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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

It's that time of year...

I needed to make some changes to the Laura Crum book review that was scheduled to post today, look for it in a couple of days.

 In the meantime, it looks like everyone this time of year has the same questions - spring is here and where is my horse's fitness?  And how do I get it where I want it?
I've been privately e-mailing with some of you and I think one thing we can ALL agree on is that there isn't any perfect, published plan that we can follow and at the end of 9, 12, or 16 weeks have a horse fit and ready to go for (pick your distance) ride. 
Good, I'm glad we all agree, because that's probably the last thing we'll all agree on for the rest of this post.
I would like to stress that this is a GUIDELINE only.  While this GENERALLY works for Farley and me, even I don't follow my own guidelines all the time.  What will work for you and your horse will GREATLY depend on the type of terrain you have, how you manage your horse (pasture, boarding etc.), what type of rides you are planning and what your goals are (completion only, top 10 etc.). 
My purpose in posting this is to maybe get others thinking about their conditioning programs and develop something that will work for THEM and their schedule.
Believe me - I struggle with the same thing everyone else does - my horse is boarded and can't self exercise, I'm doing all the housework and cooking etc because it's just me in my household, and I'm a salaried employee working 50+ hour weeks and I'm never technically off the clock......and even with all that it is STILL POSSIBLE TO DO ENDURANCE.  You just have to be careful.  And know your horse.  And make decisions that are the best for you and your horse. 
To tell you the truth, I'm a bit nervous putting this out in public.  Now I understand why there's not a humongous amount of what I would consider "good" training plans for endurance out there, because most of this is based on knowing your horse.  Each person's conditioning plan for endurance is so personally.  That being said...I think there is so value in sharing our conditioning plans so maybe we all learn something?
So with all those caveats, here's what works for Farley and me.  Warning this is going to be LONG.
Also - if anyone is interested in an excel document of how many miles and minutes, as well as average paces for all our endurance rides for Farley since her very first LD (2008) (both the graphs and the hard data), let me know and I'll e-mail it to you.
General Guidelines
This is different from my guidelines I used with Minx.  Minx took more miles to get into condition and keep that condition. 
The biggest secret in endurance is how much we DON'T ride our horses, compared to what *I* as a beginner *thought* I should be riding to do 50 miles.... at least for goals of finishing.   I spend a LOT of time with Farley but really don't ride her very much.  That's why I started dressage - it's so different from endurance I feel like it's a way to get more saddle time with a minimum of wear and stress on her.  
For an LD, I stopped worrying about the miles and the pace, and the speed and focused on one thing – training.  In my experience a "typical" horse needs no additional conditioning to complete an "average" difficulty LD besides a 10-15 mile ride twice or so a month in addition to just regular riding and schooling and couple times a week.  
This is what my training schedule would look like:
  • 3-4 slow walks, hand jogs, or arena schooling focusing on training during the week (up to an hour per session).  
  • 2-3 times a month a trail ride with walk and trot up to 3-3.5 hours.  Anything between 2-3 hours would be helpful. 
  • I personally wouldn't be worried about mileage.  I do all my riding (and running) by time only.  I think that when conditioning saddle time is more important than actual mileage.  
  • I personally do NOT do too long weekends in a row.  If I did a 3 hour conditioning ride, the next weekend I'll do something different.  Maybe a cow clinic, maybe a bareback ride around the stable, maybe a long walking trail ride with a friend.  I do NOT go out and do another endurance paced trail ride the next week.  (there are always exceptions, but that's the rule of thumb I try to abide by).
Another note – anytime ALL my rides go as planned and I get in and ALL the mileage I think I *should*, then I've probably overridden my horse.  It's no coicindence that I only started to complete rides once I got a second horse and didn't have enough time to ride both.  So now I just do a lot of jogging and hanging out with her - not many what most of you would consider "real" rides.
Keep in mind, more often than not, first rides are horrible.  I had a very fit horse (I thought) for my first 50.  It ended much like a lot of my fellow bloggers stories.  It was horrible and I struggled with guilt and self doubt afterwards.  I did NOT pace right, she was not well trained, she was stressed, I struggled to meet cut off times because I had tack issues on the trail, had to stop and waste time taking care of them.  I let myself be carried along by other riders and did NOT ride my own ride. 
What changed between my first ride and my completion a year later was NOT more riding.  It was more training and a determination that I would RIDE MY OWN RIDE no matter what.  
