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Friday, December 6, 2013

I know my job! (The role of anticipation in the performance of our endurance horses)

As usual when I have an unpleasant decision to make...we are going to talk about an interesting concept instead of some real life event!

"But wait wait wait!" (My Dear Reader says) - "what unpleasant decision?????"

 Fear not, it has nothing to do with Farley.  You see, we are experiencing a weather event here in the central valley of California that occurs about every 10 years - it might snow.

Do I ride????  In bitterly cold, potentially ice and wet conditions?  - I'm I'm less than a week out from that 35 mile ride and so there's no good reason to risk poor enviornmental conditions and get a ride in. Some turn out and fuzzy pony lovin' is all I need to do for the next couple of days.

But my running is a different story.  I really wanted to get in a HIIT run, and a 2 hour longer/slower run in over the next 3 days.  I was obssessively checking the hourly report on my phone as I drove to school this morning, trying to find a magic window of time where the following conditions were met:

1. Not in school in a class
2. Over 40 degrees (F)
3. NOT 25 mph cold north wind
4. Not raining or snowing

And......the consensus is...that I'm screwed.

So, let's move onto happier topics.  Today I have a really interesting concept from human running studies, that may be applicable to our endurance horses in a very interesting way.

Here's your assigned reading -  It's perfectly ok to skim!

Did you click the link?  I didn't think so....CLICK THE LINK!!!!!!!!

OK. What did you think?

Here's some of the more interesting sections (emphasis is mine as well as anything in parenthesis).

Our body continually monitors and essentially predicts what pace we can run to the finish line without damaging ourselves and we adjust the pace accordingly.  As a quick example, if we know it is very hot outside, we will adjust our pace from the very start of the race.  We won’t wait until our core temperature gets near critical levels.  (the point being that we don't do this conciously, our BRAIN says "you are able to put in this much effort" and adjusts the "wall" or "preceived fatigue" accordingly). Instead, we have anticipation and our brain essentially runs a calculation based on available data. 

How far we push is also a factor that plays a role and is dependent on prior experience and our psychological drive. If we have competition or the competition means more then it is likely that our body will loosen the reigns a little and lit us dig deeper into homeostasis violation. It is this thus a back and forth battle between psychological drive and our body trying to maintain homeostasis.

The point is that performance is the result of how closely matched our expected effort and our actual effort is matched.  We have all of the prior experience and expectations that guide how we expect to feel.  And then our actual sense of effort is formed based on the internal and external feedback we are receiving during the race.


As a runner, what this author says, and the research he summariazes absolutely rings true to me.  In addition to the specific studies he mentions and summarizes, there are some other interesting studies about how our brain has a "governor" that decides how much fatigue we should feel and how much effort it's going to allow us to put forth - I believe this subject was covered by Radiolab if you are into podcasts :). Rinsing your mouth out with a fluid that contains nutrients (carbs etc) rather than water...even if you don't swallow, will actually stimulate the governor to loosen the reins and allow you to put forth more effort.

Much like weight control and health hinges both on nutrition and exercise, athletic performance depends on both physical AND mental factors.

What about our endurance horses? If anticipation of distance or time plays such a big role in human perception of fatigue or effort..... could this relate to our horses tooo????????

Now, it's always dangerous to apply human sport physiology studies to horses.  It's also a bit sketchy to apply human emotions or thoughts to our animals, including horses.

I can't even imagine the fallacy of applying a PSYCHOLOGICAL HUMAN EXERCISE study to horses.

But hey, it's my blog and I can go off the deep end if I want right?

Here's what I know about my 15 year old horse who has been doing this endurance thing for 7 seasons.

- She pees when I walk up to her pen.  Every single time.  It's like she knows we are going out for a ride and is preparing herself physically
- When she sees the number takers coming into a vet check up ahead, she goes to the side of the trail and pees.
- At the 40 min point in a 1 hour vet check, she stops eating and takes a nap.
- At the 55 min point, she won't stand still and is pulling towards the out timer.
- If her last race was an LD - she is a raving maniac and I will fight her for 25 miles.
- If her last race was a 50, she pulls a bit but isn't naughty.
- If her last race was a 100, we will start on a loose rein, and she doesn't waste any energy arguing with me.
- If her last race was a 100, she will also self stop more often before a steep up or down and ask me to get off. If you last race was an LD, she will blow off ups and downs and get frusterated with me when I get off.
- If it's a trail she's done before (like Tevis) she can pace herself to the end and will usually finish a repeat trail faster than she did the first time because she did it more efficiently.

With the above scenarios, it's hard for me to argue that my horse DOESN'T anticipate distance or the time we will be on the trail, like what is described in the human studies.  Unless it's a repeat ride that she knows as a 100, I don't think I'm communicating well what distance we are doing that day, and she uses whatever our last distance was to decide what we are doing that day.

