Tag Archives: conditioning

Friendship, sportsmanship, horsemanship and love…and the heart of a Thoroughbred

Lessons Learned from the 80th Anniversary GMHA 100 Mile Ride

***Warning…this is a long post…but the 100 mile is a long ride…so I guess it all evens out!***

On September 2-4, 2016, Lee and I tackled the grueling GMHA three day 100 mile competitive trail ride (CTR) for the second year in a row.  We came to the ride this year a bit more seasoned but also perhaps a bit more battered; last year, nerves were due to worry about the unknown, while this year, they were the result of knowing exactly what was to come. After finishing the ride as a complete and total rookie in 2015, I knew that both my horse and I had what it would take to do it again in terms of grit and stamina.  But at seventeen years old and on her third career, Lee carries a lot of miles (literally and figuratively) on her frame, and I think the theme for our distance season this year was learning to ride the fine line between fitness and soundness.

The GMHA Distance Days weekend, now in its third year, has become a true festival of distance riding.  Trail riders of many persuasions (short, middle or long distance, competitive and non) come together and enjoy the always breathtaking scenery of central Vermont in the late summer, along with the joy that comes with friendships based on shared passion.   The South Woodstock area has been described so thoroughly and poetically by others that I won’t even try to match their words; suffice it to say that for me, visiting there has yet to lose its appeal.

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Lee and her stall display at Distance Days 2016

Initially, doing the 100 mile ride again with Lee was not my intention.  I was (and am) so proud of her for finishing the ride in 2015, especially wearing a saddle that I later realized totally and completely did not fit her now uber fit frame (more on the quest for the perfect distance saddle in a later blog).   Last year, she suffered from welts and heat bumps, both under the saddle panels and in the girth area.  I was determined to try to avoid such issues this season, even if that meant staying at shorter distances.

GMHA is known today for being an organization that supports multiple disciplines at its facility, but what many people may not know is that it was originally founded to promote trail riding in the state of Vermont. For its first ten years, members of the fledgling organization worked to create a network of bridle trails which spanned the state to all of its borders.  In 1936, GMHA hosted its first long distance ride of 80 miles, to “stimulate greater interest in the breeding and use of good horses, possessed of stamina and hardiness, and qualified to make good mounts for trail use.”  This ride grew to cover 100 miles, and for eighty years it has run continuously (save for 2011, when Hurricane Irene came through).  This ride has a rich, historical legacy unmatched by any other ride of its kind in the country.  Chelle Grald, trails coordinator at GMHA and the 2016 ride manager, calls it the “granddaddy of them all.”  What serious distance rider within striking distance WOULDN’T want to be a part of the 80th anniversary ride?

Besides, if you entered, you got a commemorative belt buckle.  I mean, you could buy the buckle on its own, but what was the fun in that?

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The Commemorative Belt Buckle, supported by Lee’s Perkion Award for best scoring Thoroughbred.

This past year has been one of (mostly good) transition, and neither Lee nor I are at the same place we were a year ago, in all ways you could define it.  While still on her recovery days from the 100 mile ride last year, I moved Lee to our new home at Cold Moon Farm.  She spent the next nine months as its sole equine resident; we did some extensive exploration of the local trail network during the late fall, and then she enjoyed two months of total rest during the depths of winter.  It was the most time off she has had since we met when she was six years old.  During this break, I began researching distance saddles, and with the help of Nancy Okun at the Owl and the Rose Distance Tack, located a lightly used Lovatt and Ricketts Solstice, along with a new Skito pad.  This lightweight saddle fit Lee’s topline much better than the old all purpose I had been riding in, and the Skito pad allowed her to have extra cushion.