My rule of thumb is not do ANY speed work until a horse has a year of successful completions.  You should be able to do ALL your trail work at a walk and trot and still be ready for LD/50 rides.  There's enough for the horse to worry about it's first year just learning to be an endurance horse. 
Some experienced people who are focused on going long miles and lots of years with a horse advise never going over 10mph at any point during the year of LSD and even beyond. 
Regarding the canter, If you want to work at the canter etc., I would save that for your arena schooling days.  I personally wouldn't ask for it on the trail.  BTW – I didn't canter Farley for the first 2 years I owned her.  (a bit of an exaggeration, but not much). We walked and trotted because she bucked quite hard going into the canter.  Dressage has fixed that and now we canter, but I didn't need to canter regularly in my conditioning to finish my first LD, my first LD multi, my first 50, or my first 50 multi. 
So what about moving up from an LD?  
Here's what I do.  
  • Do some 2-3 LD's 4-6 weeks apart
  • continue to do the SAME prep the rest of the month that you did to prepare for your first LD….
  • Chose a 50 ~6 weeks from your last LD as long as everything is going well.  If you sense your horse is a bit tired, delay your first 50 6-8 weeks out....
  • Continue to do the SAME slow prep during the week with a couple of longer trail rides (seperate by at least a week or 2) of 3-4 hours. 
  • Go and be successful.
This is also how I prep for a 100 (I just have 1 completion so take it with a grain of salt...) except I did 50 milers as my prep rides and continued to right lightly in between.  I also spaced my 50 and 100 a little further apart - 8-10 weeks instead of 4-6. 
Summary of my advice  
Lightly ride 3-4 days a week.  I would alternate hand jogs, one hour trail walks (mounted), and arena schooling/dressage.  For one week after the 50 miler I would only do hand jogs and mounted trail walks (maybe, depending on horse and horses's experience).  Two weeks prior to a 50, (as long as it was AT LEAST two weeks AFTER the LAST 50) I would do a walk trot conditioning ride of ~3 hours.   All depending on the horse.
A real life example
Some background - Farley is boarded in a fairly small, dry paddock.  I love running so dismounted and running with Farley is a plus.  This is Farley's 2nd FULL season, but technically her 3rd.  Here's a basic timeline of what has happened.
  • Novemember - bought and started to slowly condition (5 mile walk/trot)
  • December - bowed SDF tendon (minor bow, immediate treatment, never lame)
  • March - cleared by vet for regular work
  •  October - first LD
  •  November (early) - LD
  • November (late) - first 50 (actually a 55)
  •  December - first LD multi (4 days)
  • February - first 65.  Completed but....Ended up NQR.  Initial bow showed signs of strain.  Vet cleared her for walk/trot only for 4 weeks.  This was the last time there's ever been anything related to the bow....)
  •  May - 50 mulit (2 days)
  •  August - first 100 (only completed 68 miles.  Pulled for reasons unrelated to any previous injury.  Fatigue and a rock bruise)
  •  October - 50
  •  November - 55
  • February - 100 (a completion!)
Analysis of periods of interest
Here's what my journey has looked like - from taking Farley to her first LD, to finishing my first 100. 
First of all, realize that until April of 2009, when I say "did the canal 3-4 times a week" was really inconsistent.  I still had Minx and at that time was doing endurance rides with her, so Farley got pushed to the back burner much of the time.  There were weeks she didn't get ridden, and weeks she only got out once or twice.  Starting in April 2009 I was much more consisitent. 
2008 March - October
  •  I took 8 months to prepare for my first LD.  What did I do?  I rode 3-4 days a week on a 5 mile stretch of canal bank, at a walk and trot.  Farley was still bucking at the canter transition so that was a no no for me.  I was scared of the arena (one of those irrational fears) so 3-4 days I week I mounted up after work and did the canal.  About twice a month we would trailer out and do rides up to 3 hours at a walk and trot in the hills.  In early September, about 4 weeks before my LD, I did a 4 hour ride in the hills, where I covered about 15 miles.
First LD
  • First LD went well.  I felt like she was adequately prepared for race conditions.  I had originally planned on doing 2 days of LDs, but pulled from Sunday's ride when I realized she was a tired afterwards.  Even though I came in first, I did not go fast (it isn't a ride that awards placings for LDers so there's not that many people and it's not competitive) and my pace was right on target (I think about 7mph overall?)
Preparing for my first endurance ride (55 miles)
  • I rode her lightly for about a week between the October and November LD.  The rest of the time she had off.  After the November LD I promised myself NO MORE LD's.  She was SO STRONG.  She was an idiot child most of the race and I did things like stay 60 minutes at the 30 minute hold to start preparing for the 50.  I had 3 or 4 weeks between this LD and my first endurance ride.  She got ridden lightly for 1-2 weeks (maybe got out 5 or 6 times on the canal, walk/trot). 
First endurance ride (55 miles)
  • She completed it and completed it well, but ideally I would have pushed her first 50 off until December.  I rushed her by asking for this much, but it was the end of the season and I knew I wouldn't have another chance until April of the next year. (Patience Melinda!)  She was tired afterwards, and I was a bit nervous about her bow.  She wasn't lame, but I just felt like I should have waited.
