Friday, March 7, 2014

Fitness and Schooling Thoughts

I was inspired by this post written by Mel.  In fact, if you check the comments section, you'll see we had a bit of a dialogue that kept me thinking well after our dialogue was done.  I'm not even going to try to paraphrase the post because there is just too much in it, but if you're interested in things like cross-training, interval training, and/or running, you should definitely check it out.  Instead, I'd like to go through some of my thoughts on conditioning and schooling that I'm hoping to put into practice shortly (assuming that Mother Nature in fact remembers that it is March and therefore, SPRING in Virginia).

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).
  -Sunday:  Off.

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.
  -Monday: Rest.
  -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:)




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. - See more at: http://enduranceridestuff.com/blog/2014/01/12-14-weeks-horses-fit/#sthash.55jMOfHB.dpuf
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. - See more at: http://enduranceridestuff.com/blog/2014/01/12-14-weeks-horses-fit/#sthash.55jMOfHB.dpuf

19 comments:

  1. Thanks for the pointer back to Mel's post; I had read the post before all the comments went in and so missed those.

    I do -- hmm. Caveat on everything I'm about to write that obviously I am a distance newbie and that I don't mean to dismiss the knowledge or experience of folks whose thoughts and recommendations I take very seriously, okay? Okay.

    I do think it's worth keeping in mind, as you do here, one's own situation and end goals, and I do think the super-rested approach to conditioning is hot right now in certain circles. Which isn't to say that I don't think it's interesting/has merit/is real! I do think all of the above. But there is no One True Way; you can definitely find successful endurance people who are doing things differently, and especially if your goal is to continue progressing in a non-distance discipline I think it's probably wise to filter info through non-distance-colored glasses, too.

    I have maintained a horse on a 5-6-7 work session/week schedule for a sustained period, and seen an awful lot of other horses on similar. Not doing 100s, but not doing exclusively low-intensity ringwork, either. Who knows; maybe I'll eat these words a year or five from now. But I cannot believe that schedule in inherently Too Much for a (fundamentally sound, fundamentally well-managed and well-ridden) horse.

    And I see a fair bit of risk in a rest-heavy approach, too.

    And I've been doing -- keep meaning to post something, but don't have my thoughts in order just yet -- a fair bit of thinking about the usual endurance-horse musculature comma why I'm not comfortable with (for my horse) and sorting through aesthetic preference versus...??? But I got to spend some time last year riding in company with some folks and some horses with impressive resumes, and one of the things that was most interesting to me was how much their horses looked and went like my mental-picture ideal. It was really encouraging; I hope to pick their brains some in 2014.

    I think the conditioning effect of dressage done with any sort of intent is underrated. I also think that a lot of pure dressage horses are underconditioned -- but yeah, if you're doing dressage "for real" even at the lower levels, you're functionally doing trot and canter sets.

    At the same time, the physical development for upper level dressage is _so_ different that I have a feeling there must be a point of diminishing returns. But feelings can be wrong; I'll look forward to watching your journey!

    I feel like this comment has dissolved into random disconnected thoughts. My apologies; it's late. And again, I don't want to pretend that I know more about conditioning horses for distance than people who, y'know, actually do it for real with actual experience and success and stuff under their belts. Just adding in around the edges, is all.

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    1. Hannah, thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment. I think one reason we don't see a lot of distance riders talking about the benefits of mixing in some dressage work is because dressage is just not something that interests them, so they've never tried it. And if you haven't worked with a top-level trainer who really knows what they are doing to at least educate yourself about what real dressage schooling looks and feels like, I'm not sure that there is a lot of benefit to bothering with it. I think a lot of people assume that dressage schooling is walk, trot, canter in circles around the arena, and they have no concept of the level of effort required from both horse and rider to achieve even a low-level frame and correct movement. To be honest, I'm not sure that I even realized exactly how dressage benefited a horse (despite doing it for many years) until I stopped doing it for awhile and then came back to it.

      And I agree with you that there isn't one right way to condition a horse. Horses actually seem very flexible and I've had positive experiences with both taking a lot of rest between workouts and working on a more consistent, rigorous schedule. In fact, I think that mixing it up is a good way to keep the horse's body from adapting too much to the work to make much forward progress. And I think it's totally appropriate that if your horse ends up having a pretty hard time with a workout or you work him harder than usual, he should get some time off to recover.