I was pretty excited to get started with the distance season this spring, and I entered the Leveritt 25 mile CTR in April.  Lee hadn’t seen another horse since September, and I wasn’t sure what her reaction was going to be.   I was also worried that Lee wouldn’t be quite fit enough at that stage of the year to handle 25 miles, and I kept telling my friends that I wished it were only a 15 mile ride.  As it turned out, I got my wish.  The hold was about 15 miles in, and I had to pull there because Lee was a little bit off on her right front.  She was sound once we got home, and some mild sensitivity to hoof testers at her next shoeing indicated that she had likely just hit a stone or something similar.

At Leveritt, I rode with my friend Robin on her lovely Morgan, Flower; we had made up two thirds of the now mildly well known “Team PB & J” on the 100 mile in 2015.  Robin was super excited about working towards the 100 mile ride again, and I will admit that some of her enthusiasm began to rub off on me.  At the same time, having to pull at the Leveritt ride put a little sliver of worry into my mind; namely, was Lee sound enough to keep working towards the maximum level that the sport of CTR offers?

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Flower, Quinn and Lee resting up for the start of the ride.

In 2015, I relied on some of the CTR’s themselves to incorporate additional distance and duration into Lee’s conditioning plan.  I looked at the Leveritt ride as a fifteen mile conditioning distance; the miles might not “count” in terms of her lifetime total, but they did “count” in terms of increasing her overall fitness.  I fleshed out a schedule of gradual loading and increasing distance that would include several spring rides, a break in mid summer, and then a ramp up to the 100.

But then I had a rider qualify for the IHSA National Championships, an outstanding honor, and travelling to Lexington, KY for the competition meant missing the next planned CTR.  Then, the ride I had planned to enter at the end of May was cancelled.  I even tried to get to a hunter pace with a friend, thinking that would give us at least thirteen miles of new trail; it was rained out.  And suddenly I was scheduled to be back up at GMHA for what should have been a back to back 50 mile in June, having not completed ANY of the step up prep rides that I had anticipated.

Concerned now that she wouldn’t have the necessary fitness, I opted to do just one day of the June  GMHA distance weekend, the 25 mile CTR. I still felt woefully unprepared and worried relentlessly about both her fitness and her soundness, despite positive feedback from my farrier and two vets.  We reset her shoes and added a new, more cushioning style of packing under her pads.  Reunited with Team Peanut Butter and Jelly for the first time since September, Lee really did do great.  She felt strong and sound and came through the weekend with flying colors, scoring the best mark she would get all season.

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Team Peanut Butter and Jelly after finishing the June 25 mile CTR at GMHA.

After the ride in June, I felt more positive about our prospects for the 100.  The judges had had utterly no concerns about Lee’s soundness or her back at the June ride, and she felt strong and forward.  Thus encouraged, I decided to aim for the GMHA two day 50 mile CTR in early August; based on how that went, I would make my final decision on the 100.

During the gap between the June ride and the August 50 mile CTR, I had no plans to compete Lee, only condition.  I made one trip up to Tamarack Hill Farm in Strafford, VT, to ride with my mentor, Denny Emerson; ironically, during the summer of the worst drought in years, the day we planned to meet saw pouring rain.  We made it around anyway, dodging rain drops.  At home, I continued to balance long, slow distance rides mostly at the walk with sets in the arena to maintain her cardiovascular fitness.

About three weeks before the August ride, I decided to try a new girth with Lee.  It had been recommended by my saddle fitter, and the extremely contoured shape was one favored by riders whose horses have sensitive elbows or who are prone to girth galls.  I had been using the girth on Anna with great success for months, and tried it on Lee for an easy one hour walk.

I was horrified at the end of the ride to find that the girth had caused the worst chafing that I have ever seen on Lee.  Both armpits were rubbed raw, and the left side in particular was swollen and tender.  I couldn’t believe it; there had been no indication that the girth was pinching or loose.  Regardless, the damage was done, and I saw both our short and long term goals for the season sliding away.

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The raw rub on Lee’s left armpit area.  It is crazy that this came from just one ride, at the walk.