Preparing for the multi-LD
  • I was riding Minx mostly, so she got out exactly.....ONCE in the 4 weeks between the November 55 and the multi day in December......
First multi-LD
  • Ideally I would have done my first 50 here and skipped the one in November, but I wanted to ride all 4 days (Death valley is a long drive for me), so I knew I would be doing LDs here......looking back I should have picked 2 of the following races:  November 55, December multi LD, 20 MT 65 - instead of doing all 3.  Live and Learn.....She did really really well at this ride.  Was totally prepared for it.....looked stronger and stronger each day.  On day 4, the Duck tried to convince me to go on and do the 50 after I was done with the LD....but I didn't want to push her (I already knew I was pushing her....) and my achilles was about to rupture (or at least felt like it).
Preparing for my first post-50 mile race
  • Here's where I really screwed up.  I should have done a 50 in spring instead of doing a 65 8 weeks after the multi. January she didn't get ridden at all.  February she was ridden 2-3 a week, with one longer hill ride (3 hours) 2 weeks before the race.
First post-50 mile ride (65 miles)
  • Finished strong, was mentally and cardio-wise ready for the race.  The bow got grumpy.  All those sandy rides when we were conditioning in hills......doing too many rides and too many miles too soon.....I was lucky there was no permanant damage.
Preparing for First 50 multi
  • March - slow walk/trot on advice to the vet on canals only (good footing/level)
  • April - Minx died so Farley's training got much more consistent......I still hated the arena. 
  • April and May:  Started hand jogging 3-5 miles with her 2-3 times a week, still riding 5 miles on canal 3x a week (depending on jogging schedule), trailered out and rode in hills 2-4 hours twice a month (so probably 3 times during this time period).
  • During this time I ended up having to travel at 25% for work.  I was gone 1 week out of 4. 
First muti 50 (2 days)
  • Could not have gone better.  Was mentally and phycially there.  No more issues with bow.  Happy horse.  (BTW - 20 MT 65 2009 was the last time the bow has ever caused a problem.)
Preparing for first 100
  • I had 8 weeks.  She got 1 week off after the multi day.  She got jogged/ridden on canal 2-3x a week walk/trot during the week.  I rode 3x on the Tevis trail, ~20-35 miles apeice, with the last pre-ride occuring ~3-4 weeks before Tevis.  2 of the prerides occured during the same weekend, so 3-4 weeks prior to Tevis she did a total of ~45 miles of Tevis trail over 2 days. 
  • In the 3 weeks prior to the Tevis she continued to be handjogged and ridden on the canal during the week, but that was it.  I started experimenting with cantering in the arena.
  • Still gone 25% of the time.
First 100 (made it 68 miles)
  • Attitude on the trail was good, but once at the 68 mile vet check (1 hour hold) obviously fatigued and starting to stiffen up.  Problems compounded by a rock hitting her leg on the trail near the 50 mile point that was causing intermittent grade 1 lameness.  Pulled.  In retrospect - if I hadn't charged up the second canyon at a trot (I thought I was going to miss a cut off), worn front boots (so the rock injury didn't occur), AND didn't ask her to canter into the chicken hawk check (because I thought I was going to miss the cut off), we might have been OK.  It also could have been that she needed another 4-6 months of conditioning before she was ready for her first 100. 
Downtown and brining her back up....
  • Month of August she got off
  • In September, started dressage.  For the first time, she is being ridden most days of the week with 1-2 days off.  (arena work mostly)
  • Did not do much trail work - mostly focused on dressage, with some very slow (walking) trail rides with family intermittently through the end of September and first part of October.
  • Lost motivation to go jogging.....
  • October/November was the last time I had to be gone for 1 week out of the month (work).
  • Did an "easy" 50 in late October/early November (I had to really push to make a cut off, but overall, the ride was a good, easy pace).
  • Did a 55 in Late November.  Was so ready to GO!
  • Continued to mostly focus on dressage.  Did one or two long trail rides (walk/trot/canter) during December.
  • Did long slow work (mostly walk) on trail with family over new years.
  • In January it rained.......and rained and rained.  We didn't do much....
  • First week of February we did one short, muddy, rainy trail ride.  And then it rained and rained and rained.
  • 2 weeks before the 100, did a faster conditioning ride (walk, trot, canter, with a lunch break) ~25 miles in ~5 hours in the hills to test our gears and make sure the boots still worked.
  • Dressage and (very few because of rain) rides on canal. 
100 mile ride (first completion)
  • Went very very well.  Definately prepared for the work, didn't lose weight, no problems with tendon, no filling in legs, no tack issues, great attitude.
  • Melinda resolves to start jogging with her again on a regular basis.
 Whew!  That was long.  Feel free to post away in the comment sections or your own blogs...I look forward to hearing what works for other people.  I am fully prepared for new ideas and suggestions!


