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Thursday, July 28, 2011

"Walking is the toughest way for our horses to cover ground"

The August edition of the EN appeared in my post office box the day before i left, so now my discussions on the July edition articles are officially late.

Hopefully you got to read the article by Dr. Susan Garlinghouse "a veterinarian's guide to trailering". I'm not sure if it's available on line - I'm currently writing these articles on the train outside of green river Utah, and as you probably could guess, the availability of wireless Internet is a bit lacking here in the high desert of Utah.

Since I think we can all agree that considering and preparing for trailering is an important part of keeping our endurance horses healthy and happy, I wanted to make the main focus of today's post Stagg Newman "why walking can be the toughest gait. (side note - please excuse my capitalization errors throughout this post, I'm typing this on an iPad, on a train, in an email program and fine editing is beyond me right now!)

Unfortunately this article is not available on line. I do have a copy of it that I would be willing to send as a PDF for readers that request it, pending the approval of EN.

Newman introduces the concept by relating a story about a friend riding a very well prepared horse in a100. He had completed 5 100s previously including at WEG. The horse looked great and received excellent scores, until a group of riders, including the rider of this horse decided to do a couple of loops at a much slower pace. Several people pulled and the pace speeded up again. The pace of the last loop was "considerably" faster and the horse finished with excellent scores, including the scores that had started to suffer during the slower paced section.

This story struck a cord with me. I have observed this with my own horses. We will be trucking along fine and then for whatever reason - decide to slow down the pace and walk. After "too much" walking its like there's this point of no return. While I would never recommend pushing a tired horse to go faster if it needs to walk, unnecessary walking may not be doing your horse any favors.

I can remember a couple of specific rides where this happened - at tevis in 2010 I had enough time to walk from lost quarry to the finish and still finish, so I did in order to give myself what I thought at the time was the best possible chance for a "fit to continue" completion at the finish. So after trotting most of the ride, I slowed to a walk. We both started to stiffen up and i was lucky to finish. At another 100 I slowed to a walk for the last loop in order to ride with another group of riders that were at the end and all riding together. I had ridden by myself most of the day and night and wanted some company. After getting great vet scores all day, I walked that last loop and finished with less horse than I expected.

There are other examples but these are the 2 dramatic. In both cases i slowed down for reasons unrelated to my horse's welfare and did significantly more walking than I typically do in conditioning or rides.

Newman explores in his article several reasons why walking can be hard on a horse - the trot and canter have natural suspension systems that return injury. All those ligaments and bony structures in the horse's lower leg are designed as a complicated engery return system that let's the horse move very efficiently within those gaits.

Newman also explains how work can be explained in terms of heartbeats per mile. He includes a table in his article that includes the following information:

Gait/pace per mile/bpm/#heartbeats

Walk/15 min/90/1350
Trot/7 minutes/120/840
Canter/6 minutes/120/720

Newman stresses that you should not use this information to mindlessly trot or canter on when your horse needs a break. Instead, its a tool for you to evaluate what is the BEST way to complete the endurance ride while still giving your horse the breaks it may need. Is it better to do a lot of walking? To get off and walk beside? To stop altogether and let the horse graze? Newman provides an example of how this might work for the typical horse - in 15 minutes if a horse grazes for 8 minutes and trots for 7 min, you have probably covered one mile and expended about 1,240 heartbeats. Or you could have walked for the entire 15 minutes, covered a mile, expended 1,350 heartbeats and not taken advantage of the horse's efficient energy return system.

Obviously there are many considerations when choosing an appropriate pace for your horse and rider team, however it is good to keep in mind that going too slow to stay with a friend or riding buddy could be as detrimental to your ride as going too fast. You have trained for a specific pace - ride your own ride.

I will end my thoughts as Newman began his article - never hurry, never tarry - do not walk if the conditions allow for a faster gait, and do not spend extra time at holds or stopped on the trail unless for a good reason (such as letting your horse eat and drink).

For a selection of current and past articles such as the one referenced above, visit the aerc website ( and click on "endurance news".

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. I guess the impulsion and return action of the tendons actually helps the horse move along more efficiently in trot or canter. This reminds me of sled dogs, in which trotting is the preferred pace.


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