I've put her questions in italics and addressed her "sub-questions" one at a time in the non-italicized font.....
First the relevant signalment (that's what we vet peeps call the age/gender/breed/neuter status. Think of it has a one line history that tells you the relevant history of the animal and gives you a photo in your mind):
Fetti, Haflinger, looking at doing our second LD, first one this year.
AWESOME - So what we have here is a non-traditional breed that already has one LD under her belt (girth?) and is looking for more.
It's entirely possible we'll never make it to a 50, but I don't think it's unreasonable to aim for some 25s where I don't have to worry the whole time about time/pulsing down at the end.
AMEN! It's the number one reason I HATE LD's. I can remember thinking that neither me nor Farley were going to survive the experience of pulsing down at the finish line on the LD's that we did. She did NOT understand why we were standing outside of camp away from the trailer, food, water, and the comforts of her Spring Tie. Ugh ugh ugh.
However, keep in mind that you have to pulse into vet checks within a certain time, and you DO have to pulse in to the finish at the 50 mile distances and above in a certain time - it just doesn't affect your placing. That being said, there is just a diffference (for me at least) of sitting at the finish line trying to get my horse to pulse down, versus pulsing in for a vet check. It's just different.
And don't count yourself out for 50's or even a 100. If you don't read Funder's blog - you should. She went from "never going to do endurance" to "maybe I'll do an LD", to "a 50 could be OK" to "I can't WAIT to do a 100!". And she's doing it on a Tennessee walker!
With our usual riding partners, average speed tends to be 3-4mph. Am I right in thinking that most 4-10 mile rides with them are not going to do an awful lot for Fetti's conditioning/fitness level? We're generally not going above a medium-slow trot, with a fair bit of walking thrown in when the others get tired. Her Big Trot is closer to 7-8mph (on flat ground, but without other horses).
To increase fitness you need to be pushing the horse in either the speed or distance (or difficulty in trail - such as hills etc.) to a level not previously experienced. Maintaining fitness is easier and doesn't necessarily mean that you are pushing quite as hard. My guess is that by doing the 4-10 mile rides at that speed you are maintaining a certain amount of fitness needed to do an endurance paced LD, but you aren't actually adding to that fitness in any significant way. I feel that 4-10 miles at 2-4 mph is fine for the majority of your rides, as long as you add 1-2 long rides a month, and an interval workout every 7-10 days.
I would do my long rides at that "big trot" speed, with walk and jog breaks as necessary for 2-3 hours - overall speed will end up being slightly greater than the 2-4 mph, and when you work up to the 3 hour mark, your mileage will be increased as well.
Interval workouts would be done by doing short bouts of that big trot speed up a hill, or on the flats with at a speed slightly faster than the big trot speed, with walk/jog breaks. Perhaps 2-4 minutes doing the fast portion of the interval, followed by 1-2 minutes of slow walk/jog recoveries. The horse should be close to full recovery (ie close to 60 bpm) before doing the next fast interval. So if your horse is struggling to feeling "good" after 1-2 minutes of the slow recovery, you need to back off the speed or duration of your fast intervals.
- Note that by "fast" I don't mean gallop your horse all out......the fast portion of the interval is just faster than the normal endurance speed - a fast trot or a slow canter.
Those 4-10 mile rides, and finishing that LD last year means that you probably have the base to start doing the long rides and intervals I've described above. In fact, for someone that has just started, the slower rides are exactly what I would recommend! However, you are ready to move your conditioning to the next level, to give you a little more of a "comfort cushion" for your next LD.
We did finish the 25 last year at Ride Bear, but just barely pulsed down in time. As a result, I'm currently erring towards the super-fit side of the spectrum.
I would encourage you to step back and think of your conditioning to this point as outside of the seesaw between "super rested" and "superfit".
Since I don't know how often you are doing the 4-10 mile rides, it's hard for me to determine exactly how much mileage you are putting on your horse, but for the sake of this argument, let's assume that these 4-10 mile rides are making up the majority of your training, and that you are riding a couple days a week. Sound fair?
- With this assumption, I would argue that you fit into neither category of super fit or super rested!
- You aren't doing the super fit thing, because you are neither going far enough or fast enough (often enough) to be putting the "extra" fitness on your horse.
- But you are doing significant riding more often than what I would consider "super rested".
It obviously varies for each horse, but here is what I would consider a "super rested" and a "super fit" protocol for an LD horse.
