Getting into the swing of thingsBefore we start with this article, I would like to point out that this series of articles is a broad guideline to endurance and by no means comprehensive. You should make every endeavour to educate yourself further by reading articles, books, doing research on the Internet and going to rides. A good source of info can be found at www.endurance.net and although aimed at the Americans, invaluable information can be had from that site as well as from the links.
In this second article, details on how to start conditioning, how to take care of yourself and some tricks of the trade. Also, the "ideal" horse for endurance will be discussed.
Right boys and girls, now that you know how to check for vital signs and purchased some things you never had before - and never thought you'd own - let's discuss how to actually start conditioning.
There are two ways of doing endurance: you can get on your horse which has been standing in his stable, being ridden only once a week and run him into the ground, never to ride that horse again, or you can start slowly by conditioning and bringing him along like a marathon runner training for the Comrades. We'll be focussing on the second training method, as the first is not even up for discussion.
Any reasonably fit horse can compete in a 30km ride, as long as you take it slowly and mostly see it as a pleasure outing, taking about 3.5 to 4 hours to finish - you're looking at about 5-8km per hour. By this I mean that a horse that is ridden at least 4 times a week for a good hour or longer will be able to handle a slow 30km ride, finishing with a good pulse rate, be well hydrated and with good respiration.
Before getting down to the "fun stuff", let's look at the very basic components that make a good competition horse - the hooves and legs. The saying "No hoof, no horse" can be extended to "No hoof or leg, no horse" and these two components should be looked after like gold. Tell your farrier that you're planning to do endurance and ask his advice on any necessary changes in shoeing. Make sure your horse is well balanced as a problem at hoof level will impact and magnify further - as much as 300% - up into the rest of the body, affecting either bones, muscles or both.
Now, carefully look at your horse's hooves. If he's outchy when riding on stones, his soles are probably too soft and there are several ways to address this. Apply a hoof hardener, or for a cheaper and longer lasting option, place stones around the water trough. The stones should be about the size of a golf ball, not too small that they'll become lodged in the frog, but not so big that the horse will hurt himself. The idea is that the sole won't become bruised by constant walking on the stones, as he'll only occasionally walk on the stones when he comes for a drink. Make sure the stones extend wide enough around the trough for all four feet to fit on the circle. You can also add a hoof supplement to his feed.
Look at your horse's legs. Are the tendons soft and pliable? This will be the case if the horse does very little road work, as arenas are known to be soft underfoot - good for dressage, not good for endurance. If your horse has soft legs, you have to be extra careful with them. Opinion is divided as to giving artificial support to legs in the form of tendon boots, but I personally like to keep it as natural and simple as possible. Besides, if you opt for the boots, you run the risk of chafing due to debris becoming lodged between the boot and leg, causing sores under the boots. Even if your horse's legs are reasonably hard, do lots of walking on hard surfaces anyway - later that can be upgraded to trotting and then even to cantering. Be careful when you start with this - as with everything - use caution when starting with your programme.
When starting with your conditioning programme, there are two types of terrain to avoid - one is down hills at anything faster than a walk and going through sand at speed. Because the tendons and muscles aren't built up yet, you need to walk down the hills and through sand, as taking these at speed, will wreak havoc with the tendons, ligaments and joints. Once sufficiently fit, you can start trotting and cantering down hills. Sand always has to be treated with respect, no matter what fitness level you've achieved.
Next, the muscles. We'll go into depth when discussing "fast twitch" and "slow twitch" muscles under "The Ideal Endurance Horse", but for now, we'll talk about "short" and "long" muscles. Compare a marathon runner and a sprinter. The marathon runner is lean and has long muscles in his legs and arms, where as the sprinter has bulky muscles. The same goes for endurance horses and race horses (dressage horses fall in this last category as well). When you look at an endurance horse, you might think he's too thin, but if you look at the muscles in his haunches and shoulders, you'll see that the horse is actually very well muscled, but in a different way to a race horse. Your aim is to develop the long muscles, as these are what sustain the horse over the distance.
Now for the heart and lungs. Good sized lungs and heart are determined by genetics, but the circulation system can be improved with training.
It is commonly accepted that to build a good endurance horse takes 3 years - so if you thought you're going to be winning all the rides in the first 6 months - think again! You need to lay a good, solid foundation to build on in the years to come. There have been many a good horse ruined by inconsiderate riding - you see them doing well in their first year and see that same rider with a different horse the next year and the next year and the next year. Then you see the clever riders, who went slowly in the beginning, and they are the ones finishing in the top 10 with the same horse year after year.
Your 3 year goal should be: in the beginning of year 1 concentrate on slow 30km rides speeding up towards the end of the season and even closing off with one or two slow 60km rides; in the beginning of year 2 start with slow 60km rides, building towards faster speeds towards the end and maybe a slow 80km ride to close the season; year 3 start with slow 80km rides and finish with faster speeds. Always aim to complete within the maximum time - you'll still get your completion but you haven't killed your horse. To qualify for Fauresmith, you need to complete 3 x 80km rides - the emphasis is on complete, not the time you actually rode, so if you just finished within the maximum time every time, you would qualify.