I've done some LD multi days and some 50 multi days on Farley.  I think the reason she gets "stronger and stronger" as the days go by is because the anticipation of exact distance and time gets more and more cemented in her brain as the days go by, until the third of fourth day she's so sure the exact distance and time, that she's working much closer to her potential for that distance.

What's the value of considering whether this concept might apply to our endurance horses?
- Realize that horses may anticipate distance - which might be an issue if you want to do 100's and you are doing a ton of LD's or 50's in a row. 
- it might be worth trying to communicate to a horse what distance you are doing that day - perhaps a different set up for LDs, 50's, or 100's.
- Realize that the mental game may be a huge component of endurance riding for the horse - not just the physical - and develop strategies during a ride to support the horse mentally as well as physically.
- Allow horses to establish routines at rides, and if you see them develop it's not a bad thing.  Sure, you don't want a horse that is calling *all* the shots, but allowing the horse to develop consistency and patterns could allow the horse to mentally anticipate that day's "events" and thus tap a little deeper into it's physical reserves.

What do you guys think?????????? 


  1. Jenny (AKPonyGirl)December 6, 2013 at 1:09 PM

    I can't speak to this with horses as I haven't really done anything except trail ride from the house with the horse I have BUT........ I trained lots of dogs for many years - high level obedience competition, hunting retriever tests, and breed ring. I had several dogs that competed in all three disciplines. There are just enough differences in each one that a sit instead of a stand or a delivery in front instead of the side could mean the difference between placing and not. So I started making a routine for each discipline. Different collars, different lashes, different clothes for me, different from the time I took the dog out of the crate. I was amazed at how well the dogs responded to the different warm ups. I don't see any reason that the horse wouldn't respond the same way.

    I showed bulls also. Wouldn't even think of trying that with them. :)

  2. I'll go off the deep end with you. I think they DO know how far a 50 is. I think the "skip the LDs if possible" people are correct (but your circumstances and your horse may vary).

    They told me when I started out to get to the distance I wanted to ride as quickly as possible. If I wanted to ride 50s, quit dinking around in LDs, and if I wanted to ride hundreds, quit dinking around on one-day 50s. I didn't follow any of that advice, but it's definitely going to be in the front of my mind when I start another youngster in this sport.

    Dixie also takes a nap at lunch. (I have finally calmed down and decided that she eats when she's hungry and I should leave her alone to snooze.) I haven't jumped up and down between LD/50/100 enough to say for sure whether she starts better after a harder ride, but I think you're correct there too.

    I've been thinking about how to signal "ride all day and all night," and I think Dixie will eventually realize that when I get up extra EXTRA early and there's a cantle bag involved, she's going all night too - but I don't know if she's there yet.

    Great post! And I'm loving that Science of Running site too.

  3. Funder, a personal question that you can chose to answer or not, or maybe do a post in your blog instead of comment have a horse that is physically ready to do a 100 and in fact has come close to completing a couple of times, but isn't necessarily not finishing because of lameness or metabolic issues....would you say that you are dealing with this mental anticipation issue with D? Or is it something else? If it is a mental anticipation issue, do you have any ideas of how to work through it in your next 100? I know the exact distance was shorter in vc as compared to SR, but was total time on the trail in VC slightly longer (if I'm remembering correctly)? I wasn't thinking of you when I wrote this post, but now I'm curious whether you are getting just a little more TIME accomplished in each 100, and/or a little more perceived effort in each try? Sure, it's not adding up to a 100 (yet!) but if so, sounds like the lack of 100 completion for D so far was maybe she needed a few mid distance rides, of which there aren't many in that 50-100 range. Just random thoughts from someone who needs to start thinking about brining along a youngster. Sigh.

    1. Honestly, I think it's about 80% me and 20% her. She's tired, sure, but not done for. When I've got my act together enough to prod her through it, we'll get there.

      There aren't many 75s, and you know I'm not really keen on either of the local ones. And as far as DIXIE knows, she's DONE two 75s already. We did ~75 miles, she vetted out sound, she got to head back to the trailer to eat and snooze. I don't know what doing an actual 75 would teach her - it'd just get me the miles, instead of the pulls. Thoughts?

    2. I agree with you. I think she just did two.successful 75 s. You would have gained completions rather than pulls doing non 100s, but I'm thinking more retrospectively for.the "next" horse than that D needs any more.sub 100s. It just really whether.for some horses the 100s from a fifty exceeds antipated time/mileage enough that they do need that sixty five or seventy five before mailing it. Farley essentially had, one as a 100 pull before completing a 100. Just thinking ahead to when I start my next hundred horse my strategy.

