STRATEGIES FOR TOUGH 100 MILE RIDES
By Jayel Super
Jayel Super, who just won the Old Dominion 100 for the fifth time, three more than any other horse, was asked to give the horse’s perspective on how to prepare to do well in a major competition. Note that the program he discusses is only appropriate for a horse with many years of base conditioning. Super now has completed 18 100s over 10 seasons.
The principles Super illustrates, particularly the concepts of (1) rest, (2) a holistic approach in partnership with vets and farriers and owners, and (3) focus should be important parts of any well-planned program.
The level of training must be tailored to the horse’s history and abilities. The early years for an endurance horse should emphasize building a strong foundation through long, properly paced miles, not racing. -Stagg Newman
Hi. I’m Jayel Super, a 16-year-old bay Arabian. I specialize in doing tough, challenging 100s. I was asked to share how I prepare for tough rides.
As a 16-year-old I must be more meticulous in my preparation than when I was younger — although I am not nearly as creaky as my rider, Stagg Newman, who just hit the big 60. I really like new trail and heard that the Old Dominion had moved the trail to some beautiful national forest and eliminated that rock pile called Sherman’s Gap (that I always made Stagg walk up on foot).
So I told Stagg last August that my primary goal for 2008 was to do well at the “new Old Dominion.” Then if I did well there we would talk about doing the AERC National Championship ride. My motto for tough rides comes from Dr. Matthew MacKay Smith, AERC Hall of Fame rider and vet and Old Dominion icon. He teaches “never hurry, never tarry.” I apply that to both my preparation and the ride.
Hoof care. My preparation for the Old Dominion 100 actually started last August. Tough 100s require addressing any weakness and my hoof structure is one of my weaknesses. At that time, my farrier Jeff Pauley, my veterinarian Ann Stuart, and my caretakers Stagg and Cheryl agreed that I should take the rest of the 2007 off so that Jeff could rebalance my hooves in preparation for the 2008 season.
Doc Ann took cool digital x-rays that Jeff examined to start a six-month program of hoof rebalancing. I went back to wearing shoes in February. During my time off, I ran around my field (it’s mine because I’m the head of the herd!), did periodic equitation work to stay aligned and balanced, and went on a couple of pleasure rides, all without shoes.
While on the topic of hooves I should mention that for the Old Dominion, we checked with ride management about the new course and learned that there was a good bit of gravel road, some rocky sections, and some good forested trail. So Jeff outfitted me with a really cool set of hoofgear: pour-in sole protectors, shock-absorbing pads, and light steel shoes, plus some tungsten points for traction. I was ready to dance over the rocks, gallop on the gravel roads and cruise on the forest trails. The shoes are pretty cool — I call them “Air Super” shoes.
Body care. As part of preparing for the season I also insist on a holistic approach to body care so Dr. Kerry Ridgway did a combination of acupuncture, chiropractic adjustment, and massage therapy. When I arrived at the OD I was pleased to see my friend Karen Zelinsky Kite was going to be part of Team Super for the weekend. She is a cool crew and an equine sports masseuse. I felt really good after she finished working on me the day before the ride.
Saddle fit. Also importantly for this season I insisted that Stagg and Cheryl have Kerry really check the saddle fit as it did not feel right any more. He discovered that the old saddle had become warped. Fortunately Stagg and Cheryl hosted a saddle fitting clinic with Kerry and Mike Scott in February. My old saddle went into Mike’s collection of “saddles behaving badly.” Mike was able to reflock one of the other saddles for me (much better!).
Conditioning. Normally my weekly conditioning programming for the Old Dominion is a couple of equitation workouts for 45 minutes in a sand arena and then one intense mounting workout of 10 to 25 miles with 2000 to 4000 feet of climbing. I also try to do one 50-mile competition in early April and one 100-mile competition in early May to be ready for OD which is the second week in June.
Note that I prefer intensity rather than lots of miles of training. That has enabled me to compete successfully now for over a decade. And my herd buddies and I do gallop around our mountain pasture to stay in shape. Of course different types of horses need different programs.
I thought I might be competing with Heraldic and John Crandell III and so I had to raise my level of conditioning. I have always excelled at hill-climbing and rough terrain with my trot being a key strength. At the 2006 AERC National Championship Heraldic stayed with me up the hills and on the rocks and then had this big ground-covering hand gallop that I had trouble keeping up. So we decided to build more galloping work into my conditioning program to go with the normal mountain training.
Also this year, rather than doing a 50- and 100-miler as preparation for the OD, I did the Leatherwood Extreme 50 and Chicken Chase Pioneer 55 with my herdmate O’Ryan. We went pretty darned fast given that I have not done many 50s in my career.