I reached out to my distance friends and learned about an old timey product called Bickmore Gall Salve.  You can pick it up at some of the chain feed stores or in my case, the local one.  I religiously treated the rubs up to four times per day for the three weeks up until the fifty, and I was really impressed by how quickly the product got them to dry and heal.  Even though the label claims you can “work the horse”, I didn’t think that putting a girth on was the best plan.  So for three weeks, Lee longed.  I worked her up to fifty minutes, moving the longe circle all over our arena and changing directions every five minutes.  The longeing didn’t increase her fitness, but it kept her legged up and allowed me to watch her move.  And that was how I decided that she seemed—ever so slightly— funny on the left front when she warmed up.  It always went away after a few laps at the trot.  But I was sure there was something there.

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This stuff was a game changer.  Just don’t read the ingredient list too closely….

Between the girth rubs and the “slightly funny left front”, I was feeling like maybe it just wasn’t in the cards for us to contest the fifty mile ride this year.  Then, the day before we were scheduled to leave, my truck began making a funny whining noise.  I tried to convince myself that I was being paranoid, but the noise just seemed too odd to ignore, and a quick trip to the mechanic revealed that the power steering pump was caput.  Now I really began to wonder if this was a sign.

Yet I am stubborn.

I have one friend with a truck that I feel comfortable asking for a loan; one phone call later and we had wheels.  So thanks to the generosity of a good friend, we headed up to GMHA, with me feeling a little bit fatalistic about things.  “Whatever will be, will be,” I told myself.

I longed Lee lightly when we arrived at GMHA to loosen up, and I wasn’t sure how she would look on the uneven footing of the pavilion where we were to vet in.  However, we were accepted at the initial presentation, and I decided to start to ride and see how she felt.  When I got on board Lee the next morning, it was the first time that I had sat on her in nearly three weeks.  I kept a close eye on the girth area and carefully sponged it at most opportunities.  There was a nearly record entry for the weekend, and it was clear that excitement about Distance Days was building.  For many entries, the two day 50 was the last big test before beginning the final weeks of prep for the 100 mile ride.

Overall, I thought Lee handled the ride well.  I was certainly in a hyper-critical state, and analyzed every step she took.  On day two, I felt that she wasn’t her best, and I seriously considered pulling up, but the more she moved the better she felt. While we made it through the ride and received our completion, I knew that she wasn’t yet ready for the 100 mile ride.  Something was bothering her and I needed to resolve that.

I scheduled a visit with Dr. Monika Calitri of Seacoast Equine to check over Lee.  She felt that her back had become super tight (a lifelong problem for her) and saw mild positivity to hock flexions.  We opted to inject her hocks, and I contacted my saddle fitter for an adjustment on the Solstice and Skito pad prior to Distance Days.  Overall, Dr. Calitri thought that Lee looked sound and fit, and remarked that the tightness in her topline was the most significant finding in her inspection.

My entry for the 100 mile sat on my kitchen table, with both the 100 and 60 mile options highlighted.  After Dr. Calitri’s visit, I circled the 100 mile distance, wrote the check and threw it in the mail just a day or so before closing.  I figured I could always drop back to the 60 mile ride, even right up until the last minute, but since the 100 is what we had been aiming for, we might as well give it a go.

The Heart of the Thoroughbred

The 80th Anniversary 100 mile ride was scheduled to cover the traditional white (40 mile), red (35 mile) and blue (25 mile) routes. While the white and blue routes would mirror closely the trails we had covered the previous year, the red route would be a totally new one for me; it took us across the Ottauquechee River, through the Marsh Billings-Rockefeller National Park, along the banks of the beautiful Pogue, and across the Taftsville Covered Bridge.

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On trail, day two.  Photo courtesy of Sue Achenbach.

