No Man’s Land

June brought some down time after the OD ride and some fun cross training. Khaleesi enjoys jumping and I love trying different things so we went to visit Caroline for a fabulous day of lessons and lunch with a bonus of relaxing in the river in the afternoon. Iva came along and rode Stella the pocket rocket pony who is aways on “go” and she had a lot of fun with her.

I particularly like cross training because it uses different brain and body pathways and is a workout that is also fun. However I’ve been starting to dig into this crazy idea about working in lower heart rate zones on purpose for extended work outs because apparently they are key in developing endurance fitness. Today I had a great opportunity to play around with that!

Besides walking the mountain I have not done significant out of the field riding with Khaleesi and today was the day to get out and start getting some miles. I had picked out the hidden valley/poor farm loop which is around 16 miles with maybe 950 feet of elevation as it loops from a long dirt gravel road to the river trail. It’s a pretty good moderate loop close to home. 

I packed up my pads and girth and reins and half chaps and my sponge even; I made sure all the extras were in the truck and loaded Khaleesi for the 15 minute drive to the trail. Only when I arrived, parked, and then opened the door to begin pulling out tack something pretty basic had not made it. The saddle. Ugh. Well I’m not going bareback for 16 miles, it’s not so far so I headed back up to the barn- grabbed the saddle- and then returned to the trailhead, 30 minutes additional now but still worth it to follow through on my plan for the day.

As I began to get K ready something was obviously not right… oh no. The stirrup irons were still on the saddle I use for jumping. That is not good. Now I have the horse unloaded, half ready to go and I’m facing the decision of what now. I couldn’t see another 30 minutes of travel (and gas!) and I also couldn’t see bailing on my ride. So I decided to find out what 16 miles without stirrups would teach me.

No irons!

First I had to toss any expectations of how long this would take. My guess was I’d be walking most of it though I hoped I would be able to sit the trot without stirrups after I got settled in. 

Second this ride was going to be slow, but it would take a fair amount of focus if I wanted to get through without coming off the horse. Stirrups give a lot of stability for that moment you flush the grouse, spook the turkeys, or startle the deer. Then of course there are the funky shadows that are not alive at all but can be equally concerning to a prey animal out in the wide world.

What I learned.

I can sit a trot without stirrups pretty well if I am balance, and if my horses is balanced, if she is straight, moving in strength and not rushing or distracted. In order for me to have a nice sitting trot on K she has to be in good form and I must be loose but still have structure.

If I began to get out of control I would generally tighten up, get stiff and it would all get worse. Yet even in realizing that I was never able to pull back the whole horse and human balance without coming down to a walk and starting over once I lost it. I assume I am the problem most of the time, but I began to notice that actually we might be going along fine until K noticed something, and would bend her neck to follow the interest that caught her glance. This would then bend the ribcage and throw off her balance. Actually in this ride, as I was focused on this intentionally, it was rarely me that got us wonky. So I learned that I probably can use to go back and restart more often instead of accepting a less than balanced trot when we are training. Eventually we might be able to rebalance in the gait, but not yet.

Every time I wanted to trot I would gather my reins and wait for her to give into them slightly as she would begin to come into balance with the speed of her front and hind which would prepare us to lift into the trot. As she lifted I could go with her in that left to right rhythm combined with up and down and a little later I realized if I looked up and opened my shoulder blades it worked even better. If  she rushed into it and pulled along on her front I had zero chance and would be flung all over the place. 

How much attention I paid to this form was way way more than normal for me. It’s a lot to think about and demand every time you or she wants to trot. Also I’m not thinking every trot needs to be at that quality of balance and strength. And yet it was clear to me that I should spend more time finding this quality on rides even if we don’t hold it as long. That strength will build if I’m more intentional about it  

Overall I had no choice but to be balanced because any time I went to one side or other I began to fall or shift. Considering I did not fall I think my balance is doing pretty well.

Last I have been working on improving my own riding in the canter and the stretches we cantered were I think my own best canter yet. Not having stirrups gave me no option except than to follow her body. Of course I had to be very discerning because one funky shadow or a fisherman’s bike hidden behind a tree and I’d have been tossed. I think she could tell and when she cantered she held it well, she stayed in control with good form and rhythmic. I also had to get quicker at asking for quality transitions. If she rushed into the canter or fell out of the canter into a jiggy trot I was all but grabbing onto her neck like a monkey for survival. So as we transitioned I would ask her to stay balanced into the canter, or sometimes I would pick the canter up right from the walk. Then transitioning down I had to immediately go canter-walk with a step or two of trot sometimes but that was a good challenge that became much more important that usual.