Then I did the Biltmore 50 and Longstreet’s Charge 55 with another herdmate, Winston, who is 6. We did those a bit easier as I was just maintaining my fitness for the OD and showing Winston (who is a bit of brat and needs some training) the ropes.
In terms of rider fitness training, I made Stagg lose some weight and do more cardio training.
That was my revenge when Stagg informed me he was not going to do as much downhill running as he had in the past because his knees were getting creaky. Don’t believe it when somebody tells you 16 for a horse is like 60 for a person. (Snort! I am doing much better than Stagg.)
Feeding. In tough 100s, both the feeding program going into the ride and the feed during the ride are a big deal to me. Because of the drought, this year my field was not as lush as normal. The good news in that is that my portly brother, Khrome, who is a bit of a pasture ornament, did not have to wear his muzzle and I got to eat a pound and a half of grain per meal rather just one pound.
I also wanted to increase my fat reserves so in addition to my normal high-fat grain, Stagg supplemented my feed with high-quality vegetable oils starting about two months before the ride with a small amount and building up to about three-fourths of a cup twice a day (but stopped the day before the ride).
Trail planning. Good news and bad news: This year the OD was on an all-new course. The bad news, of course, is that my prior trail knowledge and old strategies were not helpful. The good news was no Sherman’s Gap and fewer (although still plenty of) rocks.
From the map I was pleased to see a long steep climb starting about four miles into the ride. I told Stagg that we would go out at a steady trot to warm up for the first four miles and then take the climb at a steady pace. Even if other horses went out fast early on — not something that in my opinion is a good idea in a 100 — I could probably catch them by the top of the climb given I was born to climb.
After Stagg studied the map, I took him out on a ride to do the first and last three miles or so of trail so that I would know what to expect in the morning and recognize the last part of the trail at night in the dark when we returned.
I made sure I ate well on Friday by having Stagg, Cheryl, and Beverly, who was riding Winston in the 55, takes us out for lots of hand grazing on the grass (good moisture). So with that, plus hay and grain and a good night’s rest, we were ready for the big day.
OLD DOMINION 100 STRATEGIES AND TACTICS
The ride strategy was based on three principles:
— Stay calm, cool, and collected, particularly at the beginning of ride.
— Pace properly throughout the ride for my level of fitness and the course.
— Eat, drink, and electrolyte well.
My motto for tough rides comes from Dr. Matthew Mackay-Smith, AERC Hall of Fame rider and vet and Old Dominion icon. He teaches “never hurry, never tarry.”
Start calm, cool and collected
At the beginning of a ride, that’s much harder than it sounds if you are a “wired dude” like many of us Arabians. (And it does not help that my rider is a bit wired too.) When my hormones start running with the excitement of the start, my instinct is to run. Early in my career Stagg and I used to get in fights over that. He claims he had bursitis for six months after our first 50 together.
However, I learned that when I get over-hyped early on, I get my system out of whack later. Stagg checked with some of those people with fancy-sounding letters after their name (Dr. Michael Lindinger and Dr. Gayle Ecker of the University of Guelph in Canada) and learned that the concentrations of electrolytes in the sweat that we horses lose when we are really excited is far greater than normal. Moreover, when hyped I run through my energy reserves more quickly and then hit a blood sugar low which really makes me feel bummed out.
My systems do not really start working efficiently until I feel nicely warmed up inside which takes several miles. For a tough 100, I prefer to do not do several additional miles of warm-up prior to the rides as miles are miles.
So now Stagg and I have reached a mutual agreement to use some “tricks” to stay calm at the beginning of the ride. We practice some equitation stuff (leg yielding, etc.) prior to leaving to focus on each other and not the other horses who are starting to go crazy. Stagg also sings to me. He has a terrible voice but I humor him if it helps keep him calm.
At the OD this year I started at the front when they opened the trail so I could set the pace at a moderate trot. Then I let any other horses who want to really run go. This year one horse went galloping on ahead right up the first hill (a youngster’s mistake). We stayed at the moderate trot for several miles. I warmed up and I could feel I was working more efficiently.
The really cool intuitive riders like Becky Hart and John Crandell III are so “one with their horse” that they can sense their horses’ heart rates. Stagg is a more “analytical type” (note the first four letters in analytical) so he looks at the heart rate monitor. When I am warmed up my heart rate will drop 10 or 15 beats into my normal working range. Then I am ready to move out a bit.
One of the cool things at the new OD trail is a 1600-foot climb several miles into the ride. Some horses are built to gallop on the flat. I am built to climb at the trot. So when we came to that long climb I just kept a steady trot, catching the horse that had galloped on ahead and leading a small group up the mountain. Every now and then I would slow to a walk to catch my breath. Stagg uses the HRM to help guide when I should walk. We then cruised along the ridge line and down off the mountain into the first check point, a gate-and-go.
