Maybe about three years ago, I got into a conditioning and schooling zone with Nimo. I wasn't really doing trail riding with him, except for a couple of group outings, but I did have access to a large field and a neighborhood to ride around, plus indoor and outdoor rings. I felt motivated and was able to ride about 5 days a week for several months. Prior to that time, I had been transitioning from a funk of not riding much, so when I started my 5-day-a-week plan, Nimo was used to being ridden maybe a couple of hours a week over 1-2 days.
I used two books as my main source of information and inspiration: Equine Fitness and 101 Dressage Exercises, both by Jec Aristotle Ballou. She is currently a dressage trainer, but believes very strongly in maintaining a balance of conditioning and schooling, regardless of what type of riding you do, and the value of lots of turnout and socialization plus as much hay and as few concentrates as possible. That belief meshes pretty well with what I think, which is why her books appealed to me. I especially liked her insistence that conditioning is important, even for dressage horses. I had been stuck in a schooling rut, and was looking for a way to do something other than ring work.
Anyway, I wasn't able to follow Ballou's recommended program to the letter, but I got pretty close and Nimo's level of fitness really increased a lot in a short period of time. He went from hardly being able to huff his way around the arena at a walk and trot for 45 minutes to being able to do a 2 plus hour trail ride with a bunch of serious trail and hunt riders one hot August day. Looking back on that ride, I definitely pushed him too hard, but the fact that he didn't have a metabolic incident is a testament to how much the work we had done had helped with his conditioning. I should also mention that he was schooling 2nd and even a couple of 3rd Level dressage exercises (with the exception of his canter, which was still stuck in Training/1st Level).
Because of my previous success with Ballou's suggestions, I really want to try them again this year to see how they work. One thing that I've been struggling with and that I've spent some time thinking about after Mel's post is the difference between Ballou's recommended plan of working your horse 6 days a week and most experienced endurance riders' recommendations of riding 2-3 times a week. Ballou is actually a former distance rider. (She won Vermont's Green Mountain Horse Association's 100-Mile Competitive Trail Ride when she was 13 years old.) But I don't want to discount decades of experience of successful endurance riders as I try to come up with a conditioning strategy for this year.
After thinking about it for a few days, I think I know at least a couple of reasons for the disparity. Ballou trains in an area where turnout for horses is extremely limited. Coupled with her main focus in dressage, a discipline where most riders keep their horses in stalls 23 hours a day and who only work in the arena in good footing, her perspective that horses need to be "worked" 6 days a week makes sense. Compare the foofy dressage horse who is in a stall all the time with the endurance horse, who is probably on pasture turnout 24/7, and I think I see why the typical dressage horse needs work almost every day - it's just to get him out of his stall!
Also, while Ballou just touches on how confined horses are not able to maintain bone density, Karen Chaton addresses the issue of bone density more thoroughly on her blog in this post. She summarizes the results of a study on pastured horses, horses stalled with exercise, and horses on stall rest by saying, "The team concluded that horses on stall rest for 14 weeks lost fitness, as indicated by the increase in heart rate and blood lactate levels after the final SET. But more importantly, they noted, pastured horses were able to maintain a similar level of fitness as the stalled, exercised horses in addition to having greater bone mineral content at the end of the study."
My guess is that most successful and experienced endurance riders keep their horses on pasture most of the time, which means that their horses are able to maintain, or even build, fitness while turned out. Meanwhile, boarded horses in my area (including Nimo) are typically stalled 15 plus hours a day for over half the year. Usually they will be turned out overnight during the summer months, which means close to 16 hours of turnout a day for a few months, but the problem is that when I am riding less because of weather and less daylight, my horse is also getting almost half the turnout, so it's like a double whammy for his fitness.
Additionally, I would like to point out that there is a baseline of fitness that a horse needs to achieve before doing any sport. I think once that baseline is achieved, maintaining it obviously takes a lot less work than building it, and horses that have done multiple 50s or 100s probably don't need to be improving their fitness anymore, unless their riders have a goal of doing longer or faster rides. So, riding 2-3 times a week is plenty for them to maintain their conditioning, especially when they are turned out most of the time.
But what about my horse? He does have a baseline of fitness for dressage work and even trail riding. But in terms of endurance riding, he still needs to be improving his conditioning. And I can never forget that he is a Friesian. I think there is some controversy about whether Friesians are warmbloods or drafts. I've always thought of them as warmbloods, but they really aren't as aerobically athletic as some of the warmbloods that are seen in dressage and eventing. Regardless of exactly what they are, I am pretty sure that they don't have a "second wind," which means I can't expect to work my horse past the cramp in his side and have him magically recuperate like I might be able to for an Arabian.
So, here's what I need to keep in mind about my plans for conditioning.
(1) Nimo is a big, heavy-duty horse, which means that what might be easy for even a minimally fit Thoroughbred is going to be tough for him without a lot of preparation. His metabolism isn't going to bail me out if I push him too hard.
(2) He still needs to develop a baseline of fitness for a 25/30 mile endurance ride over easy to difficult terrain.
