Conditioning the Horse to Increase Endurance . . .
The first thing to do is assess your horse. Most breeds can do competitive driving as long as they are sound and healthy. Lean muscled animals tend to be more efficient and able to recover faster. However, heavy muscled horses are used successfully when given a little more conditioning. Good bone and hooves are essential to success. Since you cannot compete with a horse younger than 4 years, you should probably wait until that age to begin a serious conditioning program. This will give most of the major joints an opportunity to mature.
(Note: Full maturity doesn’t occur until the horse is 6 or older!)
Most pasture horses are healthier and stronger than stalled horses. It seems desirable to allow 12 – 24 hours of turn-out, 7 days/week.
Health and legs are key to success, so work with your vet and farrier to assure that your horse is ready for a conditioning program. The vet may be able to give you advice about the condition of your horse and feeding recommendations. Your farrier can guide you as to the advisability of shoeing. Most competitors do use shoes, but it is not a requirement.
Conditioning is not difficult but it will require 4 to 5 hours/wk initially and 3 to 4 hours/wk to maintain after starting to compete.
Before starting a conditioning program it is strongly advised that you buy a relatively inexpensive stethoscope and learn to use it to measure the pulse rate. Your veterinarian can show you where and how to use it. Fat horses tend to be hard to measure, but take heart, as they improve in condition and reduce the fat it gets easier! Also learn to watch your horse’s flank and count their respiration rate.
We need to establish a resting heart and respiration (p/r) rate. This will become our basis for comparison and evaluation. These are vital signs and any significant variation may be an alert to an impending disease or physical problem. To establish a resting p/r rate choose whether to take it after grooming and before harnessing, or after harnessing and before hitching, i.e. ready for work. Be sure and establish a routine, because any change in routine can cause elevated pulse and respiration. Take the readings for 5 consecutive days and then determine the average. This will be your resting p/r rate. You may see it lower slightly over the conditioning period. Typically an out of condition horse will have a higher resting p/r than one in good condition.
The recovery rate is measured at exactly 10 minutes after exercise. Generally the heart rate will drop quickly in the first 90 seconds and then slow its rate of decline. Do not try to interpolate earlier readings. Wait the full 10 minutes.
Each workout should measure and record:
- Resting pulse and respiration
- Immediately after workout pulse and respiration.
- Recovery (after 10 minutes) pulse and respiration.
The following table establishes some targets for these measurements:
Pulse count table (measured in 15 seconds)
Table created from information presented by Robert Becker, DVM
|Resting pulse rate||12 +/- 1||Typical unconditioned|
|8 +/- 1||Most fit horses|
|Immediately after workout||30 – 38||For a moderate workout|
|Up to 55||For a strenuous workout|
|Recovery (after 10 min.)||15 +/- 1||Acceptable|
|12 +/- 1||Consider increasing speed or distance (not both)|
|18 +/- 1||Check for pain or infection. When other problems are ruled out then decrease speed &/or distance|
Using the measurements:
Resting: An unusual rise in p/r should be followed by a more thorough examination. Check for pain and/or a rise in temperature as possible causes for the elevated p/r and proceed to exercise with caution. Continuing to exercise with an undiscovered pain or infection could lead to a long recovery, where immediate attention might require only a day or two of down time.
Immediately after workout: It is desirable to have an elevated pulse during or immediately following a workout. A degree of stress is required if we hope for improvement. On the other hand, too much stress can cause breakdown.
Recovery: An elevated recovery p/r (above the ‘acceptable’ level) should be followed by a recheck at 10 minute intervals until an ‘acceptable’ level is reached. A horse with above ‘acceptable’ reading should be considered ‘at risk’ and should not be left unattended. Unacceptable readings should be accompanied by a thorough check for pain or an elevated temperature. (It may be more than just poor condition that causes elevated p/r.)
Also count the breaths in 15 seconds and record them.
If the respiration is higher than the pulse rate, it is a sign of “too much” and you should back off your workout speed and/or distance.
The following schedule is designed toward the fat or out of condition horse. Refer to the pulse count table above and be prepared to move forward in the schedule based on the pulse and respiration.
It is generally recognized that conditioning requires regular workouts for 4 or 5 days/week. Day 4 of each week in the following schedule may be considered optional.
