As we all turn a page from one year into the next I realize this will by my ninth year studying, training for, and working through the process of endurance riding. So I write this as a newbie in comparison to the true veterans of the sport.
Yesterday was unseasonably mild and it made for a good excuse to seize the day to begin my 2023 training. Turns out the last ride for 2022 was the Big South Fork 100 in September of which we had soppy slower trails from a day of rain and a wrong turn or maybe two in the dark overnight hours that put us overtime to complete the 100 miles. Regardless, I was pleased that Khaleesi racked up about 88 miles and was still full of piss and vinegar trotting around at 4am. Though we didn’t finish the ride she highly exceeded my expectations. If we had great conditions and only 12 miles to go with enough time it was clear to me she could have done the miles and likely been plenty fit to continue… If… If… If…
The last ride I’d planned in November fell apart due to truck issues, but I’m learning to flow with what’s happening in the present, and it bothers me less when I don’t get what I thought I wanted. If it is truly about the journey and the process then setbacks are just as valid an experience as success and actually neither is better than the other. The entire picture is built from the entirety of experience, and the easy rides I find increasingly boring and offer me less depth to mine for wisdom.
In reflection (as this is that season) I recognize painful setbacks to my endurance goals over the years, were not only opportunities to learn, but in fact they had been protecting me from things I didn’t know I didn’t know and have likely been extending my horse’s longevity as my partner. For that I am entirely grateful. What’s that saying? How often do we thank God for the prayers he doesn’t answer?
It is clear we are closer than we’ve yet been to the journey of the single-day 100. Could this year be the year to cross the finish? I think it’s a distinct possibility, but far from a certainty.
Today as I hiked with Khaleesi up the mountain for our first 5 mile climbing loop in a couple months, I was thinking over the pieces and parts I’ve cobbled together to create a program I believe in. I think it’s quite different fundamentally from where I began those nine years ago.
This has become my most valuable pillar in recent years. It’s the one thing I build everything else from now. Period. I focus on starting with the mental system in a horse in order to achieve balance between the systems. Mental softness is not the same as reliable training. Training is limited. Building a language to communicate more than a command to be followed with my horse is vital to me and it makes our partnership stronger, resilient and able to take on a multitude more challenges than a well trained horse can. And endurance riding brings a multitude of challenges. Building a common language and coming to agreement with a prey animal takes much longer but the payoff is deep. It has higher potential to create buy-in from the horse (though the most successful horses in any discipline often are naturally bent toward the sport and have that buy-in without needing as much connection). Training relies on a horse being conditioned to a response by direct pressure and this works better when we bypass their thinking brain altogether. Most horse people I know consider speed and ease of response to a request to be the highest value. Immediate obedience to a request. Don’t think. Just do.
The physical system is the easiest and quickest to access and many sports including endurance put a lot of emphasis on how to get the physical system strong, but there is a lot more we can do in the mental system that would positively affect the physical system. When the mental/emotional systems are neglected, shut down or out of balance the horse cannot carry itself relaxed and in balance. This adds wear and tear to the body and leads to more chronic and overuse injuries.
Education that encourages a horse to have a thought, to act on their thoughts, and to have a choice to cooperate without a punishment for non-compliance is actually a slower road. This mental process requires slowing down to find softness in thought then soft willing action. The emotional system of the horse will reveal what’s going on in the mental-physical balance. Horses that have big emotional or zero (shut down) tendencies are likely out of balance in the physical-mental somewhere.
Polarized style training- in hand foundation
There is a saying in the endurance community of “long and slow” where increases are made to distance and speed separately to take a horse from field to finish line. What I’ve observed is the concept of slow varies dramatically from rider to rider! I have also been advised over my earlier years to basically train how you plan to ride at the event. Never hurry and never tarry is great wisdom for the event as is staying in the moment riding exactly the trail in front of you to your horse’s own ability.
Conversations in recent years with human endurance athletes which spurred some research of my own have caused me to question if training like one would take on an event ride is the best approach and I’ve begun seeding my program with ideas of “zone two” training and a polarized workload.
Now I do not train how I will compete, though I will intentionally sprinkle in a “competition type” ride from time to time. The way most people ride a horse in an event for endurance causes increased physical stress and will over time break down the horse. So I want to keep that kind of riding at a minimum and use it purposefully.
I am fortunate to live in a river valley so every direction from me is up. I used to get so tired of climbing the mountain when it would be so much more fun to be able to trot and canter along more on less rocky and steep trails. Now I am grateful.