    3. Wow, sorry folks. Typing comments on my phone. Think you can figure out the gist.

  4. Real brief on the phone, but I am positive that tack changes are successful as cues to what will be happening next. The horse I get on in jump tack is not the same horse I hop
    on in his dressage tack, and I have wondered if switching bridles after the first loop, frex, might be rendering meaningless a useful signal to the horse..,although obviously not dying is as worthy a goal as warning Fluffy that he'll be working all day! (And just like Jenny says, my dog has a heeling collar, and a harness she only wears for tracking, etc.)

    I have had better luck -- again, in my pre-endurance life -- with varying ride times/lengths/challenge than I have with consistently challenges. The horse that knows what to expect is the horse that tells you the quarter is up. IM not necessarily relevant E, the horse that gets smarter is the one that knows that anything is possible. ( And expecting anything is different from not knowing what to expect...)

  5. Real brief on the phone, but I am positive that tack changes are successful as cues to what will be happening next. The horse I get on in jump tack is not the same horse I hop
    on in his dressage tack, and I have wondered if switching bridles after the first loop, frex, might be rendering meaningless a useful signal to the horse..,although obviously not dying is as worthy a goal as warning Fluffy that he'll be working all day! (And just like Jenny says, my dog has a heeling collar, and a harness she only wears for tracking, etc.)

    I have had better luck -- again, in my pre-endurance life -- with varying ride times/lengths/challenge than I have with consistently challenges. The horse that knows what to expect is the horse that tells you the quarter is up. IM not necessarily relevant E, the horse that gets smarter is the one that knows that anything is possible. ( And expecting anything is different from not knowing what to expect...)

  6. I thought about that too - the "expect anything" versus the "not knowing what to expect" and I think I'm on the side of the horse should know what to expect. If I'm riding a 50, I want my horse to know that and put forth the effort to ride a 50 - we don't need to save anything for the night, and I don't necessarily want to do 12 hour 50 during the day so that we can pick up the pace and do an 8 hour fifty later if we are just doing that first 50. For example, I was a *bit* fed up with the number of times Farely was asking me to get off and run during camp far west - but since she had now idea how much distance we were doing, I didn't want to discourage her from doing it either. In a 100 she would have been behaving exactly right. For a 50 it was overkill. So, it would have been nice to let her know we were just going to ride until the afternoon, and not into the week hours of the morning and she could have adjusted accordingly. I also feel like she thinks she was "tricked" when we just do 50 when she's expecting 100 and vice versa.

    this may not be true of all horses, but I think Farley is the type of horse that wants to know what her job is, so she can do it to the best of her ability. She's very "professional" when it comes to during endurance rides.

    I thought about bridles too...and I don't want to do it for a variety of reasons. I ahve 3 different bridles I use depending on terrain and if I'm battling any injuries in the saddle. I want the freedom to chose the best bit for the terrain, the distance, and myself. So I'm trying to think of some other non essential tack thing I could use.

    One thing that I might already be doing is leg boots - she ONLY wears them on 100's - not for shorter distances. But it's not a real obvious signal. Soemthing for me to think about!!!!!! Perhaps a visual clue like what's on my helmet? Or whether I carry a dressage whip? or wether her mane is braided?

    1. Oh - and I agree that major tack changes like dressage versus endurance versus jump makes a HUGE difference. I noticed that during my lessons as well. Too bad I don't have 2 saddles that work equally as well and use one for 50's ad one for 100's :). It's asking a lot to have ONE saddle that works for both horse and rider over that kind of distance - LOL

    2. I do think the lack of external cues in endurance makes this kind of thing harder. If I can jump or even just gallop by a solid obstacle in the warm-up ring, Tuck knows we're doing cross-country and not stadium. But in endurance, ridecamp is ridecamp, and only going to X ridecamp when you're doing Y distance seems kind of like overkill. *g*

      I bet one could get some mileage out of having different "start routines." Warming up and then heading out in a particular way for one distance and in a dramatically different way for another -- say, a thorough warm-up and heading out at speed for an LD versus hand-walking out for a 100. But to make it different enough to work, you might have to teach the horse stuff you don't want it maybe not worth the trouble.

      Have you noticed whether she reacts differently when you head out in riding-in-the-dark gear? Although there are of course other cues at that point, too...

    3. Farley knows for sure that it's a 100 when we go out again after dark, or we are riding past the 10 hour mark. As far as it not being worth the trouble...I'm on the fence. The human studies are pretty dramatic when it comes to anticipation of the certain time or distance they will be travelling, and I can't help but wonder whether the improvement in physical performance (NOT just speed - but in all sorts of physical parameters) might be dramatically improved if the horse had some expectation of what was expected of that today in a finite sense - not just a "go until I tell you we are stopping" way. But I agree with you that it would be difficult. I'm going to do some serious thinking if there's soemthing I could do that would be dramatic enough to be obvious, easy enough that I wouldn't skip it and be consistent, that would be neutral to my ride.