Day one, at forty miles, is quite a day.  Horses must traverse the rocky terrain of Reading, notorious for its difficulty in allowing riders to make time.  Lee felt great, totally 100%, but at the half way hold (25+ miles in), the vet judge commented that he thought there was a slight head bob at times, not significant enough to spin her, but enough to quell any feelings I had of security in Lee’s soundness.  At the end of day safety check, the judging team worried that Lee’s back was too sensitive, contributing to her occasional uneven step.  I was required to present again in the AM before starting on day two.

I worked with Lee in the afternoon of day one, hand walking, massaging and stretching.  By morning, her topline sensitivity was much reduced and we were cleared to start day two.

In celebration of the ride’s 80th anniversary, dozens of past riders were in attendance for special events at the Woodstock Inn Country Club, the Landowner’s BBQ and the Longtimer’s Brunch Reunion.  Unbeknownst to me, Lee’s breeder (and only other owner), Suzie Wong, was in attendance, along with her sister Sarah and their mother.  Suzie joked that for years, her family had tried to breed a distance horse, but they always turned out to be better hunters, jumpers and eventers.  In Lee, they had tried to breed a high quality hunter….and ended up with their distance horse!  Suzie hadn’t seen Lee in years, and their family and friends quickly became our cheerleaders, appearing at most of the major viewing areas and both holds at days two and three.

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Lee’s breeder, Suzy Wong, rode in the distance rides at GMHA in the past. Lee shows her usual enthusiasm for posing for photos after finishing on day three.

On the red day, I was pretty excited to tackle some amazing and new to me trail. The much discussed crossing of the Ottauquechee River was pretty easy, given the drought.   The route through the Marsh Billings Rockefeller National Park was well groomed and fun to canter along, and the steam from early morning still rose off the Pogue as we rode past.  I found it hard to completely enjoy the scenery, though, as I began to worry more and more about my horse.  She felt powerful, forward and willing…but not the same between right and left.  Not lame, just….different.  Once the seed has been planted in your head that your horse is moving ‘funny’, it can be hard to remain confident that your horse is truly ok.

Once we exited the park, we had to tackle several miles of hard top road.  First, there were cows to spook at near the park headquarters.  Then, there were bikers, joggers, pedestrians, and cars galore.  I was left thinking that despite the historical tradition of using this route, perhaps its time had passed, due to the hazards of the modern era.  Riders are left with no option but to trot along the hard top while being fairly regaled with hazards from all directions.  We had to push forward into the hold, where Suzy and her friends waited for us.

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Suzy inspects as we prepare to head out from the hold on day two. Photo courtesy of Sue Achenbach.

The hold on red day was stressful.  Lee pulsed right down, but the vet judge was not happy with how she was moving in the jog.  Again, not lame, but not completely even.  They asked me how she felt, and I replied that she felt strong and I was being hyper aware of any sign of lameness.  They had me jog back and forth two or three times, before suggesting that I pull her saddle and jog again.  When I did so, they were much more satisfied, and told me that they suspected that it was her back which was bothering her again.  They cleared me to continue and I promised to closely monitor her progress.

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Presenting to vet judge Dr. Nick Kohut, President of ECTRA, at the hold on day two. Photo courtesy of Sue Achenbach.

It was just about one mile after the hold that our trio crossed the historic Taftsville Covered Bridge.  The original was swept away during the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, but the new one was built to be a close replica.  A “fun fact” that I learned about covered bridges is that they were originally built so as to look like a barn, horses being more willing enter a barn than to cross a scary open bridge over rapidly moving water.  I am not sure how thrilled Lee would have been to make a solo crossing, but with her friends Quinn and Flower around her, she was a willing follower.  In some of the photos of us, the past meets present, as a car is sitting at the mouth of the bridge waiting to cross after us.

After finishing the thirty five mile long red trail, it came as little surprise to me that the judges yet again held Lee.  By now, we were all paying close attention to her back sensitivity.  One of the good things about CTR is that the judges and the riders work together as a team to monitor the horses’ condition.  While we all would like to finish our rides, none of us wishes to do so at the expense of our horse’s well-being.  Even though Lee felt mostly ok under saddle, it was clear that she was starting to push through some discomfort.  After seventy five miles, even the most fit of animals is likely to be feeling some effects of the experience; the question becomes whether they are crossing over the line and their overall well-being is at risk.

