Performance Peaks

Performance Peaks:
The Key to Competitive Success

By Kathy Romeiser

Tom, an enthusiastic newcomer to the sport of endurance riding, decided he'd like to enter a 50-mile ride scheduled for four weeks down the road. A month was plenty of time to get his already partially trained gelding in shape, he figured. To insure that the horse would be in good condition for the event, Tom devised a training program which called for a steady increase in the intensity of the gelding's work. According to Tom's plan, his horse would be putting in the greatest number of hours at the most challenging levels right before the big day. Yet, the gelding placed far back in the pack when the results of the ride were final. And Tom couldn't understand why his horse seemed exhausted and had turned in such a dull performance.

Lisa, a more experienced endurance competitor, approached her horse's conditioning in a different manner. Though she used Tom's technique of gradually intensifying the workouts, she leveled off her horse's program 14 days prior to the ride. Then she eased off even more the last week before. The day of the 50-mile ride, Lisa finished fourth and was pleased that she still seems to have plenty of horse left after the effort.

While both of the preceding training strategies are based on the principle of progressive loading or precision training - systematically exposing a horse to steadily increasing work with increments spaced to allow him to adapt and achieve new levels of fitness - Lisa's more successful conditioning plan included the integration of two other concepts: Peaking and tapering. By planning for her horse to reach his top condition 14 days before his event, and then tapering the workload over the two weeks just prior to the ride, she brought her horse to a high fitness level and then reduced the stresses to which he had been introduced. As a result, he had ample time to "refuel" his body systems, but not so much that he lost muscle tone or became mentally dull and uncontrollable. Thus, he was trained to a high performance plateau, but on the day of competition, his body and mind were fresh - not stressed by a too-hard, final-preparation workout the day before.

Though this method doesn't guarantee a winning performance - No program or trainer can take a Seattle Slew out of Ol' dobbin - it can provide you with the best results in the time allowed by enhancing the talent that your horse does possess, ultimately providing you with an athlete who is as eager to tackle a cross-country course, cut a cow or be the first to the wire as he is physically able.

Adapting To Stress
The technique of progressive loading grew out of studies conducted in the early 1950's by physiologist Has Selye. In his General Adaptation Theory, he states that when a body is exposed to stress, specific and measurable biological responses adapt the affected systems to the demands. For example, the first time you trot your horse for a mile, he's likely to be tired and sore and have increased pulse and respiration rates. Working him at that distance several times in one week, however, helps him get used to that level of demand. By the week's end, he's trotting the mile with barely a rise in pulse. Though his body was initially stressed by the distance and speed, it now has adapted. The cycle is repeated the next week when you again increase your horse's work load. By challenging him with a workout that's a bit tougher than his previous level of accomplishment you keep him adapting until he's progressed to the fitness level needed for optimal performance in his sport.

In order to attain his athletic peak, a horse first requires a solid conditioning program based on the three "Building blocks" of progressive loading: long slow distance (LSD), strength work and speed. Then his regimen can be gradually adapted to his specific sport. For example, does his successful performance depend primarily on speed, skill or perhaps some combination of the two? In addition, for how long will the horse be required to perform? Training for a single competition, where an all-out best performance is required, is unusual for equine athletes. Most horses face from several to a dozen or more competitive performances a season. Since it is virtually impossible to keep a horse at a 100% peak for this length of time, most trainers instead try to bring their horses to around 98 percent of their level for a period of months by using a system of "mini peaks" every 10 days to two weeks - a schedule that seems to work well for most racehorses - or they plan for major peaks every six to eight weeks - a program common to training cutting horses.

Timing Peaks
The carefully planned timing of a performance peak is critical since the adaptation of the body's biological systems to increased work is partially a destructive process, leading to a body-wide oxygen debt accompanied by the accumulation of toxic waste products in the blood, muscles and organs of excretion; fuel depletion and tissue breakdown. The body responds to the demands of progressive loading by refueling and overfueling muscles, building stronger cartilage, tendons and bones, improving aerobic capacity - the horse's ability to use oxygen during exercise, which is a factor of endurance - and establishing greater tolerance to high levels of muscle waste products. When work tapered prior to a performance, the body has a chance to clean its "engines" and replenish its stores so that after 10 to 30 days, the horse's biological reserves are fully prepared for the competition.

Just how much and what kind of work can be undertaken during a tapering period depends not only on the sport but on the individual equine competitor as well. A racehorse's work might be cut to one-third his most taxing effort. A dressage or cutting horse, on the other hand, needs as much mental preparation as physical, so light workouts during the tapering period with one final session devoted to the specific movements required during his performance will sharpen his skills and help him to remain keen. Once a horse has begun his show or competition season, continuing with workouts of half the duration but the same intensity as his most rigorous one will keep him near his peak and possibly foster some improvement.