Note that the Iron Oak Clinic and drive features a 6 mile drive. Using this schedule that drive could replace day 5 of either week 3 or 4.
The next drive is generally 3 weeks later, and the 10 mile drive could easily replace the 10 mile session for either week 5 or 6.
If you can follow this schedule you should be able to start competing the first year and by the end of the season your horse may well be ready for a 20 or 25 mile drive. (Base this decision on your p/r results and don’t move up in distance until your horse has achieved good p/r results at the shorter distances.)
Your goal after the 10 minute recovery time is a pulse of 9 and a respiration rate of 2 in 15 seconds. You should see those rates drop toward these goals as you proceed through this schedule. You may not achieve these goals over the entire schedule, but if you can get the pulse down to 12 and the respiration to 4 you are certainly ready to start competing. It may well take a year or more to reach your horse’s maximum potential, but most of the gains you make this year will carry through the winter and more progress can be expected in the next year. Also, don’t be disappointed if the pulse and respiration is higher at an event than at home. Your horse may be upset at the first few competitions and this will be reflected in elevated pulse and respiration. This situation will be resolved with increased experience.
Once competing, remember that the ride to and from the event, plus the event itself is equal to at least 2 days of workouts so give your horse a break after a competition. Pursue light workouts for that week (maybe use Wk 4 minus a day or two as a model). Then use Wk6 or Wk9 as models to maintain condition. Also remember to give a day or two off prior to a competition, because the trip is equal to at least one day of workout in terms of stress. If there is a long period between events consider working Wk8 back into the middle of that period of time.
Also note that if your horse both rides and drives, the schedule will work either under saddle or hitched. Variation may be a pleasant change for both you and your horse.
Following this kind of routine will make your horse healthier and better able to perform whatever task you may desire, i.e. pleasure drives, pleasure shows, CDE’s. You’ll also find that they are better partners. You’ll bond with your horse, recognize his needs, and in turn he/she will become more responsive to your cues and desires.
When conditioning we must recognize that the horse will use two types of energy: Aerobic and Anaerobic (source: Robert Becker, DVM).
Aerobic, or “with oxygen” is the type of energy used when conditioning at speeds under 8-10 mph. If the horse stays in aerobic phase, his pulse will stay under 150. However, if the horse is not in condition, he will go into anaerobic (without oxygen) sooner. The driving horse will go into and out of Anaerobic energy depending on the speed you are going, up hills, or heavy going in mud and/or sand. Your horse needs to be trained in both types of energy usage.
Initial and maintenance training should concentrate on Aerobic training. This is accomplished by driving relatively long distances at a moderate pace i.e. alternating walk and trot with an average pace starting around 5 mph and increasing to 10 mph based on achieving acceptable recovery rates. When the horse has achieved the upper pace with recovery pulse and respiration (p/r) of <12 pulse and <4 respiration in 15 seconds, you may consider some Anaerobic conditioning.
Anaerobic conditioning may be achieved by negotiating long or steep hills, sandy stretches or cantering. It is not necessary to sustain this activity for long periods. Pushing into Anaerobic energy for spurts up to a minute or two and then backing off to a walk/trot before repeating should be effective. With this exercise we are attempting to push the pulse up to 200 or more and then recover to between 80 and 100 before repeating. Anaerobic workouts should be limited to 1 or 2 sessions per week.
With or without a stethoscope here are some ‘signs’ to look for:
Some signs of fatigue, or “too far, too fast”:
- The horse is dull
- The horse is off his feed
- Filling (swelling) in the lower legs
- Shortened stride
- Tail wringing
- Stopping for no apparent reason
- Pinning ears back
- Acting sulky
- Standing with head in the corner of his stall
- Pulse remains elevated 20-30 minutes after workout
- Overheating (rectal temperature above 104 degrees)
Signs of fitness:
- The consistency of your horse’s sweat changes from thick and sticky to thin and watery.
- An intricate network of small blood vessels lacing the skin over the neck and shoulders will appear.
- Your horse’s attitude will be bright and willing, even boisterous.
- He will exercise more when turned out.
- He might want to buck when free.