  1. This is really excellent! I think I worry too much about putting on enough miles. I have figured (rough estimate) that we go about 5 miles when we ride for an hour in the arena doing dressage work. Plus we have been doing a ~4 mile walk down a gravel road once a week. So, I would guess that we are doing about 20 miles per week. Part of me worries that I need to do a 15 mile trot ride before our next endurance ride, but the other part of me thinks we will be fine for completion without. Horse lives on 24 acres, does ~20 per week, and has been in regular work since our last 50 mile completion in late November.

    On another note, about our email conversation about boots, how important is conditioning in the boots? Am I just checking for fit and getting used to using them? If he doesn't need the protection on conditioning rides, should I just make sure they work and just use them enough times that I feel comfortable with them?

  2. I love this! Thanks for all the work it took to write this all out. It is hard to find info on how to start, how much to do, etc. Love the real life aspect, I also have a full time job and house to take care of, so nice to know others are in the same boat! I'm still a ways off on doing a ride (because i'm a chicken) but really great info on the shorter rides.

  3. Heather - regarding the boots

    having a boot on the foot is different from having a barefoot, such as weight. My preference is to use the boots for every conditioning ride until I feel like my learning curve has leveled off and I can "trust" the boot to stay on. Then I use them at every long ride after that (about once a month). That seems to work ok for me. Gives her enough time in the boots that she stays used to them, and me enough confidence that nothing has changes dramatically and should still work.