      I also think that getting a baseline level of fitness can be different than making progress once you already have the baseline, and once you've put in thousands of miles, it's probably hard to remember what you did to get to that expert level, so you're really guessing when you tell people what you did, unless you kept really good records.

      I've enjoyed reading Mel's posts on high intensity interval training (HIIT), but I had to temper my initial enthusiasm for her success with the realization that her horse is in a much different place than mine is, so what works for her now may not be a good thing for me to try until my horse is a few years down the road in his conditioning.

      And finally, I don't know of anyone who does upper-level dressage and endurance, so I have no idea what that kind of riding schedule might look like. I would love to be able to get to the point with Nimo where we're confirmed at 4th Level, but I don't know how realistic that is with the work we're doing on the trails. At this point, I'm content with making progress in his fitness on the trails and improving his balance and consistency in the arena.

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  2. I just love you guys. You're both so thoughtful and you know so much about your disciplines. Ok, comments:
    First — I think all horses get a second wind if circumstances are right. Last year, Dixie ran out of trot and refused to do more than walk for about 30-45 mins at Tahoe Rim, then again for like an hour at VC. Both times she perked back up, all on her own, and offered to trot again when she felt like it. When we got to the finish/the next check, she was metabolically fine. She’d just gotten tired and needed to walk til she got her second wind. Arabs get fit faster, recover to their resting heart rate faster, and cool better — but that’s their only endurance secrets. Horses are just amazing animals no matter the breed!
    Second — Gail, you mentioned that you don’t know anybody who does UL dressage and endurance. May I direct you to Patti Stedman’s blog? http://enduranceintrospection.com/ She does hundreds and, uh, I forget, but it’s definitely not Training Level. Her horses are half-Arabs, but Ned is 16 hands and his other half is warmblood and he’s absolutely amazing — she’s written a lot about him. She’s great, really great, and I wish we weren’t on opposite coasts so I could meet her one day.
    On to the meat of the discussion. You’re both hashing out some very sane and reasonable conditioning plans that include getting on the horse like 6 days a week. That’s fine; I’m serious that you’re really sane and if I rode dressage/jumped as cross-training I’d probably do something similar. All I know how to do is bomb down the trails, so that’s all I do with Dixie. :) (And side note: Dixie is basically stalled 24/7; they have small outdoor paddocks but no actual pasture. I try to get her out 5 days a week, even if it’s just noted as “walk D” on the calendar. I ride 5 days a week, but I don’t train 5 days a week.)
    We keep harping on do not overcondition and rest your horse because we keep running into newbie endurance riders who are logging 20, 30, 40 miles a week to get ready to ride an LD. And then keeping up that mileage for their second LD, and their third, and how are they ever going to find the time to get the horse fit enough to do 50s?! Well, the answer is that the horse is plenty fit, needs a rest, needs less saddle time, and you could do a 50 next month.
    (And I really think there are more people who put in too many miles than people who set up a thoughtful six day a week crosstraining schedule, so I’ll probably keep harping on do not overcondition on my blog!)

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    1. Thanks, Funder:) I'll definitely check out Patti's blog. I'm interested to see how she combines dressage and endurance. And I hear what you're saying about not overconditioning, I really do:) I agree that there is a difference between just getting on and toodling around on your horse to get her out of her stall or small paddock and riding your horse for cardio or strength training. I think when our horses are stalled a lot or don't have good turnout, it is important to do something with them, even if it's just some handgrazing in a different place or maybe some groundwork.

      And I think planning work with recovery periods is essential. But I do know that there are plenty of horses who probably work hard 6 days a week or more as working ranch horses, but then they'll get a few months completely off in a huge pasture over the winter. So, I think that there is some room for figuring out what works for your current conditioning level and it may be that you can do longer periods of consistent work with little rest, as long as the work is not so hard that it really taxes the horse every day, but then you also have longer periods of rest. So there may come a time when I can try that type of schedule too.

      Anyway, my conditioning schedule and philosophy are definitely a work in progress and I'm more interested than anyone to see what ends up working best for my horse.:)

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  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Gail and Funder! Interesting discussion and yeah, I think we’re more on the same page than our respective weekly schedules might suggest. 