I woke quite early on day three; the stars were still out in full force as I dressed in my trailer and made my way to the barns.  While Lee ate her morning grain, I gently, and then more firmly, massaged the muscles over her back and encouraged her to stretch.  I then took her for a nearly forty five minute walk.  At that time of the day, the air is clear and the sky brilliant.  Once your eyes adjust, it is amazing how much you can still see; at the same time, your sense of hearing heightens.  The faintest whisper of dawn was just visible in the sky as it came close to time to present to the judges.  I did several in hand transitions, and when I could barely stop Lee I knew that she was ready.

Once again, Lee trotted off brilliantly for the judges under the lights of the pavilion.  It seemed clear that whatever was bothering her that weekend wasn’t a true lameness, but instead something which improved significantly with an overnight’s rest.  We were cleared to continue.

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“The look of eagles”.  I took this while out on one of our post ride “walk abouts” during the 100 mile ride this year.

Day three, the blue trail, is a twenty five mile route, and I was reminded again of just how much shorter that feels after tackling forty and thirty five mile distances on the preceding days.  Despite this, twenty five miles is still plenty of trail, and anything can happen.  As we rode into the final half way hold of the weekend, our “trail boss”, Quinn, lost a shoe.  While the farrier and his rider, Kat, worked to address that situation, I prepared to present to the judges.  I proactively pulled Lee’s saddle and jogged her in hand without it, and much to my surprise, they were happy and let us go without a second look.  At the end of our twenty minute window, Flower and Robin and Lee and I were forced to leave Quinn and Kat behind, as the shoe was still being replaced.

Neither Flower nor Lee is a huge fan of being the leader, and after nearly ninety miles, no one’s sense of humor is at its best.   Without Quinn, we struggled to gain momentum.  But then the most amazing thing happened.  It was as though Lee switched her gears, dug in, and then she suddenly powered forward and LED, for several miles, without me bidding her to.  It was as though she said, “I’ve got this, and we are going to get it done”.

It was without a doubt the “heart of a Thoroughbred” in action.

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Lee coming out of the hold on day three, 90 miles into the ride.  This is, hands down, THE BEST photo I have ever seen of her.  Ever.  It says it all.  Photo courtesy of John Miller at Spectrum Photography.

We eventually caught up to a few other riders, and our mares were willing to fall into step with them as the miles continued to tick down.  Much to our surprise, Quinn and Kat were able to catch up to us just a few miles from the GMHA grounds, and it was again with a feeling of extreme pride that we returned to the announcement of our names as we entered the White Ring as a team of three.

We had done it.  Again.

Lee lost a number of points from her score for the sensitivity in her topline at the final presentation, as well as a few points for “lameness consistent under some conditions”, but she had earned a second completion in as many 100 mile rides.    Thirty horses had started, and just over half completed. Of those to finish, Lee was the second oldest.

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The entry list for each year’s 100 mile ride stays up for one full season.  This is the 100 mile entry for 2016.

As we stood at the awards ceremony, surrounded by horses and humans who I have come to admire and respect, I knew that my horse had earned her place among those in the ring.  She was awarded the Perkion Award for the second year in a row, given to the best scoring Thoroughbred or Thoroughbred type, and she was also awarded the Spinner Award for the best non-registered trail horse.  We finished sixth in the middleweight division, the only group of riders which saw all entrants complete the ride.

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Lee at the awards ceremony. She looks pretty good for a horse that just went 100 miles, I think!

Far from being defeated, Lee remained alert and engaged after the ride.  Overall, she weathered the experience well.  But I knew that my horse had had to dig in to get the job done, and that she had finished the ride largely due to her Thoroughbred heart.   What an amazing experience to know what it is like for your horse to bring you home on their own drive and grit.