(caveat - assumption being that, like in this case, the horse has successfully completed an LD before and can be considered as having a "base")
Super fit protocol EXAMPLE: Long (~3-4 hours) rides at speeds of at least 5 mph average every 7-14 days. Horse is ridden most days of the week - a mix of dressage schooling, shorter trail rides, and a fast ride of ~1 hour every 7-10 days. Reduce this work out in the last 2 weeks prior to a 50 or LD - horse is still ridden 3-4 days a week and those rides include schooling dressage, and slower trail rides up to one hour. The 2 week taper period would also apply to a 50 miler. For 100's the lead up "tapering" prior to a ride was even longer than 2 weeks - approaching 4 weeks, with ideally no significant rides (such as a 50) within 6 weeks of a hard 100. A superfit protocol will give you the reserves to get yourself out of a situation - ie you got stuck behind a long line of people or had a major tack malfunction and now you need to make up some time.
--> This is how Farley was trained for much of her endurance career. Resting the horse before a ride, and giving alternating weekends off after doing significant 3-4 hour conditioning rides is essential for keeping the horse sound!
Super rested protocol EXAMPLE: 1-2 Long (~3 hour) rides per month. Ride horse ~2 days a week. And sometimes weeks go by without the horse being ridden. No more than 1 hard work out a week (whether that was one of the long rides, or a faster interval ride).....and even more typically "hard" workouts are spaced out by 10-14 days. May "cluster" your workouts - ie do 2 or 3 harder/longer/faster workouts back to back after 7-10 days off, followed by another 7-10 days off. "Days off" = fartin' around = rides without fitness goals. This includes fun rides with friends and beer, leadrope runs, ground work, swims in the lake etc. If you have a time and a distance in mind, than it is not a day off. A cornerstone of this approach is that you absolutely make sure your horse is rested going into the ride......and you absolutely make sure you don't put your horse back to work after a ride or an especially hard conditioning ride too soon. Wait weeks if necessary. Never ride your horse through a NQR. Realize you are NOT going to beat that cut off time by galloping 5 or 10 miles. The benefit? Going into the ride, I'm not worried that there is something brewing somewhere.
--> This is Farley's current conditioning.
Neither approach is without it's risks. Superfit? Look for stress injuries and micro injuries caused by fatigue. Tendons and ligaments are only as strong as the muscles around them - and fatigued muscles are asking for an increased load on a tendon that causes failure. Superrested? If you have a horse with a history of tye up, you MUST make sure you are addressing it through nutrition and how you are asking the horse to go back to work. I tend to not pull Farley out of her pen and ask her to do a hard work out. If I have something coming up, I try to make sure I've gone running with her, or done a short walking trail ride with her for the day or 2 before.
What about an approach that is in between these 2? I would argue that you have the risks without any of the benefits. You have a horse that you are riding a lot, that may be more fatigued than optimal, but the type of work being done by the horse isn't adding to their fitness.
Important concept: If you are happy with how the horse is finishing whatever is your choice of rides (LDs, 50s, 100s), than don't change anything - it doesn't matter exactly where you are on the see saw because it is working for you.
However if you want the horse to look differently at the finish line, than you must change something in your conditioning plan in order to change something in your horses fitness. You could be in the middle of the see saw (Not enough mileage and not enough rest), or at the extreme ends of the see saw (not enough mileage OR not enough rest). You either need to add rest or miles and which option you chose will depend on your rider goals and your individual horse!!!!!!!
I think a diagram would help explain this concept. At the arrows, the horse is too tired. At the circles the horse finishes well.
You can also look at this as a 2x2 diagram (in vet school we get like a GAZILLION 2x2 diagrams to explain EVERTHING).
My Dear Patient Reader had one last (sub) question that will be answered in a second post since I think it's an important concept that stands alone and is relevant beyond this specific situation.
Bonus discussion - I wasn't sure how to fit this concept in nicely above so I'm shoving it here on the end. Just something else to think about:
What about injury? I've touched on it briefly above with stress/overtraining injuries associated with superfit protocols, and more acute overriding injuries associated with super rested protocols. Another thing to consider is a known history of some injury that you don't want to reinjure. An argument could be made for either philosophy.
Let's take tendons as an example. Assume you have successfully rehabbed the injury, it was a relatively mild injury that required time off, but isn't necessarily career ending. The facts are: the previously injured tendon is not as strong. Tendons experiencing increased load have a tendency to protest. Tendons are kept in working order by the strength of the muscles around them. Tendons are susceptible to both overtraining/stress injuries, and overriding injuries. Keeping that in mind:
- Superfit = you've tested thoroughly tested the tendon out on the trail and it hasn't broke yet, so you are probably OK to go. The downside: You've put a lot of stress on that tendon in training and it may have micro injuries (and in fact, the research says it probably does) and you are relying on the conditioning of the structures (muscles) that may or may not have overtraining issues/fatigue.
- Superrested = You've not overloaded the tendon in training so you know you are going into the ride with as close to 100% integrity as it's ever going to have - the risk of some micro injury is low. The downside: the muscles around it may not be as adapted for the load, and thus the tendon may experience more strain during the ride and muscle fatigue during the ride may cause injury.