  7. I have no experience in breeding, but don't stallion handlers generally have a different bridle and bit that is used only in the breeding shed? Kevin Conley mentioned that in his book "Stud".

    1. Yes - that is the practice in handling studs. Down to the point where they are walked a different direction out their stalls for breeding versus other purposes.

  8. folks - I think there's no question that our horses can anticipate normal every day activities - the example of the studs was an excellent example of this. HOWEVER - do you think that anticipation plays a dramatic role in endurance horse PERFORMANCE over the course of an endurance ride? That is a question that I think has not been answered fully.

  9. Just thought of something. What if I flavored the mash different? Like, she always got carrots at 50's and apples at 100's? Or there was some sort of licorious flavoring versus pepperment?

    1. Oh, that's a really interesting idea! I see zero downside, so much better than anything else that had seemed potentially workable. Would be easy to try out, too, by picking a flavor and associate it with a specific activity at home, and then plenty of flavors left for ride distances if she seems to make the connection between licorice and now-we-are-going-to-do-a-stupid-trick or whatever. I say go for it.

  10. Really interesting post, Mel. I used to have a dog who could tell the difference between whether I pressed the snooze button (he wouldn't even blink an eye) or the off button (he would leap out of the bed) on my alarm. The buttons were right next to each other and I couldn't hear a difference in the "click." Our current dog seems to be able to tell the days she's going to daycare vs. the days she's not, and my husband and I have never figured out how because there's nothing different in our behavior (that we can tell). I bring these dogs up because it probably means that animals can recognize the slightest variability in our behavior, so you may not need to spend a lot of time thinking about what cues or changes to the environment you need to make to cue Farley about the ride distance. She may literally learn to figure it out just from your attitude or something minor you do with the way you dress or get her ready.

    However, all the comments on potentially being able to cue our horses for ride distances makes me wonder about training/conditioning distances. I have pretty limited experience in this regard, but it occurs to me that it is probably common for riders to vary distance and speed quite a bit for conditioning work, leaving the horse without a way to know what work level they will be asked for that day. I had been sort of progressively loading my horse, so each ride out was longer than the last, but I don't expect to always do that in the future. In fact, the last month has been a bit of a vacay for us both, with a few rides of much shorter distance and faster pace than usual. My plan is to mix it up with climbing, speedier work, and longer distances, plus work in the arena. Obviously, the arena work is going to be easy for my horse to see, but it will be harder for him to know what will be expected at our other conditioning rides. In fact, as I write this, it occurs to me that this lack of expectation might be a contributing factor to what I think is a failure to achieve his maximum potential. What I mean is that I have had very few rides (maybe 2-3) where I thought I really pushed him to the point where he was done. All of our other rides, including our Intro Endurance Ride, concluded with me being sure that he had significantly more to give. While that isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially for a competition ride, it means that we might be able to be advancing more quickly in terms of fitness if I had a better way to communicate with him about the work we needed to do. And I do want to add that for all of our arena work now, he is off the charts energetic, which has not been normal for him in the past. I wonder if he knows that the workout will be well within his capabilities based on past experience with 1 hour or less in the arena, so he feel like he can be very forward. Maybe doing something like putting on those musical bells for longer, slower work, and putting something else on the saddle for speed work would be helpful for him. It's definitely worth thinking about and experimenting with.

    1. If you do something like this, and it works - can you pretty please share??????? Since I'm not bringing up a youngster, I think I'm going to be limited on what difference I might see - for exactly the reasons you mentioned (Farley and I are very adapted to eachother) and I'm really curious how it works out with him....

  11. The one routine I noticed with Sinatra and I'm hoping Digs will eventually pick up on is that I don't typically feed a wet mash at home, unless we're getting ready to go to a ride (or it's freezing butt-ass cold like lately). So when I started to bring out wet, salty mashes, he knew we were going to be leaving to go to a ride in the next few days and would really up his eating and drinking levels. It was nice to know we were headed out with a full tank of fuel.

    The idea of a different warm up routine for the distance intrigues me. It would be interesting to see if one could "condition" them to anticipate the distance, and see a difference in results. Maybe start with playing around a home, the difference between a fast working ride or a take it easy ride? I know Digs is different if I put the western saddle on vs my endurance saddle. Or he knows if we're riding with person/horse A, that's different typically than person/horse B.

  12. What I think? I think Farley is AMAZING. Absolutely incredible.

    And I think that setting things up uniquely for different distances is a really interesting idea. ALL of the discussion generated from this post is making me think a LOT. Sadly its making me think a lot on a day that I've been in a huge meeting and I don't trust myself to verbalize/write my thoughts legibly! Haha.


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