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Lee is now officially retired from the 100 mile distance.  It wouldn’t be fair to ask this of her again.  I still plan to compete her in distance rides, so long as she tells me that is okay, but we will stick to the “shorter” mileages.  As Denny said of her in 2014, “that is one tough horse”.

She has more than proven him right.

 

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Book Review:  Endurance Riding: From First Steps to 100 Miles

Endurance Riding: From First Steps to 100 Miles by Clare Wilde

c 1996 Kenilworth Press, Buckingham (Great Britain) 170 pages

ISBN 1-872082-83-1

This past winter, I dedicated my equine reading to a selection of titles related to endurance and distance riding.  I knew that for 2015, I wanted to try to bring my horse up to a level of condition which might make it possible for her to tackle a 50 or even 100 mile ride, but I really didn’t know how to go about doing that.  It was with this mindset that I picked up Wilde’s book.  Wilde is an experienced endurance competitor whose love for the sport, and for riding and horses in general, is apparent throughout the book.

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This book covers many aspects of the sport of endurance for the novice, tackling everything from horse selection to tack to schooling to what it takes to crew at a ride.  One of the sections that I enjoyed the most was called “Basic Schooling and Education,” and I liked it because it reviewed critical basics of training for any horse.  For example,  Wilde discusses the fact that in order for a horse to stay sound and sane over a long distance ride, they must move in an “economical, balanced yet dynamic motion” (Wilde, 1996, p. 45).  To achieve this, the rider must be conscientious in both their own posture and position and also work to develop suppleness and strength in the horse.  Horses must be encouraged to work correctly from back to front so that on the trail they can be supple and balanced.  In endurance riding, where competitive riders move at fast speeds much of the time, this preparation is essential.  “The versatile, supple horse will be able to move away from your leg to enable you to open gates quickly, avoid hazards and move off rough ground.  He will also be able to corner efficiently, particularly at speed” (Wilde, 1996, p. 46).   This information is so critical; a successful distance horse must be a true athlete, which requires paying attention to all forms of physical conditioning.

Wilde also points out that the endurance horse is the marathoner of the horse world, and the end goal of conditioning should be “to produce a supremely fit, laid-back equine athlete in the peak of physical condition” (Wilde, 1996, p. 49).  To do this requires not just attention to their workload, but also their overall stable management.  There is a big difference between the casual trail/pleasure horse that goes for a leisurely walk every now and then and a horse that is in preparation for a serious distance undertaking.  The horse’s stable management therefore must be of a higher standard than for a horse not in such intense training.  This is an important area of consideration which is sometimes overlooked.

Endurance and competitive trail riding can be enjoyed by riders of all ages and with all breeds of horse, with the proper conditioning.
Endurance and competitive trail riding can be enjoyed by riders of all ages and with all breeds of horse, with the proper conditioning.

Just like in other equine sports, Wilde reminds distance riders that the horse needs a warm up and cool down phase in each work set.  It is important to actively walk a horse for at least ten minutes before asking for faster gaits, and then to ease into the trot and canter.  Riders who are looking to start their race time at speed must budget in this warm up prior to the start.

The section titled “Conditioning for Competition” was especially enlightening.  Wilde says that once her horse has been built up to a base level of fitness which allows for easy completion and recovery from 20 mile rides, she rarely rides more than 15 miles in training.  One of the big challenges in distance riding is doing enough work to bring the horse to a fit level of condition but not doing so much that they become sore or unsound, or that their attitude becomes unwilling.  Learning how to “peak” your equine athlete at just the right time is both an art and a science, and certainly the ability to do this well separates the best from the also ran’s in any horse sport, not just endurance.  Wilde offers several sample conditioning and training schedules which can work to help horses develop for various distance rides, but also cautions readers to remember that each horse is an individual.

