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Discipline: LD/Endurance, CMO, Trail Rider, Cartoonist, Writer, Co-Director/ Green Bean Endurance

November 27, 2009

Re-inventing the Phebes: Part 2, Progressive Loading

Progressive loading is a conditioning & training method involving The Training Triad (TTT) of structure, stamina, and speed (SSS). The building of SSS must be done in the correct order.
#1 Structure: First step you are training for structure. Structure is the horse's framework (musculoskeletal system). The training method for structure is progressive loading Long Slow Distance (LSD). Structure is the framework that holds the horse together. Without structure, the horse will never make it to the second, and third part of TTT. Tendons will inflame, joints will become sore, hoof will go lame, and eventually some kind of injury will happen. No structure, no stamina, no speed. The horse will constantly be hitting a training wall, the trainer will be backing up, and be frustrated by failure.

#2 Stamina: The second step of the TTT is to train for stamina. Building stamina, means building endurance, bringing musculature, heart & lungs to full operating capacity, allowing the structure to motor on down the trail at a consistent and aerobic pace. This is done through progressive loading over gradually increasing distances at intervals of slow pace which uses the slow twitch muscle cells (ST), to moderate pace, occasionally kicking in the fast twitch (FT)cells. Stamina requires that the horse's needs are met nutritionally so that glycogen stores are abundant for the moderate phase of work. With structure and stamina trained into the horse, then and only then does speed become prudent or possible.

#3 Speed: Speed involves training the fast twitch high (FTH)cells. The FTH is your turbo, your quick bursts of speed. Speed is developed through the progressive loading of interval training, using sprints with active ten minute rest phases (at the jog) between sprints. Both the FT and FTH cells must be well loaded with glycogen, and the structure and stamina phase of training must precede any training for speed. When training remember the SSS of TTT must be accomplished over many weeks. Short cuts in the training process eventually cause the system to fail. Without structure you will not build stamina. Without structure and stamina you will not build speed. Without TTT you will not develop a competitive endurance horse.

Where did I fail in this process with Phebes? I believe we were alright in the very beginning. But I threw her in with some very fast paced experienced endurance horses early on. I was working at stamina, and working at speed, but did not build the underlying structure of TTT. After the melt-down at The 2009 Chicken Chase I had to start over. She was out of the loop of my riding friends who were cranking along on well developed endurance horses. So off we went alone, riding cautiously (because we were alone), and building at LSD, because I had to as we were rehabbing at that point. Soon we had the training for structure in position, and we were walk/trotting intervals and building stamina. At this point we went to the 2009 Spook Run and had success, only because I was riding at the level of structure + stamina. We did not break out of the trot, and worked the ride using the slower walk, trot intervals which we had trained for. Had I opened her up, and let her run, I believe that she would have again folded due to not having preparation for speed.

Source: Tom Ivers, The Racehorse Owner's Survival Manual

As digested by... ~E.G.


  1. This is an informative post and a good reminder to all of us who are training in the sport. It is definitely a process. I really back JB off this past spring and didn't ask for alot but by August, he kind of came into his own and starting showing me some signs of real progress with his condition and his mental state. It was like I was riding a different horse. I think it had everything to do with really focusing on slow work in the spring, alot of arena/dressage work to develop some key muscling.. Keep up the good work!

  2. This is fascinating stuff - I really enjoyed Mel's book review, and now you're applying it! So how long does Ivers recommend working on just stamina? Everything I've read says at least 3 months for tendons and ligaments to strengthen. And how fast is the "slow pace" in the second step? Walk/trot intervals, I assume?

  3. Now here lies the problem with translating Ivers to distance riding: He was writing on racehorses, and he was recommending first long slow distance (translated as a lot of walking and slow trotting intervals), then next the moderate phase of extended periods of trotting, and then on to the actual sprinting phase of training. If I remember correctly (and Mel if you read this and remember please feel free to jump in here) he was saying up to six months. It was building up a horse very slowly to longer distances, and then the same distance at gradually increasing pace, and the last phase finally sprinting intervals and also sprinting hills to retrain the FT, FTH cells (that trained gradually would multiply) for wind, speed, and power.
    I feel the "safe" way to apply the principles for a beginner (like me) would be to look at actual "how to train for endurance" sources, and then use those time frames for the horse. The strength in this information is that there really isn't a cookie cutter approach. Most sources recommend 3-6 months of LSD prior to picking up the pace. Even then-- a couple of years of slow completions before really trying to be competitive. If there is a real barrier to this sport it is the time it takes you to get there. But some of us enjoy the journey, yes?

    Horses like people are very individual and what works for one horse may or may not work for another. The point is that there is a "science" to training and you can develop a method that works well for many horses, tweaking as you go.