    The other piece of this, I think, is the sort of fitness relevant to a given sport. Endurance seems to be mostly about cardiorespiratory fitness and – well – endurance! And a certain amount of everything else in support of that endeavor, of course and everything affects everything else, etc., etc., etc. But the most fundamental requirements happen to be areas that are relatively easy to develop and maintain in a horse, especially a light-type horse. Eventing (and especially prepping for our three-day) gave me a real appreciation for how much quicker/easier it is to make gains in some areas than in others. Dressage (and now I’m going to contradict myself, but I swear these thoughts are compatible!) and jumping significant height and/or grids _requires_ that same kind of fitness (albeit to a lesser degree!) but doesn’t necessarily _develop_ it, and also requires some other stuff like, y’know, sheer carrying power and get-off-the-ground-ability.

    So we circle back around to varying the workout, right? You don’t use the entire horse up at once, no matter what you do; that’s why each discipline has its own injuries of greatest concern and why nobody except for endurance (and upper-level eventing to a much much much lesser degree) is worried about metabolics. What you want to avoid is pounding on anything to the point of failure. Within that boundary, lots of possible options (which is nice for those of us with the time and inclination to ride lots, and also nice for those of us without!).

    Funder’s point about speaking to the mistakes you see most often is very well-taken (and appreciated!).

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    1. Hannah, good point about how different disciplines use different muscles, even though they all contribute to cardio in some way. I've always liked eventing just because it seems like it would produce well-rounded, fit horses and riders. Sadly, neither Nimo or I will likely ever be brave enough to do anything other than Beginner Novice:) But I'd love to add some little cross-country jumps to our regular routine!

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    2. Oh, oh!
      (I promise I’m not trying to browbeat y’all into My Way Or The Highway, it’s just that you guys are really easy to talk to and I am pretty spergy about everything I’m learning about horses. I’m just sharing what I’ve learned so far!)
      So: cardio fitness is absolutely the easiest to develop. Horses gain cardio fitness far, far quicker than humans. And they lose it slower than we do, because life isn’t fair. Our measuring stick for cardio fitness is metabolic parameters like time to pulse down, but getting the horse to pulse down fast isn’t (or shouldn’t be) the end goal. It’s just a snapshot of how the horse is feeling at a particular time. You can head out with a C for guts midday and finish with an A, or you can head out with all A’s and metabolically crash an hour later. (That’s why they keep doing the real-time blood chemistry studies at Tevis, to try and find some accurate predictor of future metabolic problems.)
      What you’re doing with the long slow distance riding is breaking down and rebuilding muscle and bone. That takes time and there’s no known way to hurry it - and racetrack trainers have been trying to find a magic way to hurry that process for centuries. There’s no shortcuts.
      Here’s a nice article from Bruce Weary about bone remodeling: http://www.aerc.org/ENApril11Ed.asp
      Two years. It takes two years of work-rest-work to remodel the bones, cartilage, and tendons*. It only takes six months to get similar cardio gains. You can quite easily get to a point where the horse feels strong, thinks it’s strong, and is recovering great — but the bones are not as dense as they will be if you keep up the same measured training for another year and a half.
      *I think there’s some doubt about whether tendons ever get stronger. They have really poor circulation and limited capacity to rebuild after injury, so what you’re strengthening there seems to be the muscles on one end and the bones on the other.
      Anyway, I’m not sure if this has any bearing on the original discussion or if it’s a total tangent, but it’s interesting to me, so it might be interesting to you too.

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    3. I will say that I think it's less true than it used to be that eventers really understand conditioning. I don't mean to sound all get-off-my-lawn about it; the sport has evolved and I think in many ways that's a good thing. But a lot of the newer and younger folks I see coming into eventing (she says, from the ripe old age of 31 and in the eventing world since 2006, LOL) are interested in different aspects of it and for different reasons than I am/was -- much more of a specialist mindset. Which, again, is totally fine and I'm glad for them that the sport as it is now is a good match, and that I'm finding in endurance what I liked in eventing and craved more of.

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    4. BN cross-country is nothing scarier than you'll see out on the trails. Two thumbs up! :)

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    5. You're totally right about bone remodeling taking a lot of time, Funder, and that's a big reason why I want to make a commitment to more frequent "work." Of course I'm concerned about cardio fitness, but because bone takes so long to adjust to new work, I really want to up my game in terms of consistent, progressive work (with appropriate downtime too!). And you absolutely never need to worry about expressing a strong opinion. One of my favorite things about your blog is how honest and straight-forward you are:) Please feel free to comment about anything and everything because I love to get lots of feedback and information...which is probably part of the reason I have a blog:)

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    6. Aaaaaaaaaaah, I made it to the keyboard with at least some of my SO MANY THOUGHTS in response to Funder's comment intact! ::victory dance:: And I do not feel browbeaten -- I appreciate you sharing your knowledge and experience and I am really enjoying this discussion. High fives for everyone!