Overheating can occur when the temperature and humidity are extreme or when the horse is over stressed. The horse dissipates heat via evaporation. This is retarded when temperatures and humidity are high. A possible guide to determine when a horse should be able to cool efficiently is the sum of temperature and humidity below 130. If greater than 150, especially if the humidity contributes more than ½ of the sum, evaporative cooling is less efficient. When the number exceeds 180 cooling is very restricted and you may want to modify your workout to recognize the difficulty of cooling your horse. When your horse becomes overheated you should supply cold water to the lower limbs, head and the jugular vessels. Do not apply cold water to the heavy muscles of the back, rump and thigh area as this will cause the internal heat to stay in. In severe cases it may be desirable to add ice. Check temperature via rectal thermometer and don’t stop too soon because the temperature may start to rise again.
Dehydration is caused by excessive loss of fluids and electrolytes through sweat. Heavy sweating in workouts or competition can result in losses of significant amounts of sodium, potassium and chloride. Provide your horse with free access to water and salt at all times during training and competition. Adding electrolytes help replace the losses of sodium, potassium and chloride.
Feeding electrolytes is essential. These may be commercial mixes or you can mix your own. Most formulas include two parts pure table salt (sodium based) to one or two parts lite salt (potassium based). A common rule of thumb seems to be 1 ounce/10 miles administered before the drive, during the drive (if longer than 10/12 miles) and again at the end of the drive. Some ho
rses are quite cooperative and readily consume this quantity mixed with their grain or beet pulp, others seem to need it force fed by syringe. If that is the case it may be mixed with apple sauce or apple juice. R. A. Beecher, DVM, suggests mixing 27 tablespoons of electrolyte in one gallon of apple sauce and administering a 60cc. dose as needed. It is a good idea to rinse with plain water after administering the electrolyte. Get your horse used to the electrolyte by using it during training. Caution: If the horse receives more electrolytes than he needs in his regular diet, he will develop the pathways for excreting them in his urine, so supply electrolytes as needed but not in excess.
Glossary of conditioning terms:
(source: Ontario Competitive Trail Riding Association http://www.octra.on.ca/articles/glossary.html)
Adenosine Triphosphate: [ATP] The fuel used by muscles. There is a small amount of ATP stored in the muscles. It only lasts a short time before it needs to be replenished. Creatine phosphate can be used to replenish ATP, but is also in very short supply. These two fuels can be replenished by one of two methods – either aerobic or anaerobic metabolism.
Aerobic Metabolism: A process of converting fat and glycogen or glucose into ATP to be used as a fuel by the muscles. Uses oxygen (thus aerobic). A slower process than anaerobic metabolism, but much more efficient, allowing the horse to perform for a much longer period of time. A horse will use predominantly aerobic metabolism below a heart rate of about 150 beats per minute. The maximum intensity at which a horse can continue using aerobic metabolism can be increased with good conditioning.
Alkalosis: When the horse sweats and loses electrolytes, the kidneys start to retain bicarbonate ions. This is why electrolyte preparations for endurance horses must never contain bicarbonate. Many of the commonly available brands do contain it, so always check to be sure.
Anaerobic Metabolism: A process of converting glycogen or glucose into ATP to be used as a fuel for the muscles. A faster process than aerobic metabolism, but good only for a short period of time and thus is used for higher intensity workouts (such as a full gallop). Anaerobic metabolism is quite inefficient, and produces lactic acid as a by product.
Anal Tone: Test performed at vet checks. The anal muscle should constrict when tapped. Flaccid muscle tone may indicate exhaustion, heat stress, or electrolyte/water depletion.
Capillary Refill: The length of time required for the color to return to normal pink in the upper gum of the horse after pressing hard enough to leave a white spot. Should be less than 1-2 seconds, . Times greater than 2-3 seconds should be evaluated by a veterinarian as this could indicate dehydration and/or significantly lowered blood pressure. This is a test performed at vet checks.
Colic: Basically a stomachache, but more dangerous in the horse than in a human. Can be triggered by lack of electrolytes, and/or fatigue during a ride.
Dehydration: Lack of fluids in the body, generally caused by sweating. Electrolytes are lost at the same time, so both electrolytes and water must be used to re-hydrate.
Electrolytes: Horses’ sweat contains sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium and magnesium which, as a group, are called electrolytes. Electrolytes are very concentrated in sweat (which is why sweat tastes salty). Horses competing in long distance events need to replace those salts in addition to drinking water in order to maintain hydration. Electrolytes can be fed orally with a syringe (sometimes mixed with applesauce to make it more palatable), or added to the horse’s water bucket. Don’t buy products containing sodium bicarbonate as it may cause alkalosis in the endurance horse.