Bearing all this in mind, you have to work out a training schedule for yourself. In the very beginning, you'll be looking at riding one day, resting the next, with two successive days off in the week. If your horse is already fairly fit, you can cut out the resting days in between, but keep the two days off as a rest and recovery period.
We'll break it up in 3-month intervals and discuss 0-3 months in this article. The common term for starting your programme is LSD - no, it's not what you think, it means Long Slow Distance. Find a place where you can measure a kilometre and ride that distance at different gaits, measuring the time it takes at each gait. This way you'll learn to estimate a kilometre and also know what speed you're travelling at any given gait.
The golden rule : if you increase difficulty, like speed or hills, decrease distance, and vice versa. Paste this up on the wall or write it out 100 times!
For the first four weeks, the speed and distance can be broken up as follows (please adapt this to your own particular schedule and fitness level): Monday, Wednesday, Friday, 3km at 5kph - a fairly brisk walk; arena work, 30 minutes with emphasis on smoothness of transitions, bending, turning on the forehand and / or haunches, etc.
The next four weeks: Monday, Wednesday, Friday, 6km at 5kph OR 3km at 8-10kph - a brisk walk with some trotting; arena work, 20-30 minutes. Tuesday and Thursday, cross country hilly ride of approximately 5km at 5kph.
The next and final four weeks: Monday, Wednesday, Friday, 10km at 5kph OR 3km at 10-14kph - mostly trotting with a bit of walking; arena work 20-30 minutes. Tuesday and Thursday, cross country hilly ride of 8-10km at 5kph.
During this time, you'll be able to gauge your horse's fitness level by the speed at which his pulse recovers to his normal resting rate. Aim to get his pulse down within 10 minutes of stopping - this can be done halfway during the ride or at the end. When the pulse drops to normal within those 10 minutes, your horse has reached the required fitness level for that particular exertion level, so you can increase the difficulty, speed or distance, but only one of the three, not all three at once - remember the golden rule!
While you're in this conditioning programme, nothing prevents you from entering an event. Treat that event like a training ride where you have a change of scenery and routine. It'll also train you as to what happens at a ride and the bonus is that your official ride miles will start accumulating. An official record of your ride mileage can be kept by ERASA only if you're a member of a club though, so go the ERASA site at www.erasa.co.za to obtain the contact details of the club nearest you. You'll be issued with a rider and horse log book in which the details of every ride you attend will be recorded.
To assist with your record keeping, draw up a "ride sheet" which should contain the following information: the date of the ride; the time you started and finished (from that you can work out the speed); the estimated temperature; the estimated humidity (we'll discuss the dangers of humidity later on); the estimated wind speed; the distance of the ride; the terrain like hills, sand, stones; the pulse rate at start of the ride; the pulse rate at 10 minutes and 20 minutes after the ride; and a place for any comments, like gait abnormalities, stumbling, etc. If you're good on spreadsheets, you can enter this data and draw a graph that will graphically show your progress over the months.
If your horse's pulse rate peaks or doesn't drop as it should, it normally indicates pain. Check the obvious like legs and feet - check for lameness - then move to the back. Make a "tent" with your hand and place the fingers on one side of the spine and thumb on the other side and run your hand from the wither to the haunches, pushing fairly hard. If your horse indicates any discomfort, you need to attend to it before riding again, as your saddle will only make it worse. If you're good with massaging, use some Arnica oil or Reparil Gel and massage the spot. Otherwise, if the pain persists, get either your vet or a chiropractor to attend to the problem.
Why should your horse suddenly develop back pain? With any discipline you'll see all your horse's muscles changing as he becomes fitter - the back muscles especially (look at dressage horses!). This means that your saddle no longer fits like it did before and may have developed "hot spots" - the best way to sort this out is to find somebody who can help you with saddle fit. Do you have to buy a new saddle? Well, it all depends on what the problem may be - there are new pads on the market that will help with the fit of the saddle or all you may have to do is re-stuff and re-balance your old saddle.
If you would like to purchase a saddle dedicated to endurance, keeping your dressage or GP for the show ring, you may want to look at purchasing a custom made saddle for now and for the future. There's a very good saddle maker right here in South Africa who has tested the tree over many hundreds of miles and I personally recommend his product - my saddle cannot be bought at any price! It looks funny, but me and my horse's comfort take first prize, thank you.
The other pain spots may be anywhere in any muscle - educate yourself on the musculature of the horse - and check all the known trouble spots. You'd do well to purchase a book specifying these conditions which you can treat by yourself without having to call a vet every time. But having said that, please use good judgement with any injury and if you feel you can't handle the problem, don't hesitate to call in expert advice - either the vet, chiro, acupuncturist or anybody else whose judgement and knowledge you trust.
Watch out for saddle sores and girth galls - these indicate a poorly fitting saddle and can be avoided with good management.
If your horse shows back pain when checked by a vet at a ride or has developed galls or sores, you'll be disqualified sooner than you can blink. So please don't hesitate to attend to the problem. Also, if a muscle injury is ignored, over time the surrounding muscles will compensate but you'll see the problem muscle atrophy - then it's too late to try and fix it!