“Endurance riding Uzes 2005 front”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Endurance_riding_Uzes_2005_front.jpg#/media/File:Endurance_riding_Uzes_2005_front.jpg

The final chapter which I thought was particularly well done was titled “Personal Preparation”.  Here, Wilde discusses the care and feeding of the rider as an athlete, as well addresses the critical importance of rider fitness.  “In the most basic terms, your horse will find himself unable to perform, no matter how well he is prepared, if you are a hindrance to him rather than an asset” (Wilde, 1996, p. 95).  This last statement would seem to be true regardless of your chosen discipline, and is a concept which more riders need to take to heart if they truly want to progress in their riding.

Overall, Wilde’s book is an easy read with relevance to riders who want to improve their level of awareness on the subject of conditioning across the board.  While the author is certainly focusing on conditioning for the discipline of endurance, so very much of what she says relates to any equine endeavor that I would recommend it for anyone who wants to do a better job of preparing their equine athlete for their goals.  In this book, Wilde is essentially preaching practical, good horsemanship.  My only criticism is that at this point, the book is nearly twenty years in print, and photographs and certain references could use an update if there were to be a newer edition released.

4/5 stars

Blogger’s Note:  The featured image is from the first Tevis Cup ride.   Started in 1955 by Wendell Robie in California, the Tevis Cup 100 mile ride is regarded as one of the hardest in the world.  Wilde credits Robie with being one of the inspirations for the spread of endurance riders world wide, and especially within the United States. 

Book Review:  Conditioning Sport Horses

Conditioning Sport Horses by Hilary M. Clayton

c 1991 Sport Horse Publications, Mason, MI, 256 pages

ISBN 0-9695720-0-X

Still referred to by many as the “Bible” of equine conditioning principles, I picked up Clayton’s 1991 work, Conditioning Sport Horses, this past winter as I was beginning to think seriously about the demands of conditioning for long distance riding.  I was worried at first that the book might be a bit dry or too technical for me, a non-scientist, to understand.  However, Clayton is skilled at breaking down complex concepts into manageable pieces and I found it a fairly pleasurable read.

Dr. Hilary Clayton   Photo taken from her promotional poster.
Dr. Hilary Clayton Photo taken from her promotional poster.

Conditioning Sport Horses is divided into three chunks.  Part One looks at the major systems involved in the process of preparing a horse for athletic work and devotes full chapters to the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, energy production, muscles, thermoregulation and fluid and electrolyte balance.  Part Two delves into the “practical aspects of conditioning” and covers concepts such as general conditioning principles, cardiovascular conditioning, strength training, increasing suppleness, and managing these elements in a horse’s overall training program (including using a heart rate monitor and providing adequate nutrition).  Finally, Part Three shows how to use these concepts to prepare a horse for the specific demands of various disciplines; Clayton addresses the traditional sport horse disciplines but also several western sports as well as polo, endurance and chuck wagon racing (!).

These polo ponies show how much a horse will naturally lean onto the inside forelimb and shoulder when turning. Polo is a fast moving sport, requiring speed and agility (Clayton, 1991, p 229).  "Polo3-1-" by Ems (Emanuel Sanchez de la Cerda) - de.wikipedia.org: 18:50, 16. Mär. 2006 .. Ems .. 800×520 (292.111 Bytes) (* Bildbeschreibung: Sal. Oppenheim Cup Finale 2005 * Fotograf/Zeichner: Emanuel Sanchez de la Cerda (~~~) * Datum: 26.06.2005 18:00). Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0de via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Polo3-1-.jpeg#mediaviewer/File:Polo3-1-.jpeg
These polo ponies show how much a horse will naturally lean onto the inside forelimb and shoulder when turning. Polo is a fast moving sport, requiring speed and agility (Clayton, 1991, p 229).
“Polo3-1-” by Ems (Emanuel Sanchez de la Cerda) – de.wikipedia.org: 18:50, 16. Mär. 2006 .. Ems .. 800×520 (292.111 Bytes) (* Bildbeschreibung: Sal. Oppenheim Cup Finale 2005 * Fotograf/Zeichner: Emanuel Sanchez de la Cerda (~~~) * Datum: 26.06.2005 18:00). Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0de via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Polo3-1-.jpeg#mediaviewer/File:Polo3-1-.jpeg