The checkpoint lets me assess my pace and assess the competition. What’s important is whether my time to recovery meets my normal rate. I noticed that the other horses in our little group took a bit longer to recover.
I used the time to eat some grain that Stagg carried rather than leaving right away. Groceries for the day are important. Then I left with a newfound buddy, a grey Arabian that reminded me of my herdmates. Riding with a buddy is a lot more fun.
We cruised along at a steady trot or easy hand gallop, depending on the terrain, into the first full vet check. I recovered in less than a minute and so was feeling good. During the vet check I enjoyed a light massage (an “allowable treatment” under Rule 13’s Appendix G) from Karen Zielinski who was part of my team. Stagg checked my pulse near the end of the vet check and it was well down in the 40s so we were “good to go.”
We kept the same steady pace, neither hurrying nor tarrying, for the first few miles out of the second check. We then reached a climb of several miles and used the same strategy as before of trotting until I needed a bit of a break for a minute or two.
The second full vet check was similar to the first one. I again left with my new “buddy for the day.” Before the next check (a gate-and-go) we were caught in a big thunderstorm. It cooled us off but was a bit exciting as we were near the top of the ridge line. We then came into the gate-and-go which was at the top of a climb so it took me a bit longer to recover. I was impressed that my buddy recovered quickly. We took about 10 extra minutes there to grab some good groceries that ride management provided.
We then cruised to the third full vet check at about 65 miles into the ride. I recovered right away but my buddy took about six minutes, an important indicator. Then a big thunderstorm hit so I had to chow down in the rain while Stagg wimped out inside the truck.
I left the third vet check alone and kept a steady pace, mainly a working trot with some easy hand galloping, to vet check 4. The buddy I had been riding with came in about the time I was leaving, 30 minutes later. He had wisely slowed down, given his longer time to recover and I knew I was going to have to do the last 20 or so miles alone.
My temptation when going alone, particularly when in the lead, is to walk. But I do not as long as the footing is good as the walk if very inefficient for me. My “spring system” of ligaments and tendons does not really “spring” at the walk. So the effort expended per mile as well as the total heart beats per mile is far higher than at a trot or easy canter. Plus there is less cooling breeze at a walk.
So we just kept steadily trotting along with an occasional canter for variety unless the footing was really bad (or while waiting for a skunk to clear the trail!). That’s putting “never hurry, never tarry” into practice.
Once nightfall came, shortly after leaving the last vet check, I slowed down. The rain, plus all of horses on the 25 and 50, made the trail really muddy. At night I could not tell what was good footing and what was not, so caution was the order of the day.
Finally we got to the last mile of good road and I trotted on in feeling like I could go many more miles. My pacing was on the mark. And now my priority was eating.
Eat, drink and electrolyte well
You probably gathered from my narrative above I am into eating. I have trained Stagg to let me take advantage of opportunities and to take a bit of extra time at gate-and-goes for a brief snack. I also insist on a smorgasbord of different hays, grains, and mashes at the checkpoint so that something will be appealing.
In terms of drinking, the motto of a good endurance horse is “drink early, drink often.” I keep an eye out for opportunities to drink, such as small streams, to supplement what ride management and my crew provides.
Electrolytes are “yucky” but go with the turf. Stagg tells me that research by the smart people at University of Guelph shows that at a slower pace electrolyes are not all that important but as the pace speeds up or the footing gets worse (sandy or muddy like the last part of the OD), the electrolytes are critical. So I now insist on lots of small doses, about once per hour. I also insist that they be buffered so as not to irritate my stomach and mouth. Lately I have gotten Stagg to use baby food carrots as a buffer. Almost as good as real carrots! [Stagg’s note: Not all horses will tolerate electrolytes this often, so work with your horse to see is best for the two of you. Electrolyes are really complicated so more is best left to a separate article.]
Hope this helps my equine buddies do well in their next rides. I have asked Stagg to write a summary of key lessons for riders.
Key lessons for elite horses and riders on competitive rides:
1. Stay at a moderate pace, ideally in a small group or alone, until the your horse is warmed up and the “adrenaline rush” is out of the system (for Jayel Super this is typically 30 to 45 minutes, longer if lots of other horses are “hyper”).
2. Never hurry, never tarry. As walking can be inefficient, use moderate gaits.
3. The heart rate is great indicator, both on trail and at checkpoints. Keep your horse in his easy aerobic range most of the time in a tough 100. He will need the reserves later. Use the time to recover based on your horse’s norms and the heart rate near the end of the hold as indicators of how your horse is doing. Note that you must know your horse’s norms so I intentionally did not put Super’s heart rates into this article. Many great horses do not have really great recoveries coming into a hold while others do.
4. Give plenty of time for eating with lots of choice. Give small, buffered doses of electrolytes, if appropriate. And encourage your horse to “drink early, drink often.”