RIDE TO YOUR STRENGTHS
By Kim Fuess
After legging up your horse and spending several hundred miles (long slow distance miles both in training and competition) it may be time to re-evaluate your conditioning program and modify it to address your horse’s strengths and weaknesses. This is also the time to start thinking about what ride/race strategies will emphasize your horse’s strengths and minimize his limitations during competition.
You as the rider should have a long-term goal in mind for the horse at this point. How can you develop a successful program if you don’t know what you want as your end result? Do you want to earn regional or national awards? Do you want to develop a 100-mile horse? Do you want to complete the Tevis Cup? Do you want to Top 10 100s? Do you want to compete at the FEI level of endurance racing? Once you have thought about long-term goals, it is time to think about what plan of action will be needed to make those goals a reality. Think about what skills and talents your horse will need to reach the goal you have set. For example, if your goal is to complete the Tevis Cup your horse will need to be able to handle narrow trails, handle heat and/or humidity, know how to eat and drink and take care of himself on the trail, and be physically able and comfortable to handle very steep climbs and descents. Your horse will have to deal with 250 horses at the start line. You, as the rider, will need to be comfortable in the knowledge that your horse can carry you safely on narrow trails in the dark.
Now that you have set a goal it is time to HONESTLY evaluate your horse. After miles of LSD training it is time to make every conditioning and competition mile count. Now that you, as the rider, have a long-term goal in mind for the horse and have thought about what skills and talents the horse will need to successfully reach these goals it is time to evaluate your horse. What are the strengths that your horse has that will help reach your goal and more importantly what are the animal’s weaknesses that may prevent you attaining that goal. Again, using the Tevis Cup as an example, your horse is a good eater and drinks at every opportunity, he also has a great, efficient walk, the heat and humidity do not seem to effect his rate of recovery, he is very smooth on the down hills, he always knows where home is and never forgets a trail he has been on. He has never been lame and different types of footing do not seem to bother him. But on the other hand, the horse is nervous and has “race brain” in a large group of horses, he really doesn’t like going uphill and tires easily, you have no idea what he is like on the trail at night, and you rarely ride on single track, narrow trails.
Training Out Your Weaknesses
Once you have identified the weaknesses your horse has it is time to set up a conditioning and training program that will eliminate or minimize these limitations. There is not a magic formula that will work for your horse and it is really difficult to even give a time frame on how long it will take for your horse to improve. Each conditioning and competition program must be tailored to the individual animal. In the end, you may only get slight improvement or perhaps no improvement at all, with some of the limitations you have identified. This doesn’t mean that you can’t reach your goal but it may mean you have to make some compromises and adjust your ride/race day strategies to balance the skills and talents that are lacking. Using the weaknesses mentioned above for the Tevis bound horse, it is obvious that you must design a conditioning program that will include the terrain and footing that will be encountered in the event you are entering. The horse mentioned above should have regular workouts on narrow, single-track trail before the competition. The rider needs to be confident that his horse can travel safely at night so some training rides in the dark should be scheduled. A conditioning program should be developed that emphasizes hill work. Most horses that lack natural uphill ability will definitely improve with hill work as part of their routine conditioning program although they will probably never be able to match a horse with natural hill ability. Work on improving both the walk and the trot on hills and as the horse becomes stronger include the canter. The three gaits use different muscle groups and by working on all three gaits you are giving yourself option of changing to another gait as one muscle group tires. Knowing that hills are a limiting factor for your horse, you may want to teach your horse to tail so you can get off and relieve some of the animal’s workload on the steepest climbs. If you are not in the best shape, you may have to begin a work out program for yourself.
It is important to note that there are some weaknesses like a “race brain,” nervousness, and even some metabolic problems that cannot be trained or conditioned away completely. Some horses are just hard wired this way. For these kinds of problems it is really important to find the best way to manage them or deal with them. Going to endurance rides and using them as the simulated events (read training rides) is a great way to learn to learn how to manage or deal with these types of issues. For the horse with a “race brain” you will be able to find out where the best location is at the start. You will find out if he is best managed in the middle of the pack, best behind a buddy’s tail, or in the back of the pack. You will also learn how much energy he expends and be able to adjust your conditioning/training program to accommodate this. Is running in the front an option? Is he talented enough to run in the front? For a nervous horse you will be able to learn where his comfort level and be able to make conditioning/training adjustments for his personality. If your horse is prone to certain metabolic issues the use of endurance competitions as training rides will help make adjustments in electrolyte protocols and cool down strategies. It may even include a change as simple as using a “butt blanket” in the morning.
Riding To Your Strengths
In competition it is important to use your horse’s strengths to your advantage. If you know that your horse can easily travel down hills at a working trot there is no reason to decide to walk all the down hills on ride day. If you know that your horse never forgets a trail it would be definitely advantageous to pre ride as much of the course as possible before the scheduled event. If your horse has fabulous recoveries, even in the heat, there is no reason to walk 3/4 mile in to the vet check to recover. If your horse travels well alone there is no reason to stay behind another horse and ride somebody else’s ride. As important as it is to use your horse’s strengths on ride/race day it is even more important to have strategies in place to minimize his weaknesses. Because of your detailed conditioning program you know exactly what those limitations are and you have put a plan in place to deal with them. You know that your horse is not as strong as you like on hills so you have taught him to tail and you have conditioned yourself to hike the up hills. You know your horse can only jog at 6 MPH on a steep downhill but you can get off and jog at 6 MPH on a steep descent so you dismount and give your horse’s front end a break. You know your horse will waste a lot of energy if he starts with the “pack” so you wait 5 minutes until the horses are out of sight before coming to the starting line. Five minutes is nothing to make up in a 100-mile ride. You know your horse gets nervous and won’t eat in base camp if he is not by other horses so you make sure to set up camp with horses in clear sight.
There Are No Guarantees
Even if you follow a plan and have trained and conditioned religiously there is no guarantee that you will attain the goal you have set. Endurance riding is a team partnership and the horse can be the stronger member of the team but the horse can also be the weakest link. It is important to realize that when our partner is an animal attaining OUR goal is not dependent on our timetable but dependent on the horse’s timetable and that particular animal’s talents and abilities. If you do not reach the goal you have been striving for it should not be considered a failure but a lesson. Every “Did Not Finish” brings with it a wealth of information that will be useful in tweaking and improving your training/conditioning program, your riding/racing strategy, and perhaps, may even help in re-evaluating the goals you have set for yourself and your horse. Perhaps your horse may lack the speed or talent necessary to be a top FEI endurance horse but he may have talents that would make him a National Pioneer Award winner. Stepping back and re-evaluating your successful and not so successful competitions should be a regular part of your endurance program.