Training or Testing?

I was listening to a podcast recently where Stacey Westfall discussed the differences between testing and training (she uses the word teaching interchangably for training). Stacey was talking about the process of learning vs the process of showing what has been learned. 

Anyone who rides a horse has to do some amount of at least basic level training of what is expected in a safe riding experience with their horse. However, in my experience, when most endurance riders discuss training they are generally talking about fitness training.

Yet I liked the question she posed and found it related in an odd way to both ways of using the word: do you know at any given time if you are testing or training your horse? Have you thought about it?

The important distinction here is about mindset. In testing mode we are not responding until the response is a correction. That means we are waiting to respond until there is the ability to determine success or failure as we see it. If we are in testing mode we find ourselves often correcting (punishing) the horse constantly for responding in the wrong way or failing to respond to our cue entirely. If we get caught in this pattern the horse will begin to carry the weight of a sense of constantly failing tests they don’t realize they are taking.

In training (or teaching) mode we do not wait as long to respond after a request. We may pause a moment to allow the horse to consider, but we will support with help of an aid soon after to give the answer and make our intentions clear. In this way we are regularly working together with the horse to learn and grow and not of the mindset “you should know this already!” which would be testing mindset and is likely to bring frustration for rider and horse.

The podcast continued on to discuss a third option many riders exist in which is micromanaging. In micromanaging there isn’t even time for the horse to think or decide, the rider “does it all for them”… kind of like a helicopter parent I suppose. The horse isn’t required to carry any responsibility of her own. They aren’t allowed to fail, or learn, or grown. No mistakes here. This micromanaging creates many different problems and they generally depend on what the personality of the horse is. The horse response to this type of rider can range from total dullness to a horse who seems ADHD throwing out all kinds of (unwanted and unhelpful) ideas trying to stay ahead of the constant force of aids and tools the rider is using to keep the horse from a “wrong” step in any direction.

Though it was an interesting podcast overall my mind wandered into the more “endurance mindset” of training meaning more fitness than learning. And I considered the question of testing vs. training for us.

I wonder how other riders would view this question. When are you training and when are you testing? I have made some shifts in my own approach in recent years that make a bigger distinction between the two as I define them.


The kind of fitness training I have shifted to this season has been intentionally NOT riding as if I was in an endurance event. I have thoughtfully chosen mountain hikes (both of us on foot) and rides and slowed down most rides seeking something similar to a “zone 2” heart rate fitness taking care in an attempt to build up physically instead of that zone 3-4 that wears down but is where we would normally aim in an event. If we do a “long” ride which for us right now would be 12-16 miles (where I used to extend regularly to 18-20), we do it much slower paced than we would ride at an event.

One of our regular training hikes

On the flip side of this to balance it out, I’ve planned some high intensity fitness training where I’ll allow her to give full effort (canter) a minute and then drawing back to a walk to recover and then going up into high intensity and then recovery walk etc. This would be seeking zone 5-6 or max heart with intervals of full recovery heart rate in between.

Finishing a HIT day on the scenic river trail

I make sure to add in balance riding in dressage format or a jumping lesson that adds strength and flexibility. We are getting pretty good with lateral movements, shoulder-in or haunches-in, some nice circles and clean transitions! Also K loves jumping and the more often we go play around in Caroline’s field course on the river she eats up whatever we put in front of her with great enthusiasm.

Jumping for fun and strength training


I’ve heard experienced endurance competitors suggest: just go out and ride your event like it’s a training ride! Enjoy it and ‘never hurry never tarry.’ And though I actually like the reminder to ride the terrain in front of you – not rushing but not wasting time, for me that would not look like a training ride. Because now the event is the test, and I’m not training the same way I’m testing. 

It reminds me of teaching to the test models in school. If we know what the test will look like we can hope to prepare kids to do well on the test by working backward from what we know the test will look like and teach them what they’ll need to know to do well on the test. However I believe there was a time when education was about learning and becoming a well rounded individual and a test was there to determine how that process is going so many one could adjust going forward.

Is the point to do well on the test? Or is the point to develop the wholeness that would test well when asked to?