(3) He is on limited turnout for much of the year, so my work with him needs to provide something close to what he would get if he was out all the time on a big pasture if I expect his muscles and bones to keep up with our conditioning.
(4) The barn where I keep Nimo has maybe 3 miles of trails that I can use. The trails are level. If I want to work on climbing or longer distances, I have to haul between 30 and 90 minutes.
(5) The barn has a large, outdoor arena with good footing.
(6) I don't have a heart-rate monitor, and I don't plan to get one until we are at the point where we are conditioning for 50-mile rides.
(7) To the extent possible, I'd like to continue to take a dressage lesson every other Sunday.
(8) I have a one-year old child who is currently sucking the life out of me with her seemingly boundless energy.
(9) I procrastinate about things, am whimpy when it comes to riding in the cold, the rain, and the heat, and I have to set my riding goals at a level above where I want to be because I will totally skip out on some of my planned rides.
(10) I am not independently wealthy, and I have to work during the week, as does my husband, so the only days I have available for real trail rides and lessons are Saturday and Sunday.
(11) I have a doctor's appointment for physical therapy for a chronic issue every Monday evening.
In 101 Dressage Exercises, Ballou recommends the following schedule:
-Monday: One-hour loosening session. This session is supposed to be just the basics, with no new or difficult exercises.
-Tuesday: New material. After a healthy warm-up, spend some time working on a new or difficult exercise or movement.
-Wednesday: Ground work and Longeing. Do longeing or long-lining for 20-30 minutes, mostly at the trot and with side reins and engagement. The work could also include ground poles or cavaletti.
-Thursday: New material. Build on what you did on Tuesday or do something new.
-Friday: Fitness. Work on cardio for an hour, including hills, canter, jumping, or trail riding.
-Saturday: Confirmed Movements. Only do things that your horse is comfortable with, but do all of them in one ride (e.g. practice a dressage test at your level).
In Equine Fitness, Ballou recommends something a little different. She goes through suggested conditioning schedules for developing basic cardio fitness, strength-building, and maintenance, but these schedules are not specific to any particular discipline. The one I'm most interested in now is the strength-building phase. Here she recommends 2-3 days of schooling, 1 day on cardio work, and 2 days of strength training. I should note that she allots 2 months for this phase, so the work-out plan is not meant to be a forever-type of endeavor. That is something I didn't notice the first time I read the book...
Alternatively, Nancy S. Loving presents a baseline fitness development plan specifically for endurance horses in Go the Distance. She suggests riding 3-4 times a week, starting at one hour or 5-6 miles per ride and increasing up to a pace of 8 mph over easy terrain. Then, she says you should do 5 workouts per two week period, with 4 short (less than an hour) workouts at 10 mph and one long, slow distance ride of 18 miles. A significant component of her plan is reliance on monitoring the horse's heart rate and keeping it in the 110-150 bpm range, with an occasional quick burst up to 170 bpm as the horse gets more fit. After the baseline fitness as obtained, she believes you only need to do 2-3 rides a week of 5-10 miles to maintain the fitness level into the next season.
So, how should I proceed? Luckily, I have a little experience with something that previously worked well for Nimo. It was primarily based on the 101 Dressage Exercises schedule because, at the time, Nimo was a dressage horse. What I'd like to do is pull the best of all three of these recommendations, customize them for my horse and boarding situation, and come up with something that helps my horse become more fit for trails and more advanced in dressage. (I tried to insert a sarcastic comment here, but none of them really fit, so I'll leave you to insert your own version of what a ridiculous pie-in-the-sky scheme this is...)
Here's my starting point:
-Sunday: Dressage lesson or schooling session at the barn that includes new or challenging work. When weather and footing permits, include a 20 minute warm-up and a 20 minute cool-down walking around the farm.
-Tuesday: Strength training. If light and weather permits, ride at the boarding stable on available trails and do interval-type work. If light and weather do not permit, and the work needs to be done in the arena, incorporate some exercises from either Equine Fitness or 101 Dressage Exercises that are designated as strength-building exercises.
-Wednesday: Hand walking on gravel for 20-30 minutes, followed by stretching and bodywork, as needed.
-Thursday: Dressage schooling session (one hour) that focuses on stuff we already know how to do fairly well, but also includes significant time for trotting for 10 plus minutes and increasing Nimo's ability to canter.
-Friday: Long-lining or lungeing for 20-30 minutes, occasionally over ground poles/cavaletti.
-Saturday: Long trail ride (2-4 hours) that focuses on climbing one week and developing speed the next.
Despite designing this lovely schedule, I know the weather and footing will get in the way, particularly in the spring. Sometimes the schedule won't work because of my job, my husband's job, or our daughter. Occasionally, I might want to do a ride just for fun or compete in a Judged Pleasure Ride, or a Hunter Pace, or God-forbid, an actual endurance ride, so I'm going to have to make adjustments. And of course, I could figure out that something else works better or I just need to change the work over time to keep us both fresh and motivated.
Anyway, at least I have a place to start, with a tangible schedule that I can immediately start procrastinating about:)