Cross training has proven its benefits in human athletics but did you know it’s good for your horse too?! Like a human, horses need cardiovascular and muscular endurance to be able to perform, especially in equestrian sports like eventing, jumping, and dressage. Although, every horse benefits from a good exercise program! Endurance riders seem to have this down to a science and it’s not uncommon to hear of horses competing well into their 20’s.By incorporating endurance training into your program, your performance horse will benefit in a number of ways.
Time is something we all seem to lack but need in endless amounts. Most Endurance riders have time to condition and campaign only one horse, which means we want to do whatever it takes to keep a sound, happy horse working for a lifetime.
Longevity is one of the greatest honours in competitive distance sports with many local and national organizations giving special awards for Decade Teams, and some riders have even reached the rare, but possible achievement of a Double Decade Team. So how do these distance riders do it? The secret, is LSD.
Yup, you read it right. Ok, well you interpreted it wrong. Long Slow Distance is the greatest building block in young horse development and continuing trail success. Take a look at the below chart.
From “Is Your Horse Fit? The physiology of Conditioning”, Lori Warren, PhD, PAS
As you can see, it takes a significantly longer period of time from when your horse becomes “cardio fit” to when the muscles, bones and tendons develop. So while your horse may be raring to run, their legs are not ready! By taking a conservative approach early in your horses’ career like a good Endurance rider, you are building solid structures that will help them stay sounder in their later years. Competing in lower level distance events can set a good foundation for your youngster.
Does your horse lose a bit of pizzazz after your second dressage test of the day? Does your jumper lack that little extra “vroom” in the jump-off? One of the main reasons that humans utilize cross-training is to increase strength and aerobic fitness so that they can maintain athletic performance over a longer period of time. Endurance horses benefit from cross-training in dressage as it improves their coordination, increases suppleness, and improves their ability to carry themselves properly over miles so that risk of injury is reduced. A show horse that trail rides regularly or does the occasional distance ride will build up its aerobic capacity and endurance which help them last over the long show weekends.
Horses that are at a good fitness level will fit up better and faster after time off as well, giving you a head start on show season preparation. By using the same “long, slow distance” conditioning that endurance riders use, muscles are worked in a different way slowly over time which reduces overworking and overloading the structures of the horse. Cardiovascular fitness and musculoskeletal strength are also enhanced. Just hacking out benefits the performance horse by assisting in avoiding injury resulting in a longer career, and the mental break helps prevent “ring sour” behaviour.
Training at any level is stressful, and prolonged mental fatigue can lead to an increase in evasive behaviour. Imagine if you were only allowed to run on a treadmill. Not only would it get boring after a while, you’d probably start to resent it. If you were allowed to run outside occasionally, you’d probably look forward to running and where you were going to go that day. Taking your horse out of the ring will not only prevent arena sourness, but it can rejuvenate your horses work ethic.
Trail riding is a great way to still give your horse a workout, just in a different mental environment. Hacking is a great way to expose your horse to new things and get them used to being in unfamiliar situations. This can carry over to show day as your horse will be more confident and relaxed and your warm up can be better spent on warming up muscles and preparing your horse, rather than just trying to relax them. Getting out of the groomed footing of the ring and on to varied terrain also teaches a horse to think about where he is putting his feet, which will come in handy if your horse gets a tricky distance coming into a jump.
The more you ride, the better you get to know your horse. You get to know what is normal for him and you become a better judge of his fitness.
You can also take those hours spent on trail and use it to improve your riding. Set a focus for the ride. It could be an improvement on equitation, or perhaps a skill you would like to master. You have hours on the trail to keep coming back to it and work on bettering yourself as a rider.
Then you add in the competition element, which adds more dimension. Get out to an OCTRA ride this year and you will learn so much so fast – electrolytes, cooling, nutrition, pacing. The list is truly endless. There are millions of techniques competitive riders and vets have studied and developed because they want to be better – better than their competition, but mostly better than they were last time; and Endurance is the perfect testing grounds.
On that note, taking on a distance challenge is a great way for you to take responsibility for your horses’ care. This is not a sport for the lazy or closed-minded and adding some pressure will give you a chance to rise to the occasion. Your success in this sport has nothing to do with the price tag of your horse or the colour of your jodhpurs, but the sweat equity and education you put into making it happen.
Whether you think Endurance might be your “Thing” or are just looking to add a little extra to your training program, the Ontario Competitive Trail Riding Association (OCTRA) hosts several events across the province in a wide range of distances. As a novice rider dabbling in the sport, you can enjoy “Set Speed” rides of 10km to 40km with maximum and minimum speeds to help gauge your training progress, and veterinary judges to help ensure your horse’s safety and that you are well equipped to achieve your goal.