by watching him in the pasture. When he starts running around on his own, he’s ready to go back to work.” (Melissa Ribley, DVM, Chair of AERC Veterinary Committee, 16,000+ AERC miles)
Some riders, with a seasoned horse, do some legging up after any significant breaks of a month or more, then simply rely on the competitions to keep their horse fit.
Too much physical conditioning without appropriate breaks leads to a phenomena called “overtraining.”
Potential Signs Of Overtraining:
- Slower heart rate recoveries or CRI
- Poor appetite
- Dull or sour attitude
- Losing body condition (i.e. thin)
- Metabolic difficulties (tying up, thumps, colic, etc.)
- New filling or heat in legs
- Failure of the horse to take care of itself (i.e. eat, drink)
- Unexplained soreness, minor lamenesses
Sometimes, things go wrong. From time to time, horses suffer injuries for any number of reasons. Often, part of the solution is a period of rest, followed by a careful re-introduction to conditioning and competition.
Sometimes it’s the weather. In certain parts of the country, it’s not only inconvenient to ride during the winter, it’s downright dangerous.
Typically, horses taken out of conditioning for a month or less lose little in terms of condition. However, if the horse has been out of work for several months, slow and steady progressive loading, with a careful eye to the horse’s recoveries and attitude, will need to be part of the horse’s rehab program to rebuild cardiovascular fitness and muscular strength lost during the rest period. The first to come, these are also the first to be lost when a horse is laid up.
“Here in the Northeast, we basically have a season where it is not easy to ride (snow, ice, bad footing) and I always find that my girls feel so good after a couple months or so of this forced rest. I am always amazed how quickly they come back to fitness after a long rest, and how all the little problems they may have been experiencing during a period of many rides just go away with the good ol’ ‘tincture of time.’” (Laura Hayes, Chair AERC Horse Welfare Committee, approaching 7000 AERC miles)
Rest Before, During and After Travel
Due to the nature of our sport, some of our horses spend a good deal of time in the trailer, traveling to and from competitions.
“Traveling is hard on horses. Think of that travel time as exercise. Ride in the back of the trailer if you are not convinced. There is a trend in recent years that I think is detrimental to the horse, and that is hauling your horse a long way home after the ride is over. I believe that horses should rest overnight before hauling them home. If the trip is over eight hours from home, we add a day to get to the ride so that they can rest, eat and drink for a day before the ride.” (Debbie Zanot, who with her husband, Gene, has accumulated 10,000+ AERC miles over the past two decades)
Most riders I interviewed for this article agreed that if they are going to make an error in their horse’s work/rest schedule, they prefer to err on the side of caution.
“Rest is such an important part of the development program that all trainers inevitably create rest periods in their conditioning program. Good trainers plan rest into the schedule, lesser trainers get it forced upon them.” (John Crandell III)