I read this book much like I would a text book, underlining key concepts and passages and pasting sticky notes on others.  Doing so really helped me to dig into the material. While I have studied conditioning concepts in the past, I have never done so with the intensity or scrutiny that I have brought to my work this season, and Clayton’s writing included many important concepts and principles that I am not sure I have truly ever heard before, as well as reminded me of old favorites.

Conditioning Sport Horses, by Hilary M. Clayton (cover).
Conditioning Sport Horses, by Hilary M. Clayton (cover).

For example, we have all been told that we shouldn’t feed our horses immediately following a hard work because the blood supply has been shifted away from the digestive organs.  Clayton includes a graph which shows that during exercise, just over 75% of the cardiac output and distribution of blood flow is shifted to the horse’s muscles, and less than one quarter is dedicated to all of the other organs in the body.  A horse at rest is nearly opposite of these values.  Seeing the ratio so clearly visually depicted really drove the point home (see Clayton, 1991, page 14).

Another relevant question was answered in the chapter on thermoregulation.  Here in New Hampshire, winters can get downright frigid, and the question “when is it too cold to ride” is often raised, in particular in reference to whether or not conditions are safe for the horse.  Clayton settles the point clearly: “Compared with horses exercising at normal temperatures, horses undergoing strenuous exercise at -25* C(-13* F) have no significant changes in heart rate, lactate production, blood gas tensions, gait or lung tissue morphology” (Clayton, 1991, p 70).  So next winter when I choose to not ride when the temps are in the single digits, I will know that it is for me that I am staying in the warmth, not for my horse!

My horse, Carmel, after the New England Blizzard of 2015.
My horse, Carmel, after the New England Blizzard of 2015.

Perhaps one of the most interesting segments of Conditioning the Sport Horse is the section on general conditioning principles.  When most riders think of conditioning, it seems that their minds immediately go to the concept of “sets”; going out and riding at a certain speed or pace for a specific period of time, then allowing the horse to partially recover before completing another round.  I am not sure that riders in non-aerobic disciplines (dressage comes to mind) often think hard about their horse’s “conditioning plan”.  Clayton explains in great detail that the term conditioning encompasses far more than just improving the horse’s cardiovascular capacity; in fact, this system is the fastest one to improve with exercise, while other equally critical systems (such as the musculoskeletal system) lag behind.  If a rider fails to address each of the critical areas of conditioning, their equine athlete’s performance will be compromised (at best) or they will risk injury or breakdown (at worst).

There are three components to the volume of exercise which a horse is in:  intensity, duration and frequency.  Smart riders are able to gradually increase the horse’s capacity in each of these areas, though not in all three at once (Clayton, 1991, 80-81).  Strategically incorporating the various forms of conditioning with these principles will allow for the most consistent and safe increase in athletic capacity.

This book is full of practical and useful tips, everything from  how to make your own electrolytes (3 parts sodium chloride to one part potassium chloride—see page 72) to how to introduce fitness concepts to a green horse in any discipline to feeding strategies for animals in endurance sports which will maximize performance.  In the chapters on specific disciplines, Clayton provides clear and do-able formats for conditioning in each sport, attending to each of the major categories of conditioning.   I learned a lot from reading each chapter, even for those disciplines which are not my specialty.

If you are going to consider yourself a serious student of the correct and conscientious development of the equine athlete, you simply MUST have this book on your shelves.  Read it, underline it, dog ear it, and refer to it regularly as you create a conditioning plan for your athlete— and whether they are a dressage specialist, a reiner, a show jumper, or something else,  your horse will thank you.

5/5 stars