Conditioning for Endurance – Part 1

I am hesitant to talk about conditioning because every horse is different (I cannot emphasize this enough) and there are so many factors to consider when conditioning and what to expect regarding a timeframe.

There are three main areas when it comes to conditioning for endurance competition:

  1. Physical conditioning.
  2. Mental conditioning.
  3. Time off/recovery.

First, let me say, my experience is strictly with Arabian horses with the exception of a National Show Horse, but even he was mostly Arab.  I would think the same basic rules apply, but the Arabian is genetically engineered for the sport of endurance.  Always remember, every horse is different. 

I am going to start with physical conditioning.

If you have a young horse that is just beginning an athletic career, expect a longer and slower timeframe to get ready than an older horse that has done some sort of athletic endeavor before.  A horse that has done endurance previously and then had some time off (even if years), will get back in shape must faster than a horse that is doing this for the first time.  The young horse needs to build bone density, strengthen tendons and ligaments, and develop the correct muscles for the work you are about to ask of him/her.

An important fact to remember is that the cardiovascular system gets in shape fairly rapidly while the musculoskeletal system takes longer.  Try not to be fooled into thinking your horse is in tip-top shape in a short duration of time because his heart rate is good and he recovers well; this is only an “outward” sign for the rider.  We MUST keep in mind the rest of the horse’s body systems that need time to condition for the rigorous demands of endurance.  Patience goes a long way.

Deals Midas Moon @ Indian Territory 2010 – first 50-miler

CONDITIONING FOR A 25-MILER:

First, I am going to assume that your horse is trained and knows the basics — leg aids, is responsive, has done pattern work and knows how to switch leads, and has been on trail, crosses water, etc.  Additional things to teach include drinking out of sometimes noisy plastic water bottles while riding and sponging.  Of course, then there are behavioral issues… these types of issues will be discussed in future training articles.

For the young horse (or older horse that has not done any sort of athletic event before), a good start is an hour ride every other day for the first couple of weeks.  Don’t worry about mileage in the beginning, just go by time.   But do be aware of how fast you’re allowing your horse to go and this is something you will need to get a good understanding of for competition and learning how to rate your horse.

Speed kills… plain and simple… the faster you go, the less lifespan your horse will have in competition.

With that said, a safe rate of speed in the beginning is 5-8 mph.  I would not push 10 mph on a young/new horse in the first couple of weeks or even until month-two.  In these first two weeks of training, I would spend the first week doing 4-5 miles every other day with two days off at the end of the week.  In week two, ride that first day 5 miles; if your horse feels really good and it is easy for him, begin going 6-8 miles every other day.  Again, every horse is different and, as the rider, you must pay attention to how he/she is recovering in-between rides and how your horse feels on trail.  An important universal rule is:  Don’t increase speed and distance at the same time. 

If you are able to increase to 6-8 miles per ride in that second week, I would repeat that in week 3, starting with the first day of 6 miles and then increasing to 8 miles on the next ride day if your horse is feeling good.  So, at this point, you are conditioning approximately 22 miles per week.  The goal should be to reach a 15-mile conditioning day without it exhausting your horse.  Once your horse is able to go 15 miles at approximately 6 mph on average without being tired, he/she is ready for a 25-mile ride.

Another general rule of thumb:  Give your horse a day off for every 10 miles you ride; this is strictly a general rule of thumb and many factors need to be taken into account when considering time off.  Time off is an important part of your conditioning program and I will discuss this separately.

On a new/young horse, expect to spend 2-3 months getting ready for your first 25-mile ride.  Of course, this is in a “best scenario” situation if everything goes as planned and weather cooperates… always listen to your horse and remember patience is a virtue.

A couple of more general rules when conditioning your young/new endurance horse:  Always walk deep sand and always walk down hill.  The horse only has so many downhill miles; save their legs as much as possible.  There is no other terrain that scares me more than deep sand; once your horse is physically fit and legged up, you could begin cantering sand, but never long-trot in deep sand.  

CONDITIONING FOR A 50-MILER:

St. Vincent @ 2005 AERC Nationals – 50 miler

Whether you have done some 25’s or you want to go straight to 50’s, the same general rules apply for conditioning for 50’s as they do for 25’s with just more miles… to a certain extent.  Once your horse is doing 50’s, it doesn’t take as many miles to keep him/her in shape and time-off becomes a very important part of your program.

When getting ready for 50’s, your horse should be able to do a 25-mile conditioning day without being exhausted.  I don’t mean 15 miles, break, and then 10 more miles… I mean 25 miles in one shot.  There are a lot of 50-milers that require you do the first 25 miles in one jaunt and your horse should be able to handle this without being too tired to continue on the remaining 25.

Again, when getting ready, a safe conditioning program is to ride every other day 8-10 miles each.  However, I understand it is sometimes hard to stick to this with so many life factors getting in the way, right?  So, just remember your time off and try to get in at least 3 days a week, totaling 25-35 miles per week.  Again, again, again… every horse is different.

I have had success riding two days a week, 15 miles each, with three days off in-between.  But, that was also on a horse that had been doing 50’s for a while.  I have also had horses that did not get ridden but 1-2 days a week in-between 50-mile competitions, even 4-6 weeks apart.  In fact, one particular ride that was extremely hot and humid and, because of weather conditions in the previous weeks, I had not been able to ride much at all, turned out to be one of his best rides, missing BC by a measly ½ point and took high vet score with nearly all 10’s!  This particular horse had been doing 50’s and in this situation there was a 6-week span from his last ride to this one.  The horses always surprise me… just know your horse the best you can.

CONDITIONING FOR 100-MILERS:

Ahhhh, so you want to do 100’s?  Good for you!!  I LOVE 100-milers, something I never thought I would even attempt let alone love!

Kenlyn Pristine @ 2010 Armadillo 100-miler

First of all, your horse needs to be a good drinker and eater on and off trail.  I don’t think there is a set amount of 50-milers one needs prior to attempting a 100, but I do think there are years of riding/conditioning that is an important consideration.  One cannot rush time when it comes to building the horse’s musculoskeletal system to succeed in competing 100-mile rides with success as well as longevity.  Expect to spend at least 3 years of competition/conditioning before asking your horse to attempt a 100-miler.  Of course, I would at least do a few 50-milers prior; I can’t imagine strictly conditioning for 100 and then biting that chunk off… I would love to hear from anyone who has, though!

I think one of the biggest fears among riders thinking about attempting a 100-miler is riding in the dark.  Don’t be afraid.  Surely, if you are attempting a 100-miler, you know your horse by this point.  You have to trust and relinquish that control… your horse can see great in the dark and most horses have a great sense of direction.  It is truly an amazing feeling to ride your horse in the dark, not being able to see his ears most of the time and feeling him stop to eat grass when available and walk where the terrain dictates only to pick back up the trot and continue on.  An important thing about riding in the dark is that wearing a headlamp or any light interferes with the horse’s night vision.  I know it is a security crutch for the rider, but one must truly trust their horse.  It is a good idea to have a light source should you need it for reading maps or signs.

Kenlyn Pristine @ 2010 Armadillo 100-miler

As far as conditioning, it is not a whole lot different from your maintenance conditioning schedule for 50’s.  Your horse should be completely recovered from doing a 50-miler by the evening of the 50 and certainly by the next morning before considering a 100-miler, but as far as how many miles you ride per week is not a lot different.  There is a fine line between conditioning and over-conditioning.  And, time off is a very, very important factor in your program.

I hope this information has been helpful and I would be happy to answer any questions you may have and certainly would love to set up a personalized training program for you and your horse.

Look for future posts regarding mental conditioning and time-off/recovery.

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