I started throwing in a hike on occasion to add diversity to the physical training routine because it helped my horse MENTALLY. Sometimes I would come and grab the halter, ride her bareback across the river then hop off for a hike up the mountain together on foot. I found she responded very positively and seemed to even enjoy our walks together. Around the same time I began to understand more about the power of staying out of “no mans land” in heart rate zones (zones 3-4) and how intentionally keeping the heart rate below aerobic threshold makes the cells more efficient energy burners, builds the engine and also has way less wear and tear on the body. Though it’s helpful to plan walking only rides, the horse being hand walked in rhythm for long stretches I learned develops good musculature in the ribcage (between the ribs), increased lung capacity, abdominal strength, better posture, topline musculature, and postural balance more effectively without a rider. It’s also fantastic for me because it helps me stay more in shape.
As a note: many high level endurance competitors I’ve noticed use a horse exerciser and that caught my attention. I have no plans to go this route because of bullet point number one: putting my horse on a walking merry go round regularly does absolutely nothing for her MENTAL system if not actually running the risk of shutting down her thoughts. Second, I am fortunate to have mountains and my hand walking adds challenge by adding climbs and descents, a horse exerciser isn’t going to give me that kind of workout. Third, I am pretty convinced the repetitive circles of the same size (though I know they go either direction) over time is not the best option physically. However after learning what I have about the benefits of walking I can see why many successful competitors use them.
Polarized training is not only about walking. There must be high intensity days as well. I have a fabulous flat track trail with great footing in all weather along the river where we do high intensity intervals. This is where we get limber and warmed up and then for 8-12 sometimes up to 16 miles I cycle through trot intervals and all out canter stretches spaced with total recovery walking. High intensity jacking up the heart rate as fast and high as I can very briefly, then total recovery. Rinse repeat.
Very occasionally (once a month or a couple weeks out from the next event) I will do a longer 16-20 mile ride where I ride more like an event where we are likely to do more long relaxed trotting and these rides are usually challenging mountain courses where we’ll also encounter rock gardens, steep climbs and have to navigate technical terrain with a rider.
I train alone 90% of the time and though I enjoy the company of other riders and know many people prefer to train in groups when possible because it’s more fun, I think being able to dial in how my horse most benefits from the terrain or heart rate is valuable. Truthfully though I have found I love going out just me and my horse because I don’t consider that riding alone, and we can work together with less distraction and it builds more connection than the rides we have the distraction of other people (for me) and horses (for her). We can manage those rides just fine because the connection we’ve built alone is quite strong. Also we ride alone a large percentage of the events as well. Ironically I find it easier to catch a ride with non-endurance trail friends because they are usually going at a slower pace which keeps me in that zone 2 for longer stretches. They often assume I would not want to ride with them as they prefer to do a lot of walking. Actually this was more true in years past when I thought every ride as much as possible I should be training like I’d compete. Now I am looking for softness and quality in my horse at a relaxed walk and I know that kind of building that does and I’m quite happy spending hours there!
This program fell into place last year one piece at a time as I dug deeper into the questions I had, and I believe it was key to the horse I brought to Big South Fork and her reserve of strength there. Time will tell if it’s on track or I need to tweak more. But I’m willing to put it in action and do the testing over time. I believe it will save her from chronic injury and make her stronger overall.
Diet, Nutrition, Micronutrients
Corn, wheat and soy are some of the biggest sources of inflammation in the diet (horse and human). So my horses don’t get anything that includes those. Period. I also avoid alfalfa. Much commercial alfalfa has glyphosate in the processing (unless it’s sun cured), but I believe there are questionable effects on the Ph of the hindgut and since my horses do not need alfalfa I just say no. (I have no need to convince anyone else of this so if you are part of the majority that disagree that’s ok).
I keep my diets forage based and as clean as possible. I’ve done some hair mineral analysis testing to support my best understanding of the balance of nutrition and have in some years also gone through forage testing. I regularly add chia and also spirulina for extra support and I add a micronutrient blend that seems to do well for the herd (right now I’m using the Vermont Blend). They are also usually on a vitamin E supplement -especially in winter when the fresh grass is at a minimum. I aim to keep them on plenty of balanced nutrients. This in hope that when it comes time to train harder or compete my horse is functioning with more than the bare minimum of vitamin and mineral levels and thus my horse isn’t coming into events with inflammation in the joints or organs, isn’t calcium or sodium or magnesium deficient or has a compromised immune system.
Personally I think most of the processed or mixed feeds for all our animals are not any better for them than our own human processed food system (this is my opinion). Inflammation that present under the surface day to day will be revealed under stress. Keeping inflammation away at all costs is always going to mean better performance and stronger health over the long term.
