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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Food for thought

I've had several thoughts rattling in my head lately about trot vs canter vs walk, which ones are biomechanically related and how that relates to conditioning, endurance, preceived effort, and general "wear and tear" on the horse. Related to this, are variations in terrain, up hill vs down hill and what gaits to travel when, not to mention the idiocyncracies of individual horses! There's a LOT of factors that play into this, which is why I'm holding off on posting anything on the subject. I've had a couple of really good discussions in person with some of you and I'm gradually collecting my thoughts on the matter.

In the meantime, Terri Rashid posted a very well written, thoughtful e-mail to ridecamp. I've gotten permission to republish it here. The paragraph breaks are mine - the copy/paste thing is being idiotic and since this e-mail is in a different user account than my blogger account, it's not cooperating at this point.

This post was in response to an article about whether extended trots for endurance horses is
condusive to soundly competing over the long-term.

"I have a mare that has a really great trot, and can also put horses we’re riding with into a canter when she’s trotting large. I have been learning a lot from various people over the years, and while I don’t have any scientific studies to back it up, I would like to pass along other experienced rider’s comments to me just so that newer people on ridecamp have a chance to hear and decide for themselves.

I have had several top level endurance riders tell me that a large extended trot puts the horse more at risk for suspensory tendon injuries. Especially when going uphill. I don’t know personally, but when that many good riders tell me that, I listen. I wanted to highlight that because I always thought of uphill as being pretty safe to train at speed because my main concern was concussion. But do be aware of the loading forces on the tendons if you’re asking for a long extended trot *and* you’re headed uphill. Just because your horse CAN trot large, doesn’t mean that it’s good for them over long distances. (Now note that this is NOT saying anything against a nice medium trot over long distances. ☺) [Most of the rest of this has to do with riding at a flatter / rolling ride with good footing. For really up and down rides or rocky footing I’ve seen so many different choices among good riders that I can’t provide any useful generalizations.]

The other point, which I have definitely seen in my own mare as we’ve picked up the pace doing FEI rides, is that a large trot is not as efficient for her. Now I know people will say that some horses are more efficient at the trot than at the canter for some given speed, and that may be true, but if you’re checking on your own horse then to be fair you need to have spent time conditioning well in BOTH gaits before you decide which is easier on the horse. (Depending on your terrain and your horse you might still spend more time conditioning at the trot, but you need to have done some good conditioning at the canter before you decide that your horse is more efficient at the trot.) My horse’s HRs are about 10 beats per minute higher when trotting 12 mph than when cantering 12 mph. Over the last year I’ve been cantering more in training and she’s getting very efficient at the canter. As a large trotting horse I have had to teach her to switch to the canter at a slower speed. Don’t assume that your horse will switch to the canter when the trot is becoming inefficient for them. Teach them to switch. And also teach them to canter in a relaxed fashion. If they are always only cantering when the speed is higher (whatever constitutes “high” for your training) then, if they are like my mare, they are less likely to be relaxed at the canter. While I am sure each horse is different, most folks I talk to around here definitely seem to want the horse cantering by 12 mph. From watching my mare’s HRs I am starting to think that 11 mph is not a great trotting speed for her but I also have not yet taught her to hold a relaxed canter at that speed. (We’re working on it.) So that’s a speed I try not to go for a sustained period at this point in our training. I’d rather slow to a 9-10 mph trot, or let her get up to a 12 mph canter.

I know this is all really specific, and so therefor probably wrong for some horses, and it’s also probably why the really great riders aren’t posting specific things like this. ☺ But I am trying to give some general ideas for newer riders. I know when I was new and people would say that I had to “feel” and “judge” what was right for my horse I felt a bit adrift. Now I can better follow that advice for my own horses, but I wanted to set out some rough numbers for others who might just want a starting point. If you don’t have a GPS and can’t judge speed without one, then the “feel” part is to notice when you’re starting to get more motion in the back at the trot. When they *really* extend the trot you’ll probably be able to feel more of a side-to-side motion of the saddle as their pelvis and shoulders pivot slightly trying to extend the reach. The general consensus around here is that THAT motion is not efficient, and the horse should either be slowed down, or asked to switch gaits.

So I don’t have studies, and thankfully I don’t have personal experience with suspensories, but I am learning from some AWESOME riders and just wanted to put some of that out here so that other people who might not live as close to experienced endurance riders can also hear these things. As usual, your mileage may vary. And don’t suddenly switch what your horse is doing if what you’re currently doing is going well. Introduce change gradually and watch to see how it works for your horse. The variables in our horses, in the footing we ride on, in the terrain we go over, and the weather we experience is all part of what makes it so difficult to set specific guidelines for pacing – both in training and at a ride.

I’m probably an idiot for writing this up, but the above information has really helped me in my training, and I am hopeful that it can help someone else. My mare is 9 years old, and fairly athletic, and I’ve been bringing her along in endurance since she was 5. (And prior to that she was a racehorse, so had already been under saddle for a few years.) We have slowly introduced more cantering at rides and she has a great base to build from. If you have a horse that’s been going for a while, with a good base and you’ve mostly been trotting, then you might play with the above to see how it works for you. If you’re just legging up a horse I would not worry about going faster for extended periods as you need to build a base on them first. Even with my 9 year old horse we spent a great deal of time this summer just walking up and down mountains in Montana. We did some trotting and cantering where the terrain was flatter, but a lot of the terrain was too steep or rocky for moving out. We came back to California at the end of the summer and I was shocked to find that she was in better shape from our summer of riding – and able to hold a faster pace for longer. So see if your horse is more efficient at the canter, but make sure they have a good base to work from if you want to canter for long stretches on a ride.

I just started FEI riding this year, and I am really enjoying it. I know some people have no interest in riding faster, and that’s great too – when I ride with my husband and sons (ages 10 & 11) we ride more easily and that’s a lot of fun. But I would love to see more people who have an interest in learning to ride faster and possibly compete in FEI have that opportunity. The more interested FEI competitors we have, and the more good mentoring they can obtain, the better our international teams can be. And success in international competition tends to really catch the eye of the public, which will create more interest in the sport of endurance. With more riders our rides become financially viable for ride managers, we have more people to help voice an interest in keeping trails open, and more mentors in more locations to help new people start into the sport. So if you want to try FEI, don’t be intimidated. With a lot of help and instruction (and a good horse) I just completed my second 100 miler in a ride time of 8:46! (Good course, great cool overcast weather, great mentors & crew, etc.) It’s FUN to ride that fast when your horse is ready for it. And I would love to see more people learn to do those faster times on appropriate courses in a safe manner. Good mentoring is key. Riding FEI does NOT preclude riding in rough mountainous terrain and enjoying just being out on your horse for the fun of it – which I think is what got most of us into this sport. I spent the whole SUMMER doing that kind of riding. I still love doing a challenging mountain ride – I just plan my pacing quite a bit differently. ;>"

Terry - I don't think you are an idiot for writing this up! LOL. Thanks for giving me another couple of ideas to mull around.

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