      Thank you for the reminder re: bone and soft tissue and here is where I must confess that I am entered here with blinkers on. I'm aware of the need to condition Those Other Tissues and of the general time frame and some specific considerations (although a reminder never hurts and I haven't seen the Weary article; I have bookmarked and look forward to reading it!) but I tend to forget that it merits actual discussion because I have such a hard time imaging whyyyyyyy a normal rider would be testing those tissues overmuch during the critical conditioning phase.

      That is, I feel like (and maybe this is totally wrong? please correct and/or further educate me!) the kind of work that benefits the structural stuff is the kind of work one does with a green horse anyway. There is SO MUCH EDUCATION of the horse's brain that needs to happen in those first two years...it just doesn't occur to me that somebody might have the time or inclination in between installing ALL the buttons to layer on serious miles and/or speed. On the racetrack, yes. Somebody skilled enough to bring a young horse along really quickly, okay, sure. My particular blend of snobbery, cowardice, and obsession (*g*) means that the average greenie is way harder on himself turned out in his field than I'm going to be on him any time soon.

      But that's my bubble and I shouldn't assume it generalizes, and I can totally see how seductive it is to go faster and do more when the stuff that you can easily see and assess is apparently ship-shape.

      (And all of the above, I say with the understanding that I do have much, much, much more to learn about this both in general and in this specific new application.)

      ...I'm going to hit post before I delete this comment by accident. More next rock.

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    7. What Funder says at the end about tendons/ligaments and supporting structures is a big part of what I've been kicking around in my head about musculature. I am for whatever reason suuuuuuper paranoid about those. (Actually, I know why; because those injuries can present so flippin' WEIRDLY and so whenever my brain goes on a what-if-something-is-wrong-with-Tucker? spiral, that's where it heads straight-off.)

      So I am really interested in the function of conditioning in general and muscle in particular as supporting/protecting those tissues that are -- I'm honestly not sure if it's true or if this is just my bias/perception? more likely to be catastrophic if damaged and harder to heal all the way.

      I'm _also_ really interested in ways of improving the horse's soundness and longevity by affecting his way of going. The framework here is that Tucker? Is not a particular well-put-together or good-moving horse if left to his own devices. He benefits enormously from good work and he is pretty clever in how he handles himself, but riding and training him has been a serious education in the difference between a horse moving on its bones versus on its muscles. The huuuuuuge variation in how endurance horses move and carry themselves is probably the single greatest thing that makes me feel fish-out-of-water at a distance ride. I don't mean that at all like, "These people are doing it wrong!" I just mean, it's fascinating to watch and to learn from, especially now that I'm juuuuuuust starting to develop an eye for variations within the variations, if that makes any sense? Now that I'm starting to be able to tell that not all the up-headed up-tailed Arabs are actually doing the same thing. LOL

      (On the other hand, one of the many reasons I found it soothing to trot along with the Rojek crew is that I really, really like the way their horses -- at least the ones that I've seen -- go.)

      Um. Lost my train of thought, sorry! This is why I haven't gotten around to making a post. But basically, I'm invested in muscle as a protector for other stuff and part of what -- "worries" is too strong a word, but "concerns" is probably right (not "frightens"! LOL) me about the resting-heavy approaches is that I don't see how the muscle can hold its condition as well as the cardiorespiratory system can. So I worry about losing that protective system and I worry about, actually, the exact situation Funder -- that the horse feels great and goes down the trail super-well right up until it doesn't and then what's your margin of error? I absolutely 100% believe the reports I've read from people who are super-resting their horses about how well the horses are doing! I just can't help but wonder if the super-rested horse is going to be able to sort of "lie" to its rider, if that makes any sense?

      I don't know. I'm totally willing to hear that I'm missing something or that I have something wrong; I would love to understand this better. And again, I do take the cautions against overconditioning to heart. I guess it's partly that overconditioning _feels_ less scary to me, because I know through experience that I can recognize a horse starting to fatigue, etc. So there's the leap-of-faith aspect of it all, too.