There is one catch to all of this, however: the peak-maintenance period will last for approximately the same amount of time spent in the final phase of conditioning. A brief fitness program, such as Tom's and Lisa's month-long schedule, will produce a shallow peak of short duration. Another integral component in the progressive-loading process is the intensity of the stress being imposed. If it is inadequate, no benefit will occur. But if it is too demanding, it will cause the horse to be susceptible to disease and breakdown of the biological processes. The horse's responses, both physical and emotional, to the stage of training he's reached determine whether you'll increase, decrease or hold steady the level of his work. To measure the appropriateness of the stress you're imposing, pay close attention to your horse's heart rate or pulse. When he is sufficiently stressed by work, his pulse will rise to about 150 beats or more per minute with rapid recovery toward normal - about 40 to 60 beats per minute - in approximately 5 to 15 minutes. If your horse has been faced with to great a challenge, however, his pulse rate will remain elevated for a longer period of time. This is a sign that your horse is overfaced and needs to be brought back down to a lower training stage to allow for more complete adaptation at that level. When your horse's working pulse or the time needed for recovery has steadily decreased over a series of days (usually in two to five) while he's working at one consistent level, he is ready to move on. If his working pulse gradually rises over successive days, adaptation is not occurring. If it is suddenly higher without emotional provocation, pain and incipient injury are the likely causes. Other, more subtle signals of stressing include slight fatigue, weight drop, shortening of gait and blood chemistry differences, all detectable within the first day or so of an increased load. Signs of over-stressing include a decreases in appetite or in the speed of eating, dullness of attitude and appearance, slight lower-leg joint swelling and prolonged weight loss. More technical investigation with a force plate to measure gait changes, and a thermograph to detect excessive heat, will probably find his legs sore and inflamed.

Custom Tailoring The Program
While the measurement tools used to gauge the effects of a training program are universal for equine athletes, every sport's performance requirements are different and every horse is an individual with special needs of his own. It's up to you as the horse's trainer to evaluate the sport and the equine athlete involved, and tailor your conditioning program accordingly. Racing, for example, requires a high level of physical preparation, while events where precision or obedience are paramount, such as dressage, need to strike a balance between physical fitness and mental keenness. In addition, while one horse may adjust to each progressive load in two days, his stablemate may take five or six days to adjust to each new increment.

Mental Preparation
But beyond the fitness level of the horse's muscles, heart, lungs, bones, tendons and cartilage, lies another important element of a successful performance - the athlete's lies another important element of a successful performance - the athlete's mental preparation. It is as important to performance and peaking as are his physical responses. For instance, if you take two horses who are physically equal but mentally on different levels - one is relaxed while the other is nervous - and compete them, the odds are high that the calm horse will win. The reason is simple: he wastes less energy being upset. His concentration is on his work so he is not sidetracked by the activity around him. As a result, his performance is sharper and his endurance greater.

Aptitude, then, can be an effective training gauge. A horse who is performance fit is both physically developed and psychologically tolerant. He might be excited and hard to handle from the ground, but once he's tacked up and asked to work, he calms down quickly and sets his mind and body on the task ahead. A sour or irritable horse, however, is equally hard to handle astride. Most likely, he's a horse in pain because his body isn't well adapted to the demands being placed on it. By paying as close attention to the nuances of equine mood as you do to your horse's physical reactions, you can catch problems early on and make adjustments to his training program. A high-strung horse needs distance added to his daily workout to take off the edge. A dull and tired horse, on the other hand, requires a break from his work with distance decreased.

While progressive loading, peaking and tapering may seem to be complicated training concepts required only of equine athletes headed for the Preakness, the Little Brown Jug, the Olympics or the Quarter Horse Congress, these sports science techniques have value for every horse, no matter what his level of competition. The building-block system of training with an integrated "refueling period" prepares a horse both physically and mentally for high performance so that on competition day he's as eager and able as you are to meet and beat all challenges.

Progressive Loading: Three Basic Steps
The building blocks of the progressive-loading process stack up as follows:

  • Long slow distance work (LSD). The most important phase of progressive training, LSD provides the groundwork for every sport. During this portion of a horse's training program, he is steadily introduced to greater work distances over varied terrain. The aim is to increase the durability and elasticity of his skeletal and muscular systems, as well as boost the capacity of his lungs and heart to carry and utilize oxygen. For the beginning and intermediate levels of sports and activities such as pleasure and trail riding, local shows in various disciplines and short endurance rides, LSD may be all the conditioning your horse requires.

    There are several signals that your equine athlete has built a good LSD foundation and is ready to move on to the next stage of training: his heart rate recovers in five to 10 minutes from an hour's steady work and the quality of his sweat changes from thick and sticky to thin and watery with virtually no odor.

  • Strength work, the second phase of conditioning, is more strenuous exercise introduced to develop muscle power and respiratory efficiency. Muscles need to be able to work without oxygen (anaerobically) and to tolerate and shed the biological waste products produced during such intense efforts as galloping, jumping big fences, playing polo and cutting. Here, "skill drills" consisting of exercises that mimic those required of the sport, but executed at half the speed, are also introduced. The aim is to increase the horse's coordination balance and skill without imposing the physical demands placed on him during competition. Adaptation to strength work brings quick recoveries, tolerance to closely spaced workouts, muscular development and a more aggressive approach to work.

  • Speed. For sports that require a brief, all-out effort as in ingredient of success - such as racing and contest pulling - "speed works" are added to the conditioning recipe to further stimulate the body's cardiovascular system. One form of such an effort is interval training, a conditioning program consisting of controlled speed works of precise distance separated by controlled relief exercise, allowing partial recovery of the horse's resting pulse.

Equus June 1986

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