I do not change anything for an event in my feeding plan except that I add oats. Khaleesi is healthy overall and we have access to more pasture than she could ever keep eaten down 10 months of the year. So I only add oats on high intensity training days and event days. Oats are a quick access carb that can provide her with the energy supply she needs to stay in the “no man’s land” heart rate zones 3-5. Ideally the zone 2 training (which helps the cells increase efficiency in burning fat for energy which is a more stable source for endurance) and high intensity days have helped her build an engine that can go a long time but she will use the quick carbs from the oats to help keep the fires burning.
The oats get mixed in with coolstance (a coconut product she eats every day) and coconut water which has a great natural balance of electrolytes in the holds. I also electrolyte separately and my home brew is mixed using enduramax, yogurt, date syrup and baby carrot food. I mix them about half strength and use more of them so they aren’t unpalatable or so harsh at once. I cannot risk having to force her to take the electrolytes when I need her mentally soft so I make sure she doesn’t mind the electrolytes even if it’s more for me to mix or carry. Ideally I have spent the every day effort to keep my horse in balanced and adequate levels of sodium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, Potassium etc so I can support her in intense work where she is needing to replenish, but she isn’t coming into the start already partially deficient.
Balanced Rhythmic Riding
The next pillar in my program has been the multi years journey of becoming a better rider. If my horse is going to move in strength and stamina she won’t last long if she is heavy on her front and pulling herself through the miles. My first LD on Khaleesi I knew I had to drastically improve here because 30 miles of me banging around in the saddle was a huge liability. My first horse had been a smooth gaited fox trotter and I had not been taught how to trot and it was very clear to me we could not keep that up.
Helping a horse (and being patient and honest with ourselves in the process) to find better balance back to front is an art form. Anyone who thinks they have this figured out hasn’t likely started the journey yet! I love this journey, but it has taken me years to get to a point I think I have a clue on how to help my horse move better. I am always tuning into my body and how what I do affects my horse. I love to get lessons for an outside eye and to help me up my game, but also I’m really particular on who I will get input from.
I spend as much time as possible learning basic dressage concepts as well as enjoy taking jumping lessons from a fabulous local teacher who was an international competitor before she left the scene for a quieter life. A good teacher is more encouraging than critical, and is able to give you only one or two key things to focus on that will give you the most improvement- then will add on layers as you improve. A good teacher is in tune with your horse’s experience in the learning process and can see the changes because the horse also improves. The horse will feel good about the lessons if the teacher is quality.
Structured and balanced riding also means I compete and do certain training rides in a bit even though we both love riding in a halter. If the bit is used to control the horse then the horse IS moving braced and that WILL eventually cause physically damage somewhere. However a bit is a powerful tool if it’s there for support of the horse. A bit gives the horse something to help them find balance especially over long miles and when they are tired and losing the strength to self-carry. I love to reference an interview with Dr. Ann Marie Hancock and Wendy Murdock where Dr. Hancock explains in one segment that the jaw on a horse almost acts like another limb to balance the body. This fascinated me and explained some things I’d been observing about how my horse holds up to more workload with and without a bit. When the horse is able to relax into the work the body can move efficiently and with less wear and tear on the joints.
Saddle & Shoes
These details have been important keeping Khaleesi strong and sound. I ride in a saddle from Balance Intentional. They are not a traditional saddle design but have a program they call functional saddling and they look at many factors including how to create a saddle that enables freedom of motion yet also offers support between the horse and rider. Most horses have some degree of atrophy under the saddle where the soft tissue of the muscle is inhibited. Balance saddles are intended to encourage rebuilding of the muscle and strength of the topline. It is a phenomenal system however it takes commitment to adjusting as your horse changes. I have at least 2 saddles to choose from and a few different pad options. The back can change with weight gain/loss, muscle growth, or minor injury can change things for them. For us one saddle and pad system does not even work through an entire season. There may come a time it’s more consistent but for now I have to pay attention to changes as she gets more fit and builds muscle after time off or early in the season vs. later in the season.
As for shoes, I stumbled upon composites (we nail, not glue) going through a mystery lameness season a few years ago and I can’t imagine going back to the concussion of the metal shoe. I do think the concussion will over time create more damage to the joints than the composite shoes offer. I love how I can trot along pavement or gravel with more stability than a metal shoe and though they can be slick in wet grass I think even metal shoes can be sketchy in these conditions depending. Nothing is perfect. I am always looking at longevity with my horse because once I put the investment and patience in to build a real partner and a language I want that horse to stay in it with me as long as possible!
Happy New Year
So we headed out for a hike to begin the chapters that 2023 brings. We have done two hikes to get started and by the second I was having a hard time keeping up with her on the climbs! I hope this is a good sign for the year because she was never quite so engaged climbing up those mountain trails last year. So I have expectations of more to learn, more to grow, joy and struggle, and we are ready to take on what comes… Together.
Happy New Year and I also hope for many dreams in your own journey to be realized this season!