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    8. Dude, I have seen some seriously funny moving horses. Some of them are long-lived high mileage horses and some of them are “just” doing their first couple of hundreds. I don’t know if it’s our general lack of knowledge / unwillingness to train the horse to move better, or if you just learn to live with your horse’s weird way of going, or if that’s actually an improvement from where the horse started! I’ll be really interested to revisit this topic with you in a couple years, after you’ve gotten to know your regional horses and you start to know their mileages and how well they hold up.
      What if I’m doing the opposite of what you worry about? What if I’m just keeping Dixie’s cardio “in shape” with her muscular fitness by under riding her? I could (if sufficiently motivated) get her out for a hill gallop 3x a week for a month and turn her cardio into a fire-breathing monster, but I don’t know if her muscles/bones are ready to do a 6 hour 50. If I keep her “well rested” so to speak, she doesn’t have the cardio — she doesn’t feel like she can go that fast for that long. Again, I don’t have answers to these questions!
      And we’ve been working on this for four years. We did our first “competitive” 10 mile ride (4 hours, in the snow) around New Years 2010, and our first 30 mile LD in March 2010 (6:21, excruciating slog of death). Every year, she’s felt fitter, but every year, she’s been more mentally stable, too. She knows where her green zone is as well as I do, and when she doesn’t want to trot anymore it would take a cattle prod to get her to trot. She’ll just walk til she’s ready, thankyouverymuch. I don’t know how much weight to give to my ~conditioning programme~ versus just sticking with it versus Dixie learning the rules of the game.

      I do think that you need to train more than I do. I just don’t think you need to log 30-50 miles a week at 5.5 mph on the trail. Looking back on my GPS logs from 2010 and 2011, and thinking about what I’d cut and what I’d add with a new pasture-fit horse, I’d say somewhere in the range of 50-100 miles per month is plenty. Maybe that's more helpful than just yelling "don't overtrain"! ;)

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    9. Innnnnnnnnnteresting reframing of the question/problem! That had honestly never crossed my mind. I think I am about out of Deep Thoughts on the subject for now, but I will go away and ponder and no doubt come up with more for discussion later on. Thanks again to both of you -- this has been both useful and fun!

      I do think that having some sort of concrete “here’s what you can do” to go alongside the “don’t overtrain” message is really, really useful. As someone coming into the sport (especially for me coming out of a multi-phase sport where I had to have a pretty regimented schedule to make sure that I was getting to everything, but I see variations on this theme in most if not all of my fellow Green Beans) I felt (and to a degree, still feel, albeit for different reasons!) awfully at sea re: how to get from point A to point B. Aarene’s book was SUPER useful and I stumbled on a here’s-how-to-know-if-you’re-ready-for-an-LD test that was similarly low-key, but basically all the other schedules that I saw kicked around were much more aggressive than is necessary and/or probably wise for somebody coming in…which is where you and Mel and the other folks hollering “don’t overtrain!” came in handy, because I knew they were aggressive schedules when I read them, so I was interested in what they had to say but took it with a grain of salt (for me and Tucker, for now).

      But if you’re a newb who hasn’t been reading you and Mel and doesn’t know that Aarene’s book exists, then what you hear/read (at least that I’ve seen) is mostly “don’t overtrain!” and variations on “20-30 miles per week,” and I think you either assume that those are compatible messages or you grab onto the number because at least it’s a starting place and that seems better than nothing, you know?

      (For the record, I think Dixie looks great; she’s another of the endurance horses that I find soothing to look at.)

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    10. "...because I have such a hard time imaging whyyyyyyy a normal rider would be testing those tissues overmuch during the critical conditioning phase."

      Hannah, I think that it would probably be pretty easy to overdo training/conditioning (with respect to bone density development) with a either a talented young horse (good mind, athletic) or an older horse that you are starting to work with. Because the talented young horse seems to be moving well and seems fit, I think it can be tempting to just keep advancing. And with an older horse that you are maybe bringing into a new sport or just bought, I think there can be a tendency to assume he's ready to go faster and farther just becaue he already has some life experience. I say this because I've been in both of those situations before - both with Nimo converting to endurance riding and in other disciplines with other horses. It's something I'm trying to be very conscious of with Nimo because I want to be able to ride him for many years to come and to me, that means slowly progressing.

