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

November 7, 2011

LD Newbie Tip: Thoughts on Conditioning a horse new to the sport

"Life is like a jelly doughnut.  You don't really know what it's about until you bite into it. And then, just when you decide it's good, you drop a big glob of jelly on your best T-shirt." Janet Evanovich

One could say the same about distance riding.  Only the T-shirt has a ride name on it.  Experienced riders and articles will inform you about conditioning, but what does that really mean? How do you get to the jelly without the glob on your T-shirt? My "sort of" newbie mind pondered this question and what I found was pretty basic.  There were several strategies, but most boiled down to easy/hard, easy/hard, or some variation of the same such as two short days, and one long day. 

Take Mike Maul's article in the EN's issue May 2008, Less is More, his strategy as filtered through my head was for a strategy to finish on a slow horse, don't over stress the horse by riding every single day, teach the horse to go down hills effectively, then walk down hills.  Do a couple of shorter rides during the week (shorter is a relative term, yes?) and one long ride per week (longer is a relative term, yes?)  In his view less is better.

~E.G.:  So what is a short ride and what is a long ride?  How fast do you go?  Well-- kind of depends on your end goal and who you happen to ask.   If you are just starting out the important thing, maybe the most important thing of all is having a horse that will rate (go the speed you ask it, and not break gait).  NO MATTER WHAT IS HAPPENING AROUND THEM.  It is also important to know that you should train/condition at the speed you intend to go, or train / condition slightly faster than you intend to go.  Otherwise you will get this ugly"inversion" at your ride.  The horse fighting to go, go, go!  and the rider pulling and screaming no, no, no!  This is a major catalyst for ruining your ride, ruining your horse, and ruining your ride day. Even if the horse survives it, people will give you snarky faces because your horse is all sweaty, and you will be wondering what the heck just happened?  It can happen even if you come in dead last.  

Find a training  pace that your horse can really relax into with some forward (loose rein) momentum, and break up the gaits to utilize different muscle groups.  Teach your horse this on training rides, not the heat of competition.  The best finish I ever had, I did the least conditioning for which at the time seemed odd to me.  But having a break between conditioning rides allows for recovery.  For sore muscles, ligaments, connective tissue to heal from the microscopic damage that condition creates.  It is a tear-down (ever so slightly) then build up (slightly better, stronger than before) process. Conditioning at its best will find the horse incrementally fitter week, by week, by week.  Over-conditioning will give you the opposite.  I'm not experienced enough, or literate enough to take you farther in the process than that.

But isn't an LD ride training for an Endurance Ride?

~E.G. :  Ummm....I'd have to say the term LD  is like short vs. fast, it means different things to different people. LD being a training ride is relative not only to your end goal but where you are in the process right now.  Some people hang with LD exclusively because they prefer the shorter distance. These teams are going to be pretty fit, and keeping a good slow, moderate, or very fast pace.  Some ride LD because they just want to enjoy the trail and accumulate mileage (me) and some people hang with LD because they like to race, and I MEAN RACE.  Anyone who tells you different isn't being completely honest about the sport.  The winners get the biggest "prize" and competition can be fierce among those riding on a given day.  Check the top finishing times for various LD's in different regions of the country and you will see what I mean.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not faulting the people that are skilled, train hard, and ride hard, but within that rider pocket is not a good place for a horse that is new to the sport. The LD can still be a place to train your horse if you wait until the dust settles and let all....those other horses disappear off into the sunrise for a good five or ten minutes before you step your horse onto the trail.  Then start by yourself or with a very like-minded rider.  Ride the pace you trained at.  Hope the fifty mile endurance riders don't come up behind you on your second loop.  If all those factors are in place you could do a beautiful safe-paced training ride at an LD and get yourself a completion and LD mileage credit for you and your horse and the best prize of all...your horse will have learned something.  Another option that sometimes is offered is an experienced rider will offer to ride-along with you.  This can work as it keeps your horse moving at a steady pace, but you have to be very careful with this because you will be riding with an experienced horse and chances are that horse's slow speed is STILL TO FAST.  At least it was for me, and my horse would focus on that horse instead of on me like she did on training rides.  So choose wisely grasshopper... 

But what if your horse can't set and keep a pace and follow direction?

~E.G.:   Take the horse to a trainer,  get a different horse, stay home, or  spend three  days, three weeks or three months  (what ever it takes) teaching it yourself, or buddy up with a horse that will move the speed you want to go (not really a great idea, but people do it, but what will you do if that horse gets pulled?).  I know that some distance horses get basic training, and go right into endurance.  I'm mystified by how these animals manage to get the learning curve and I wonder what would happen if 50% of the distance horses on a trail were asked to stop while the other 50% raced on by.  A few would likely stand still,  or hold their pace, but probably a good percentage would be having some sort of horse melt-down.  When I find the magic elixir of equine calmness I'll post up the recipe...but for now, you school, you set a pace through training, and you ride your own ride.  Not someone else's.

What if I ride a non-typical breed?  Can I still ride LD?  

~E.G.:  I have heard and I have read that any horse can finish an LD.  I'm going to drag out my protective spray bottle (mist myself thoroughly with the stuff) and plunge right in here and say....well----maybe.  Then again maybe not.  A lot of qualifiers are involved here.  If you have a lean, fit, forward and onward kind of a horse that is very good at eating, drinking, and not stressing, nothing goes wrong, and you aren't riding in humid conditions, the answer would be yes for the LD and maybe the endurance.   If your horse is emotional, won't drink for twenty miles, and turns up its nose at food under stress, the odds are stacked against you.  If you ride in the south, or the midwest where the air can be too thick to breathe, and you want to pass out trying to get the horse from the field, and your horse is a nervous wreck waiting to happen you will not have a pleasurable day.  You might even have a disasterous day.   Probably one of the more important pieces of information I've been given yet came from Mike Habel, DVM.  He was examining my mare and told me that the biggest obstacle my mare had was (he tapped her with a finger right between the eyes) her mind.  That the horse's emotional personality was working against her in all kinds of ways.  The quiet ride that I could accomplish on our own while conditioning I could not emulate in actual practice at a ride. Due to the dynamics of a distance ride, the excitement, the stress, it was not a good fit for my horse (aside from her metabolic problem).  Yes, she completed some, but the stressors of trying to successfully ride a horse like this are incredibly NOT FUN, and really not fair to the horse.   So my short answer to that question is no.  Not every horse can successfully complete an LD, an endurance ride, cross country jumping, barrel racing or insert discipline here, .  The horse needs to be suitable for the sport.  It is fair to say that suitable breeds are numerous.  I've seen Foxtrotters, Tennessee Walkers, Morgans, Appaloosa's, mixed breeds, Standardbreds, Saddlebreds, Quarterhorses (of the right physical type) and many others completing successfully.  If completion is your goal, and the horse is trained and has a good mind, have at it.  It's fun!  If you want to race, buy yourself an arabian, a half arabian, or some other lean and race bred horse that is more suitable, and find a mentor that KNOWS THEIR STUFF as that is a level of riding that leaves me dumbstruck (literally), mouth hanging open in awe at horses that can do that job and riders that have the physical conditioning to ride at that pace for that long.  If I tried it...I'd probably keel over.

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