Endurance Riding, Part 3, Section 1

Exercise, Feeding and Energy Sources

By Kristene Smuts

This article will cover the conditioning programme for the next 3 months incorporating aerobic and anaerobic exercise, feeding the endurance horse and tack and other equipment.

By now you should be able to take your horse's pulse and respiration fairly easily and be able to judge speed and distance with some measure of accuracy.

At the risk of sounding tedious, I'll repeat the first golden rule : if you increase difficulty, like speed or hills, decrease distance, and vice versa.

Aerobic and Anaerobic Exercise

Let's start off with aerobic and anaerobic exercise - no, it's not where you dig out your leg warmers and do funny movements to music, but the rate at which your horse uses his energy at different exertion levels.

Aerobic : easy to remember when you think of "aer" being the presence of air (or oxygen), and anaerobic is the absence of air (or oxygen). On a good day, you'd be able to walk a good distance (a few kilometres at least) without feeling any negative effects, but you wouldn't be able to sprint for 500 meters without feeling sore afterwards. This is because at the walk, your muscles are in an aerobic state of exercise, but at the sprint are in an anaerobic state of exercise. The same goes for the horse.

When he's walking or trotting easily, the circulation is delivering oxygen to the muscles at an even rate, feeding the muscles as they're working. As soon as the exertion level is pushed where oxygen can't be delivered at a good rate, you're effectively in an anaerobic state of exercise - the muscles are starved of oxygen - and lactic acid starts to form (which is the burn and stiffness afterwards). Anaerobic exercise uses glycogen as energy, which is stored in moderate quantities in the muscles and liver, and gets used up very quickly, leaving your horse depleted of immediate an immediate energy source.

To exercise at an aerobic rate, you need to keep the pulse rate below 130bpm - a medium to fast paced trot when moderately fit. As your horse becomes fitter, he'll be able to exert more energy before reaching this level. To check the pulse, exercise at a particular level for about 2 minutes, jump off and immediately take his pulse - don't wait because the pulse will start to drop as soon as he comes to a standstill. You'll start seeing a drop in the immediate pulse very quickly as he becomes fitter, meaning you can up your exertion level. If you keep bumping the aerobic level, eventually you'll be able to do a fairly brisk canter within the 130bpm target. If you're using a heart rate monitor, you'll be able to check the pulse rate without having to jump off, helping you to slow down or speed up as the pulse rate dictates.

The programme for the next 3 months

Month 4 should see you in a reasonably fit state, where you've sorted out the initial routine. Now is the time where you aim to start bumping the aerobic rate up to its limit, but not to such an extent that recovery takes too long. You may not be able to see any damage done in lameness or stiff muscles, but over a period of time the wear and tear will take its toll. So take it slowly and you'll get there faster.

You'll need to decide whether to train for speed or for exertion. If you decide on the first option, adapt your schedule for month 3 to faster speeds, but keep your distance the same. If you decide on the latter option, the best way of upping the exertion level, is to find a steeper hill of approximately the same distance as in your initial schedule. Another way is to train in water, either working your way up a river, or through deepish slow-moving water, where the resistance of the water will increase the exertion level. Check out the footing, as you don't want slippery rocks or mud that'll pull you down. The third way of increasing exertion, is to train in sand. Use extreme caution when you attempt this - for the initial week or two start with a walk for a short distance in the sand before increasing the distance - remember to warm up properly. Never trot or canter in sand as you'll be compromising the health of your horse's legs.

By month 5, you can start going faster down the hill. Again, do this only after warming up properly so as to prepare the joints, ligaments and tendons for the increased strain. Choose your downhill carefully so that it's not too steep - a gentle slope will do the trick. If you don't have access to a gentle slope, decrease your speed when you start with this next exertion level. Start off with a slow trot for about 5 meters for the first 2 weeks, then increase it incrementally over the next few weeks. Remember, don't increase the speed, keep it at a slow trot. This also serves to train your horse to use his haunches as downhill brakes. If you go too fast too quickly, your horse won't learn to use his natural brakes and will try to keep his balance and regulate his speed by braking with his front legs, causing unnecessary strain on the joints and shoulders. By using his front legs for brakes, you'll be thrown forward into a very uncomfortable position as well.

By month 6, assuming that you haven't had any down-time because of injuries or illness, you'll be able to do fair speeds on the flat, getting up to about 15 or 16kph - this means you'll be able to complete a 30km ride in about 1.5 hours. Remember, aim to complete, not to ride fast. This is also the time where you have to start with interval training.

The last two weeks or so, before going into the next 3 month cycle, do interval training where you do sprints on the flat for about 500 metres or so, then slow down to a trot for the next kilometre or until your horse has caught his breath and is trotting easily again, then another sprint for about 500 metres. When starting this, keep the sprints to about 3 or 4 for the day so as not to strain your horse too much. In the closing days of this 3 month period, you should end with around 6 sprints per day. Remember, never downhill and never through sand.

The idea with interval training is that you'll be teaching the horse's muscles to cope with anaerobic exercise, that is, how to deal with lactic acid in the muscle cells. Be careful that you don't overdo this interval training, because you run the risk of swinging those slow-twitch, high oxidative muscles to become fast-twitch muscles (remember the section "The Ideal Endurance Horse" from the previous article?). All you're interested in doing, is being able to cope with those short bursts of speed from time to time without depleting your horse entirely.

Should you decide to enter a ride within this period, taper you training off so the last day of exercise is about Tuesday or Wednesday latest, giving your horse a chance to recuperate for the ride on Saturday.

Part 3, Section 2