Getting Ready - The Conditioning Plan
By Abby Bloxsom - Taken from ACTRA Newsletter Volume# 220 March/April 2005
Preparing for a competitive trail ride is a long, involved process that can result in a successful ride or an unsuccessful one. Probably the most important ingredient in a successful conditioning program is planning. While it's certainly possible to bring a horse up to a good fitness level (and even to compete successfully) by the seat of one's pants, a more reliable approach would be to make up a detailed plan and use it to guide your training activities as they proceed.
Before you develop your training plan, let me review for you the difference between long-range conditioning and short-range conditioning. Each of the horse's systems develops and strengthens at a different rate. The heart and lungs adapt rapidly, in a matter of weeks, to accommodate increases in cardiovascular stress. The skeletal muscles also adapt quickly, changing their ability to take up oxygen and to store and burn glycogen during exercise. As these two systems get stronger with a gradual increase in work, the rider (technically, the trainer, but who's splitting hairs most of the competitive trail riders I know train their own horse) will notice how quickly the horse seems to become stronger and fitter.
During the first few months of training, the horse's body also conditions itself to take up nutrients from the gut (water, digestible energy, electrolytes, vitamins, etc.) more efficiently. If he receives more electrolytes than he needs in his regular diet, he will also develop the pathways for excreting them in his urine, so the rider should be careful to supply them as needed but not in excess during training. One other system that will adapt rapidly -- that is, during the first months of a conditioning program -- is the horse's heat dissipation system. He uses several different methods to shed excess heat. These will adapt differently to cool the horse in dry weather than they will in humid weather, so it is important to be certain that the horse does his training in conditions similar to those he will compete in. If that isn't possible, the rider will have to work much harder to keep the horse cool during competition.
Over the next six to twelve months, the horse's body will adapt to continued work by strengthening bone and sinew. These will become denser in response to the specific demands being placed upon them. In preparing a competitive trail horse, you could take care to prepare under similar ground, terrain, and speed conditions to those you will encounter when you begin competing. In addition to bone and sinew, the muscle fibers that the horse was born with will develop gradually to specialize in the type of work that the horse is being asked to do. At birth, the horse's muscles possess specialized capabilities, determined by his ancestry. As he ages, however, the muscles fibers will gradually adapt to the work that he does. This adaptation is not as rapid as the general muscle strengthening I referred to before. While we do see a change in the horse's muscling during the first few months, it's also quite common to notice marked changes in his physique in the second year of training --that's the development of the more lasting changes in the muscle fiber itself.
Preparing a horse for what distance riders generally refer to as a "short" ride, say 25 to 35 miles in one day, is a short-term conditioning project. With luck, an experienced competitor can pull off a 25 on a mature horse in six weeks. It's a whole lot easier if you have eight weeks. To allow for a younger horse, mistakes, the flu, or a week of surprise snowstorms, twelve weeks leaves breathing room. To make a horse ready for a one or two day 50 should take at least six months (to begin developing those slower - changing systems), and it's generally accepted that the one to three day 100 miles should wait until the end of a horse's second year of distance competition.
The guidelines I'm giving you here are for the rider preparing a horse from an extended layoff. If a horse is in current work at the beginning of a program or has a long history of regular exercise, you might feel comfortable modifying them. If you do so, be sure to consider the nature of the work the horse is doing and the extent to which it really resembles distance riding. Bear in mind the way his various systems have developed in response to stress, and use the conditioning period to fill in the gaps by applying the specific stresses in gradually increasing increments.
At this point, you will be expecting a how-to chart. Well, I won't be giving you one. Each horse needs a conditioning program targeted to develop his specific areas of need, and the generalized chart is often seen as wanting for someone who's "somewhere beyond the very beginning" but not exactly sure where to go next. So instead I will give you a description of the program I would use, for any horse:
Question #1: What's the goal? This, of course, is up to you. For an example, I'll choose a one day 25 miler, in similar or easier terrain to the area I condition in, during a season that's usually mild. The sample horse is an aged Arab gelding with good conformation and no history of unsoundness. Let's call him "Red." He has worked regularly as a trail guide mount in his adult life, spending several hours a day on the trail several days a week, so he probably has reasonably dense bone and strong joints. His job has to provided him with the opportunity to cover distance at anything above 4 to 5 mph through, so I'll let plan to go carefully as I increase the speed of our works to prevent tendon or ligament strain. In addition, let's say Red has had several months off during the winter. His cooling system is on winter shutdown, his muscles have lost last summer's tone, and his heart and lungs have lost most of their efficiency.
Question # 2: How long do I need? I like to allow about two weeks for each 5 miles of competitive distance. If my "goal" distance were greater, I'd need to add in extra weeks here and there for injuries, vacations, and (at least in this part of the world)Winter. At the beginning, Red should be able to do an hour of mixed walk and trot without difficulty. If I need it later, this may buy me an extra week or two in my conditioning plan. He still has the dense bone and fairly muscular build of a horse who's done years of trail riding. Since his winter layoff was on pasture, his heart and lungs should be able to handle this light work. (If he blows vary hard, I'll slow down.) He still wears his winter coat, so I fully expect him to get sweaty when we ride. I'll also be careful to let him cool down on the trail so he doesn't chill when we get home. If I do it at all, I won't chip his winter coat until we get close to the ride date -- and he'll have the most beautiful lacy network of blood vessels right below his paper-thin skin. His cooling system will be in good shape from exercising in his overcoat.
Question # 3: How far do I go? I ride three to five days each week (I prefer four, some horses need five, and sometimes life only gives me three). My shorter rides, all but one of the days, are about an hour to an hour and a half. I do one long ride each week at my maximum distance, increasing either the average speed or the distance each week, but not both. The maximum distance begins at 5 miles, increasing by five miles every other week. Once I'm over about 25 miles during the first season. I would not ride the maximum distance every week. I'd increase the mileage by 20 - 25% each time, maintaining ride speed, but give a week or lighter work in between. Next year, when Red has a year of real distance riding under his girth, I'll be more comfortable with allowing him to do a few 25s back to back. With a shorter maximum ride each week, say 15 miles or so, he will continue to build on his conditioning base without burning out mentally or breaking down because he hasn't had time to fully recover.
Question # 4: How fast do I go? The shorter rides each week supply the horse's conditioning base, and I go at whatever speed the horse is already handling. If that's a walk at first, so be it. Eventually, I do these rides at just over ride speed. As the horse gets stronger, the faster long ride (the second week at each distance) usually approaches ride speed.
Question # 5: How do I know the horse is still okay? Everyday, I check every leg from knee to hoof for dents, dings, bumps, bulges, puffiness, weight bearing, and heat. I watch the horse eat, walk and trot around (in the paddock or pasture), pee, and poop. I check that his attitude toward me and the other horses in unchanged. I watch his weight more closely than my own. I check his back with the lightest finger tip touch for anything that wasn't there before. Every time I ride, I take his pulse when I get home and again in ten minutes. I know whether he prefers the pavement or the shoulder; water, mud, or rocks; uphill, downhill, or the flat; apples or carrots; beech leaves, maple leaves, or swamp grass; the bit or the hackamore; trotting or cantering. In short, I monitor everything I possibly can. If something changes I want to know why. I watch it diligently and back off on the training for a bit at the same time. Sometimes it will get better, sometimes not. If nothing changes, I try not to worry. I usually manage not to hallucinate problems, but they do have a funny way of sneaking up when I'm not looking.