The original question was posed on Boots and Saddles then segued to Go Diego Go, and is an interesting enough topic that I thought I’d throw in my two pennies for what they are worth. (possibly about one half cent but here I go, newbie-ness has never stopped me yet).
In an all perfect world on a sensible and well-trained horse I would focus on TIME with distance being a secondary factor. I feel that the worse disservice one can do to their horse is to train distance and then at an actual ride when time becomes critical, the horse being pushed harder (even a little matters) than actually trained. All manner of things can and do go wrong when that happens. Just sayin’ because it is the honest truth.
But there is always an on the other hand…
A new horse, an untrained horse, a horse with holes in their training, let’s say ride for distance. Ride for distance until the horse knows their job, ride for distance until the horse rides like it has a brain. Ride for distance until you get all the bugs worked out. This includes all your tack fitting issues, rider issues, eating and drinking issues. Be a good steward of your horse. This distance riding thing asks an incredible LOT of your horse. When all that is in place, then think about time, finish, and / or placements. It will take you a year or two. Your distance may not amount to much at first, but eventually the bugs work out, and you can think about time.
If you ride enough slow distance you will work all these things out, and determine if the sport is even reasonable for your horse. You might even say, crap! That's too much work! Distance is a good way to find those kinds of things out as long as you have no agenda in the beginning other than gradually increasing distance.
When I’m doing distance this is how I approach it. First the horse has to be fit for ten miles. I pick a course that I will use for my distance portion once every 7-10 days (depending on ice, snow, my crappy mood, blah blah blah blah blah). In our case it is a 6.5 mile out trail, where I reverse and ride it back for a total 13 miles. I ride it out pretty slow, and on the turn around a little faster, though still slow by anyone’s standards. This course is for the purpose of LSD, meaning sustained trotting on the flat portions. In the beginning we do it the boy scout’s way. We walk some, we trot some, and we repeat that until we finally get the job done. Once the horse is solid with that, then for future rides I try to shave off 4-5 minutes (time) if the footing is good each time out until my horse is going the speed that I eventually desire. It takes me weeks and weeks. I won’t increase distance until the horse feels solid in recovery, eats, drinks, pees, poops, and does a happy dance. Rides the course like she has two ounces of grey matter between her ears. Once that is in place I will add a couple miles every 7-14 days doing the same thing until we peak at our distance goal (in our case 25 miles). All across the bloggish-phere I’ve been told you don’t have to ride the distance before you show up to compete the distance. However, I never had a satisfactory finish until I did exactly that. It is called preparation. On a seasoned horse? That is a question better answered by a seasoned rider/trainer/conditioner.
However, this only addresses the LSD component of a training ride. It does not address strength training, it does not address anaerobic fitness training. For those, the session is different. My goal is always three sessions a week.
LSD (in gradually increasing doses)
HILLS (a butt kicking one hour session once or twice per week)
CARDIO (anaerobic work of the big fast twitch muscles) (we will address that when we get there)
Hill work involves one hour of intense uphill/downhill work. I mean intense. Not charging up like a nut, but solid steep walking uphills that later will evolve into gradual trotting uphills, and later still some uphill cantering. Journey is still mostly walking the steeps, and trotting some gradual uphill grades, and hills are still pretty much kicking her butt. Hills also address cardio, but so does interval training. My take on fast intervals is that they are for mature well trained horses and balanced riders. I’ll talk about those when I feel she and I are ready for them. We are too busy with the baby steps. TIME OR DISTANCE? The answer for me is both. Just not at the same time exactly!
I love these little blog blurbs that kind of go viral. I learn so much from people that take the time to honestly talk about how they do it. But also remember that “my” or "their" workout may not fit your horse, your riding style, or your goals. This sport has some loose conditioning guidelines to go by but don’t be fooled that one size (training/conditioning) fits all. Soon as you believe that it will jump up and bite your horse’s ___. But there is some value in the advice given by someone who successfully competes 100 mile rides. She got the learning curve. Sit up and listen. Good stuff Mel!
Credit for this topic goes to Boots and Saddles. Mel from Boots and Saddles is a Tevis finisher, with several hundred mile competition notches in her saddle. She has shared her endurance adventure from the beginning with its early struggles and later successes, writing with honesty about her journey. Check out her article at Boots and Saddles.
Find out more about the author of Go Diego Go!. She has a few notches in her cantle too.