As for the zone training, I’m just in the beginning of that journey, but as far as I can tell in the early stages of understanding (oversimplified). Zone 2 training in the articles I’ve been reading (I realize there are sometimes 5 zones and sometimes 6 zones in HR studies, this uses 6) is in the range of 70-80% HR capacity. Here is what I’ve seen so far:

Most people skip over zone 2 because it doesn’t feel like a workout. To stay in zone 2 usually you have to dial back your activity so you don’t bounce into zone 3-4 which is where most people do the majority of their workouts and is basically the “no mans land” of HR training. Apparently elite athletes know you should basically avoid this range except during your event. It’s not easy enough to give the benefits of the zone 2 I’ll list below… but it’s not intense enough to bring the benefits of the occasional all out workouts that are also important to mix in here and there. (Occasionally workouts at high intensity are also of great value!)

  1. Zone 2 increases the number and efficiency of mitochondria in your body. More mitochondria means you’re able to create ATP (adenosine triphosphate). ATP is what fuels every cell in your body. When you are in zone 2 creating lots of mitochondria you’re able to use oxidation to turn fatty acids into ATP and this is “a lot of bang for your buck”. Otherwise your body has to switch from oxidation to burning glycogen/carbs to keep up or get ATP from lactate. Now we’re getting into layers that are deeper than I’m ready for quite yet. What I did find interesting is without zone 2 training the body becomes inefficient at using fat for fuel, and that inefficiency contributes to a variety of health conditions including insulin resistance, and cancer.
  2. Zone 2 training improves performance as an endurance athlete. More time spent in zone 2 allows you to go faster for longer and apparently is what separates professional athletes from amateur. The issue is it doesn’t “feel” like enough of a workout so most people won’t spend enough time focused on it, but the magic is the more time you spend there, you increase capacity and gradually you are going faster at a lower heart rate, increasing your pace without shifting over to carb-burning. One interview shared by spending the majority of her time in zone 2 (running) over years her finish times at races continue to improve significantly. The paradox to those in the know is: go slow to go fast.
  3. Zone 2 improves cardiovascular health. The heart grows stronger and also pumps blood more efficiently, the body expands its cardiovascular system and gets better at delivering oxygenated blood to the whole body. This also improves performance.
  4. Zone 2 prevents injury and aids recovery. It allows for quicker recovery which we all want to see in an endurance event. The zone 2 workouts put the least stress on the body (joints, ligaments, tendons etc) and enables you to workout more and longer with less exposure to breakdown and injury.

Horses and humans are not exactly the same, but I am willing to guess these apply to horse fitness as well. I used to have a HRM for K but it’s gotten old and there are some issues I haven’t been able to solve with the watch and so I’m looking for a new system. This is a case where I can do some good walk workouts mixed in with some hard intense training, but I think knowing I am not slipping into zone 3-4 which is apparently easy to do would be key.

There was a period of over a year when K was not totally sound, which was frustration for me. We could not sort out exactly what it was, but she was totally fine at the walk and so we did walk… then Molly mare entered the scene and her body was a mess and so was her brain from the life she came from of racing her around with no form or balance. We had to teach that horse to walk again and it took a ton of walking miles to get her to realize she could (in part she was so out of balance and weak she often rushed because she felt unstable). But K and I dutifully walked many miles with the pair during that time. It was like I was being set up to do a lot of slow foundation work. I spent the time working on straightness and balance since we had no speed. When K came right again and we began to compete last year she went from being the turtle at every 50 to coming in above middle usually in the teens which for a horse like her is pretty good. Looking back I have to ask, was I accidentally spending a lot of time in zone 2? And now have I begun doing too much zone 3-4 training when we do go out?

I see a lot of breaking down over time of horses in the sport of endurance, it’s a hard sport on the body. But I keep believing there has to be a better way to succeed and also have a horse who stays sound and healthy over it’s lifetime. Some people do a great job of this, but it’s not easy. Lots of hard miles take a toll on anyone.

Quality over quantity has already been a factor I’ve been working with, form and balance are important to create strength that will serve the horse to be less prone to injury or wear. I am already more curious to begin working on this in my own physical training.

Like most things that are done with excellence… it’s time consuming, takes a ton of patience and is often counterintuitive. I have learned if you don’t enjoy the process, doing things well will be frustrating and annoying and you’ll generally settle for good. I’m ruined for good… I am on a life quest for more.

Published by JaimeHope

Violin teacher and endurance rider living in a rural mountain county - one of the least population dense and without a single stoplight.

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