Gluteal Muscles: Large muscles in the horse’s hindquarters.
Glycogen: A carbohydrate that is stored in liver and muscle tissue
Grade I Lameness: Difficult to observe: not consistently apparent regardless of circumstances. (i.e., weight carrying, circling, inclines, surface, etc.)
Grade II Lameness: Difficult to observe at a walk or trot in a straight line; consistently apparent under certain circumstances (i.e., weight carrying, circling, inclines, surface, etc.).
Grade III Lameness: Consistently observable at a trot under ALL circumstances.
Grade IV Lameness: Obvious lameness; marked hitching, nodding, shortened stride
Grade V Lameness: Minimal weight bearing at rest and/or in motion. Inability to move.
Gut Motility: The sounds of digestion that can be heard with a stethoscope. Normally, sounds are audible every few seconds. When the horse is stressed, blood flow to the gut decreases, and the digestion process gradually comes to a halt. If gut motility stops for too long, colic can result. Gut motility is monitored at vet checks by listening to gut sounds.
Heart Rate: Generally measured as beats per minute (BPM). Normal resting heart rate range is 24 to 44 beats per minute. A low resting heart rate gives an advantage to a horse in distance riding. The most efficient range is while the horse stays in aerobic metabolism (generally under 150 bpm). Horses are expected to recover to heart rates near the resting level (usually 68) at the vet checks. If they do not recover within a specified time, this is a sign of fatigue, pain, or other metabolic problems.
Heat-Stress Index: The sum of the environmental temperature (degree C) and Relative Humidity. As this score increases, the ability of a horse to cool itself becomes more difficult. Heat-Stress scores of less than 80 require no special precautions. Above a score of 90, a horse must evaporate fluids (sweat or water) to maintain a normal body temperature. At 100, sweating is insufficient and cold water must also be used on the horse. Over 110 ice water and ice will be necessary to cool the exercising horse. At scores above 115, serious consideration should be given to cancelling all exercise.
Inversion: An animal having a respiratory rate greater than the heart rate. This generally indicates a heat stress problem and is associated with an elevation of the core body temperature. Any inverted animal with a rectal temperature of greater than 39.5C (103F) will require aggressive cooling and rest to correct this condition.
Jugular Refill: Length of time it takes for the jugular vein to refill after pressing on it with the fingers. Normal refill time is 1-2 seconds. Longer times should be evaluated by a veterinarian as this could indicate dehydration and/or significantly lowered blood pressure.
Lactic Acid: A byproduct of anaerobic metabolism which builds up in the muscles causing fatigue, but can be used as an energy source by a fit horse.
Lameness The horse’s head will rise when a front lame leg bears weight. When a rear lame leg bears weight the head and neck will drop and the gluteal area will rise. See also grades of lameness
Metabolic Criteria: Tests used by veterinarians and lay judges at vet checks to evaluate a horse’s fitness to continue. They include capillary refill time, anal tone, jugular refill time, mucous membranes, gut motility, skin pinch test, heart rate recovery times.
Mucous Membranes: Examined in the mouth, gums should be pink and moist. This is one of the metabolic criteria at vet checks.
Skin Pinch Test: After pinching a fold of the horse’s skin between your fingers, the skin should flatten back out in less than a second. If it doesn’t, this is a sign of dehydration. This is a test performed at vet checks.
Slow Twitch Muscle Fibres: A type of muscle fibre more common in the Standardbred or the Arabian. ST fibres are used during aerobic exercise and produce no lactic acid.
Thumps: Cardio-synchronous diaphragmatic flutter, or SDF. Thumps occur when the heart’s electrical signals leak back down the phrenic nerve and stimulate the vagus nerve. The aberrant signals then stimulate contractions of the diaphragm in sychrony with the heart rate. Thumps is generally related to severe electrolyte imbalance. A horse with thumps should be eliminated from further competition.
Tying Up: Muscles of the horse seize into a state very like rigor mortis. Not fully understood, but thought to be triggered by a number of things… giving a horse a day off without reducing its grain ration, potassium or selenium deficiency, extreme fatigue, rhinovirus. Most commonly it occurs shortly after beginning exercise after a day or more of rest without a corresponding decrease in grain ration. Can become a chronic condition.