  4. Thanks for sharing that with us! I'm really interested in what others do for conditioning and have been worrying that my mare might not be quite as fit as I would like for our first ride this year (its coming up weekend after next).
    I've only been able to ride 2-4 times a week since the beginning of Jan. some arena riding, some trails. The max distance we went was about 12 miles in 2.5 hours. Unfortunately she ended up with a boot rub and had several weeks off in Feb. I'm thinking after reading your blog and EG's blog posts and comments lately that she might actually have retained more condition that I think.

    I only do LD with her, but tend to obsess on training anyway:)

    Karen W.

  5. Yay! This is an excellent post - just what I needed. TYVM!

  6. Way to go Mel- Thanks for the email on this subject as well. I will probably still condition more than what you might do (after May ofcourse) simply because I love it (after May ofcourse) and I have access to countelss trails, but your advice does help take the stinger out of the whole formula! Last night, I took JB for a couple miles up the road and nearly got hit by a crazy driver. With the information you shared, I have decided I likely won't ride anymore on our gravel roads alone anymore. I have been wanting to give this up for safety reasons, but felt I had no choice if I had any chance of keeping the horses in good enough condition Now, I think maybe I I don't have to. I 'll work in my arena 3 times a week and haul to trails on the weekend and not worry about doing enough anymore.. and even better, not get killed trying to keep my horse in condition !!Way too many close calls with crazy dirvers.

  7. Jonna,

    Whew! I hear you on the road riding....People can be AWFUL :(

    Mel, sometime clue me in on how you eliminated Farley wanting to buck at the canter transition as that is one of our issues. At the trot/canter transition I can almost guarantee that Phebes will crank her head (try to drop her head) and buck. This means I instantly have to pull up on the reins to keep her head up, which makes her feel hemmed in, and it all unravels. Also, she WILL NOT canter in an enclosed space such as our makeshift riding arena. She will canter on trail, but I try to avoid that because her HRM starts screaming bloody murder. Can she become more heart effecient at the canter with training? (Looking off into the future here....)

  8. I have to admit that I just like to canter. There's a couple of places on our trails that I almost always let Dixie canter, just because I feel like I'm flying :) The rest of the time I keep her in a trot or rack. Anyway, I've noticed that she can comfortably canter further and further, so I think she's getting more efficient at it. No HRM, so no hard data.

  9. EG- I wonder if your HRM is telling you a few different things. First, if she doesn't do much cantering, she will not be in good physical shape to do so. Thus, her heart rate will remain 'high' until she builds the cardio strength to canter efficiently. Second, if you do not allow her to canter much, and she tends to buck going in to it, she probably has a HR spike just due to excitement. I wonder if it would drop after the excitement wears off.

    Practicing cantering can be scary on a horse who bucks. I have been working on improving my horses canter (he gets excited, but doesn't buck) by just cantering for extended periods. I try to stay in the canter for a few minutes at a time and keep him in it until I am ready to trot. I have been making a point of cantering as much as possible (per instructors advice) and his excitement level has really dropped since it is no longer anything to get worked up over. Now that he has calmed down about cantering, we can work on more transitions.

  10. I was "liking" the canter too at one point, until she did a 360 degree spin, dead stop. I was never in all my life so thankful for the mudhole I landed in that day. I looked like i'd fallen in a pig pen but came out in one piece.

    We have done a few short canters recently on trail. 1st one she wanted to buck. So I stopped and repeated, then it got better, and the third was better still. The footing hasn't been good for these kind of exercises as yet, but I can see I'm going to have to suck it up and just do it until we start getting it right. ~E.G.

  11. As far as effeciency at the canter....I really don't know. Out here in the west most endurance riders (this is a very broad generalization) do endurance rides at a walk and trot with very very little cantering. The terrain is just not set up for it. It's too hilly, too rocky. Even if you do decide to canter, you can't canter for more than a quarter mile or so before having to slow down to go down hill or jump over boulders....People out here that are looking for a win are going to do quite a bit of galloping to make up for the slow trotting they have to do for the steep hills and rocks.