      However, I have seen endurance riders recommend that you should get to the distance you want to do as quickly as possible, primarily for psychological reasons (for both horse and rider). I'm not yet convinced by the logic, though, particularly because of the length of time needed to remodel bone density. If your horse goes from doing 25s to 100s in two years, is he more prone to a serious injury than if you took 4-6 years to get there? Or is the work done to get to the 100s enough? I don't know the answer to those questions. In dressage, it would be almost unthinkable to take a horse from Training Level to FEI levels in 2 years (I sort of feel like 100s are equivalent to dressage FEI levels). So if I wouldn't do that kind of progression in dressage, what makes it OK to do in endurance? (And the 2 years number is a bit arbitrary, but based on some schedules of conditioning I've seen in some of the books I've read. But even 3 years still seems tight to me.) Of course, endurance and dressage are different sports that use different skill sets, so I may be overthinking this a little. On the other hand, I don't know that there is any harm in my taking longer to get my horse to a certain point, other than the potential for him to be confused when I transition from one ride distance to the next.

      I think one thing I'm struggling with is that I'm coming from dressage where there is essentially a canon of books that dictate movements, aids, the way things should feel when they are correct, the training scale, etc. Whereas, in endurance things seem a little looser, although by necessity I think. With so many variables like terrain, pace, temperature, and humidity, it's almost impossible to come up with a formula. So yes to Funder - it is really helpful to have you give actual distances and paces for your rides. The idea of overconditioning is hard to grasp for me without specific distances and paces to match to the concept.

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  4. Oh, yes -- I totally believe that it's possible-to-inviting. I really did mean that as, "This is my blind spot," rather than, "This is law." :)

    Thank you for bringing up the get-to-your-distance issue! The tension between that and time-to-condition is something I've wondered about, too. I suspect part of the answer may be that a move up in distance is less (or maybe just differently?) stressful for those tissues that take a long time to condition than increasing speed and that another part may be that the advice assumes that you've done the foundation work either way. (Seem like the people who take horses straight into 50s, frex, don't skip LD distances; they just do them on their own rather than at rides.) But it's something I've wondered and would love to hear Funder or whoever weigh in on.

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  5. You three have got quite the discussion going!

    I'd just like to point out my very odd training of Q last year.

    Preceding the April ride where she was hurt (we were doing the LD) everything was typical - 3-4 days a week incorporating flatter speed work, shorter hill work, and LSD over the trails. Once she was injured she got a solid 1½ off. Then I reintroduced her to work in mid-June.

    From mid-June to August I did more flatting and short, mild trails (no steep hills) than anything. By mid-August I had her back into "full" work. But it was changed!

    Full work mid-August until her first 50 at the end of October was this: 3, maybe 4, days of riding. 1 day was hill sprints (8-12 sprints up a moderate grade; took 20 minutes). 2 days were flat work with dressage-ish stuff or jumping for 30-45 minutes. If I was lucky and had time, I'd get a trail ride in that was 5-8 miles. About 2x a month I'd do a longer ride (flat on rail trail) for 14-20 miles. That was it. Well within Funder's 50-100 miles a month recommendation noted above.

    She completed her first 50 in October at an average pace of 6.5 mph, though I suspect this may have been a bit higher because I forgot to pause my GPS at one of the vet checks!! Pretty respectable.

    So there's some evidence, granted its n=1 which really says nothing, that cross training can work - at least for the 50 mile distance!!

    I really love the idea of dressage exercises for endurance horses to teach them - and me! - how to best use the body. If you're doing it wrong, its more work, if you're doing it right you're gonna have more to give later. In my mind I relate it to swimming properly (because I swam competitively for 10 years). If you're swimming properly, rotating your body to glide more effectively through the water, cupping your hand instead of splaying your fingers, and controlling your kick and not splashing unnecessarily, you're going to move through the water without exerting too much energy. You can funnel the energy into being powerful instead of being a spazz that goes nowhere (we've all seen those spazzy swimmers who splash and remain stationary as a result!) If my horse is using her body effectively and building muscles to support that, then moving down the trail for extended periods won't be as difficult.

    And besides, all that muscle from the crossfit really gave her a killer ba-donka-donk! ;-)

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    1. Thanks, Liz! It sounds like the work you did with Q really worked well. I'm definitely going to start tracking my mileage again to see what it comes out to each month. I'm kind of interested to know how many "miles" an arena workout actually is. I'm guessing it's probably somewhere between 5 and 10, depending on how long you work and how fast you work, and as Hannah pointed out, arena work can essentially be like sets of trot and canter, so it must do something great for fitness!

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    2. We can talk, that's for sure...LOL Thanks for sharing your experience with Q! That (with the swimming) is my working theory, too.

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