Pacing In Competition
AERC Rider’s Handbook (Chapter 10)
Having realistic expectations simply involves not asking your horse for more than he is able to give safely, either in competition or in training. Some horses are so naturally talented that they can run up front and even finish in first place with only a little conditioning. The problem is that such a horse has not had time for his bones, ligaments, joints, and cartilage to come up to maximum strength. Breakdowns are very common in those individuals whose natural cardiovascular superiority lulls their riders into the false impression of preparedness. Studies suggest that it takes the bony frame four to five times as long to come to full fitness as the muscular system (which takes about 90 days). And it takes a couple of years to fully condition ligaments and tendons. So, if you want your horse to have the best possible chance of maintaining long-term soundness, you will have to give him the required time to develop (see Chapter Six).
Assuming that you have conditioned thoroughly and well at home, you will probably have a very good idea of your horse’s capacity to perform in competition, especially if you are an experienced rider. It does not make sense to imagine that your horse can maintain a 10 mph average on a 50 mile ride if he is unable to do 25 miles at that speed at home. Adrenaline and herd instinct may carry him along with the fastest-moving group early in the ride, but it is unlikely that these factors will account for much after the first vet check. Also you must take into account the terrain, topography and weather conditions, which may be quite different from your normal training area. Footing in particular makes a tremendous difference to horses. Soft footing such as sand or mud is very tiring to the horse. The horse has a natural suspension system that works well on firm dirt footing. In sand or mud the horse instead has to muscle its way through the ride.
Ride Your Own Ride
“Ride your own ride” has been preached by more people — and gone straight in and out of more ears — than any other advice in endurance riding. Time and time again, even the most experienced riders fail to heed this advice, even though they might have frequently given it to others. Every horse is an individual, and each has his own optimum pace. In addition, every horse has some kinds of trail over which he does best, and other kinds of trail where he is not as competitive. If your horse is strong in the hills but does not have a lot of speed, then make your time in the hills. If your horse can maintain a relatively fast pace over flat terrain, then flat terrain is the place to move out. If you have a surefooted, flexible horse that can fly through a narrow, twisting woods trail, make sure you’re first in line going into the woods.
By knowing your own horse’s capabilities, his strengths and weaknesses, and by pacing to take maximum advantage of the strength while minimizing the penalties of his weaknesses, you can finish much better than by just following the leader. If you want to ride with others because its more fun than riding alone, choose companions who are going at a pace within your horse’s capabilities.
Keep Energy Expenditure Constant
Keep energy expenditure constant during the ride. This is one of the most important keys to success, and one another one that is often violated. To understand why this is so important, you need to know something of how a horse’s muscles work. Simply stated, there are two types of energy production, aerobic and anaerobic. In aerobic metabolism, enough oxygen is delivered continuously to the muscles for the complete burning of carbohydrates (glycogen), free fatty acids and triglycerides. The maximum pulse rate at which a fit horse can work aerobically is in the range of 120 to 150 beats per minute depending on the horse. Aerobic work can continue for long periods with little or no need to rest. Anaerobic metabolism comes into the picture when the fit horse works hard enough to produce a pulse rate over the 120 to 150 range or so (in the unfit horse, the crossover into anaerobic metabolism will come at a lower pulse; see Chapter Six). Work of this nature depends on stored muscle enzymes to burn glycogen fuel. Because oxygen is not fully utilized, waste products like lactic acid accumulate rapidly and the body tires quickly. Anaerobic metabolism, as you can easily deduce, is a wasteful way to use the “fuel” your horse has in his tank. Your job is to set your cruise control at the optimum aerobic level and keep it there.
The maximum speed at which your horse can run aerobically varies with the elevation, grade, footing conditions and weather. You must go more slowly uphill, even on a gentle grade; the steeper the grade, the more slowly you must ride to maintain constant energy expenditure. Even though horses commonly prefer to rush up a steep hill, you as the rider must insist on a slower pace. You might even need to get off and lead up very steep grades to keep your horse within the aerobic boundary.
Don’t be lulled into not adjusting your speed for a long gentle climb. If you run yourself, you know how failing to slow down a little for a slight grade can take its toll. It is a common mistake for endurance riders not to compensate for a long gradual incline, so be sure to look ahead and pay attention.
Trail conditions also affect the energy requirements. A rocky, winding trail takes more energy than a straight, smooth trail. Soft footing takes much more energy than firm footing, with deep sand and mud the most tiring of all. Going too fast in deep footing also risks serious injury, particularly late in the ride when the horse is already quite fatigued.
Watch the trail ahead, evaluate its effect on your horse, and adjust your speed accordingly. If you have a heart monitor you will be able to more accurately evaluate your horse’s stress level. However, to use a monitor wisely takes practice and knowledge of your horse — you can’t ride only by the numbers from a book.
Listen to Your Horse
This brings us to the last rule; namely, listen to your horse. A good horseman doesn’t necessarily need any special equipment to know how things are going, because the horse communicates in many ways. As horses tire, their strides will generally shorten and they will cover less ground at the same gait. They often stumble more, and recover with less agility (one reason tired horses are more prone to injury). There could be attitude changes, although some horses are so competitive that they will run aggressively until they drop, while others will act tired when there is plenty left in the tank. Common attitude changes include less willingness to respond to the rider’s aids and reduced desire to keep up with the other horses (resulting in the need to constantly urge the horse on).
There are other more subtle signs of fatigue that you must learn to interpret, and this is where intimate knowledge of the personality and habits of the individual horse are important. See Appendix 4, Preventing Treatment of Horses, for many of the signs you should be alert for. Remember EDPP: if your horse is eating, drinking, peeing and pooping normally, it’s probably okay. If not, be alert and adjust your pace. Or for example, if your horse normally drinks water before the first vet check and then one day fails to do so, you should be on your guard. If your horse is normally eager and then for no apparent reason suddenly loses interest in the contest, he is probably in pain or discomfort of some sort. If a normally pleasant horse turns crabby and ill-tempered, there must be an explanation somewhere. It’s up to you to be able to interpret your horse’s “language.”
By listening to your horse you will probably be able to avoid letting a borderline problem become serious. Usually you can regroup, slow your pace, and complete the ride safely. However, if you have reached the point at which your horse has lost interest in his surroundings or has stopped eating or drinking, he is already dangerously fatigued and could be in need of veterinary attention (see Chapter Twelve).
Your job as a horseman is to select an endurance candidate whose talents suit him for the job at hand, train him conscientiously and well, and ride sensibly according to the rules outlined above. There is never any guarantee in long distance competition, and “bad luck” strikes even the most caring and competent riders. However, if you let common sense and compassion be your guides when technical knowledge or experience fail you, you should have little trouble finishing your endurance day with a smile and a healthy horse.