    Farley has gotten more efficient, but I don't think she'll ever me the type of horse that will chose to canter long periods of time.

    I do like her to use different muscles during a ride, so if I want to change it up, I'll actually let her hand gallop. It seems easier for her than the canter, utilizes all that fast twitch stuff that Tom Iverson talks about, and seems to keep her interested.

    Farley has both bucked because I've asked her to canter, or I've asked her to go slower, but by far is more likely to buck because I'm aksing her ot move forward from a trot to a canter.

    The reason I clarify the "bucks" is because my response to each one is very different.

    For a buck offered because I asked her to down shift and she pulls on my reins and response is to haul her head around in a one rein stop and kick the hell out her side so that she never EVER does something so naughty again. (I like having brakes and I think it's very rude for her to ignore brakes and do something as naughty as buck when I've been perfectly reasonable).

    For the buck I think we are talking about - the trot to canter buck - it's not always so naughty. Sometimes it's a response in some horses because the canter is really hard for them.....What happened with me and Farley is that it was hard for her, so she "bucked" into it, I would get nervous and do what I did for the other buck - haul her head around and stop her - which was a reward in this case (because I wanted her to go forward and she got me to let her stop, where the other buck is a result of her wanted to go forward...if that makes sense). So now I've turned a fairly minor problem into a naughty behavior that can't be solved by stopping her when she bucks.

    The trick is to keep the horse moving forward. For Farley this is what I did (influenced heavily by mugwumps). I put the reins in one hand (in the arena) and a crop the other. I didn't care where we went as long as it was a canter. I trotted. I asked for a canter and when she bucked, I smacked her hard with the crop until she stopped bucking, moved forward and cantered. It's not going to be a pretty canter, it's not going to be a comfy canter. Don't worry about leads. Don't mess with it - just ride it. After a lap or two, bring her back down to the trot. Then ask again. Kiss, say canter or whatever you have that means "canter" and when she doesn't, take immediate action with the crop and when she bucks keep pushing her forward.

    I was confident that I could ride through Farley's bucks. She's never been able to do anything that has even remotely come close to unseating me (knock on wood), but you might want to work through this issue with an instructor is you are feeling a bit nervous about this.

    I had to do this little "arena session" once, and the "bad" bucking pretty much dissapeared. She will still throw in an occasional buck or two here and there, but they are little, not naughty, and just mean that she's a bit stiff or I surprised her in the transition.

  12. Our trot canter transition didn't not get good until I started dressage. We did a lot of trot work to bring her weight back on her hindquarters which really gave her some muscle there that she didn't have before and that has REALLY helped. In fact......I couldn't have told you the last time she bucked going into a canter if you discount our lesson last night.

    Yep - last night she had a total melt down. She became REALLY sticky going into the canter so the trainer decided to "break her loose".....We would trot for a couple steps, canter for a couple of steps (not worrying about collection, qualtiy of canter, or leads), trot, canter, trot, canter etc. Just getting her so she stopped THINKING about it so much and just DID it. She started bucking and crowhopping worse than she EVER had before, but after about 10 reps of this work, settled down and seemed to do much better than before. But I think this was really unusual.

    But, I guess you can say that the problem isn't totally solved....Farley will probably always be a bit of a bucker when she gets frusterated, but you ahve to really push her to get to that point, so I still feel safe putting kids on her that want to walk and trot.

    I hope there's something in all these words that help at least a little.

  13. UPDATE!!! Canter break through. Last night I did lots and lots and LOTS of transitions and was able to get a really nice trot-canter transition on both leads by the end. I guess repitition is the trick? I started out asking for the canter from the walk, then the trot, then I would canter 5-10 strides, trot 2-4 strides and then canter again. Magic....:)


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