    This book opened my mind up. It was like I was operating with tunnel vision, hammering along trying the same thing over and over even though it was clear it wasn't working out so well. I fell into what did work because I HAD TO DO IT to rehab her. Then reading Ivers' book things just really started clicking in my brain in an entirely new and exciting way. I wish that someone would write a book specific to endurance on this level. We have plenty of how to's but very few of the top people out there are writing on safe feeding methods for horses hammering out these kinds of miles in training, and how to avoid the pitfalls. The available information is generalized. Give me specific information on:

    Improving gut sounds?
    Getting your horse to drink on trail with hooves hammering on past?
    How to get my horse stuffing food in his face at the vet check?
    How to get my horse relaxed at ridecamp?
    How to safely administer e-lytes, when I need them? When can I skip them?
    How to keep your otherwise reasonable horse calm at the initial vet in *LOL*?
    I'd love to know so many things!
    I'm looking forward to Mel's next recommended read :) ~E.G.

  4. Love your posts. Off topic I have to brag a bit. I got done riding Stormy this afternoon and my yearling filly was eating the saddle and basically just getting in the way. So I took the saddle off Stormy and put it on her. (which I have done before) She didn't even have a halter on. She kept right on chewing things so I girthed her up for the first time. Again she didn't even flinch and she wasn't tied. Then I got a little worried and put Stormy's halter bridle on her, of course I resized it for her. She did sort of mind the bit in her mouth. Which I figured she'd like because she loves chewing everything. I led her around some and showed my husband who told me to get on her. Which, of course I didn't. She's still way too young. I only left it on a couple mintues then took it off. She's so easy to work with, yeah!

    Michelle Detmer

  5. Phebes was saddled and leading around as a yearling...but all heck broke loose when she turned two (I think her hormones started kicking in). Just keep at it, avoid "drama" and all will be well. Is she completely over her injury?

  6. Funder

    I went back in and looked at several paragraphs on LSD and it looks like he was shooting for 12 weeks of LSD before he started adding Interval Training.

    Another key point that I left out was that a horse should NEVER be worked to exhaustion. A horse that is exhausted, comes up muscle sore is being over-trained. This applies to both LSD and Interval Training. Intervals should start out slow and speed increased in little increments (as in a second here or there) for each interval session, with an active cool-down (trotting) for 10 minutes, and moving out of that trot into the next interval. He recommends a full recovery between training days, meaning rest & turnout in the case of our horses, and feed in proportion that the horse is not losing weight, and maintaining a good body condition.

  7. Very interesting - thanks for the extended comment!

    My brain is sort of fundamentally messed up about vague terms like "slow" and "fast." I almost always ride with gaited horses or lazy QHs - "slow" in my head is 2 mph, and "fast but not cantering" is about 10 mph. I think a normal endurance walk is maybe 3 - 3.5 mph, and a slow trot is about 5, and a fast trot is ? maybe 8? Anyway, the point is, I get all antsy about having to do another month of LSD with Dixie, but then I remind myself that "slow" is exactly what we're doing now. LSD does not mean "riding for four hours with a QH and only going six miles."

    Enjoying the journey - I'd be out riding the same trails even if I didn't know about endurance. Wanting to complete just gives me a framework, a goal, some assurance that it can be done. I'm obsessing about the details at the moment because I don't want to hurt my horse in training - actually riding an LD seems like a very long way away.

  8. I think when you try to translate slow you sort of need to put what you are doing into context. In my mind slow is walk, trot a little while, walk, trot a little while. A horse that is moving 2 mph ...OMGosh! It makes me want to get off and go on foot. In the very beginning (first few weeks) walking would be in order, but very soon the horse would be transitioned into a trotting phase and kept there.

    The reason that many horses go an entire ride at the trot (except for deep mud and tough hills) is that you never have to activate FT or FTH. FT fibers in the muscle give you speed, FTH keep 'em going--at least until they run out of fuel and that is when you can get your horse into trouble.

    Understand that I have no desire to "race" Phebes. I just want to exercise her body to build her up and enhance fat storage which can be converted to fuel.

    Trail work will continue to be our steady little walk, trot, walk, trot. Phebes doesn't get tired, I do though. So what we are doing is working for the first time and I'll be sticking to it.

    What I'm planning to add is some sprinting on our short trail days. I have a training loop here at home that is about a mile out (warm up). The loop is 3/4 mile and has a flat field which we will trot, a gradual climb up a to a ridgeline which we will sprint, then back to a trot as it levels out, then a long downhill which we will walk. We will do multiples of this little loop, and then walk the mile back in (cool down). The total ride should not be over 5 miles.

    That is if hunting season EVER ends and gets the heck out of our way. Sounds like gorrilla warfare in the woods right now.

    On the weekend it will be good old LSD with walk, trot just like we'd do on a ride. Average speed 5-7 mph depending on the footing.

    Another key point he mentioned and I've had several endurance riders tell me is this:

    Train the horse at the speed you intend to go. Then in actual practice at a ride, RIDE THAT SPEED, no faster.