What I want most is to have a well balanced fitness and training program that stands up to testing or else testing reveals weaknesses that can be adjusted in further training work. What this means is that my core value is NOT to pass a test as much as it is to create a strong, well balanced horse that is sound in both mind and body and willing to participate in the testing of her whole horse fitness in a way that endurance riding provides. I hope that my ideas of training the physical, mental and emotional systems will mean a horse that is prepared to stand up to the single day 100 mile ride.

However as I have gotten away from “teaching to the test” it’s a little nerve wracking because the truth is… I don’t know. When my training rides looked a whole lot like an event day loop in how I rode the terrain I had less potential for surprise at how she would handle the ride. In fact we did this so well that last year our first ride back was close enough to home that we rode every part of the trail more than once and prepared very directly for that test. The only surprise on the day of the event was just how well she performed when the energy of the weekend (other horses, excitement and her sliver of competitive mare) came around.

From asking around it seems I’m on a bit of an experimental ledge- at least in the circles I have access to. I don’t know if this kind of training will transmit smoothly from human research to equine performance. But I like the concepts so I made the investment to find out. I am a truth seeker at heart.

And so we are heading toward a test at Big South Fork. We have registered for the 100 mile ride there and we will find out how this experiment is going, and what might need adjustment going forward.

Big south fork 55 – September 2021

In some ways the decision to give it a try makes perfect sense. 

Khaleesi is in balance and strength. In the years of trying to sort out optimal performance

  • I now have a hoof plan with composite shoes that is working great
  • the balance saddle system has shown to get us through 50 mile distances with zero soreness or stiffness in her back (or hind end) and I have two saddle and pad combinations (dressage and jump styles) that are hitting exactly right this year
  • her teeth and jaw are finally in a place where her TMJ has mobility and now we are increasing range of motion not trying to unlock from past damage (if the jaw isn’t moving correctly the horse cannot use their whole body efficiently)
  • her diet is as free of inflammation as I can possibly get it and has been for a few years.
  • Her micronutrient and mineral balance is really solid and tweaked by hair mineral test analysis- I am now above the minimum requirements I had been at for years now to support her system as an athlete needs so she goes into competition not barely adequate (or deficient) but possible with reserves
  • she’s had an osteopath do a few lingering adjustments and clear her for being balanced through her body
  • she’s on a summer pattern of being in the barn at night both to help her with excessive weight gain from too lush pasture access and also to encourage more rest-restore (she can get stressed with herd management as the lead mare but when all horses are locked safely in the barn she is not “in charge” for a little while)
  • I have learned in the past few years to ride balanced and support her in balancing and becoming more efficient and strong in her movement.

There is not one physical issue concern I have lingering – which as I consider that is quite amazing considering that I’ve been through many many issues over the years with her and had to problem solve them each in turn.

Equally important I have been investing in her mentally and emotionally for years, but learning new key pieces recently that have solidified our relationship and brought new levels of responsibility and power into her side of the equation. We are finding new levels of partnership and freedom that she carries into this ride where her choices and responses are meaningful and have weight. This absolutely brings a risk- she could “not show up” for me mentally or emotionally and that would be devastating to our success, however if she DOES show up, it will be equally powerful in the positive category.

“Are you ready?”

And yet until you test, you simply cannot know the answer to the question: Is she fit (mentally, emotionally and physically) to finish a single-day 100?

Even if I had the confidence and experience to say that it appears so, the single day 100 is the kind of accomplishment that needs all the preparation, the building of a solid horse, and then more than a little of the stars aligning and some favor from the creator of us all. Many things can go wrong and it doesn’t take a whole lot to divert our best laid plans.

In the spirit of transparency my goal from starting Khaleesi as a green four-year old was to take on this sport in a way that builds my horse up and isn’t done at her expense. It’s a very hard sport on everyone involved. My biggest concern is that at some point in the day she will just look at me as a horse to a human and ask me what my problem is leaving camp again after XX miles. It can’t make sense to her rationally, and I won’t be able to explain it. In truth there really isn’t a whole lot in this for her on test day. Not directly. And though I am wiling to ask, to convince and encourage… I am not willing to put her under the kind of force it would take if she dug in her hooves and said: No. I will not go out there one more time. I’m going to have to have a WHOLE lot of money in the relationship bank account in order for her to decide to do this thing for me, as a favor of friendship. And as I’ve never completed 100 miles and certainly not on her, I don’t know how much relationship bank she’ll require and so I don’t know if I’ve invested enough yet.

It seems time to enter the test and find out.

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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