Saturday, March 14, 2009

Conditioning a Draft

Brego and I hit the road today. Since I knew we would be doing trot sets, I put him in his easy boots with a support pad to help with the concussion of the road. I love roading, I think it's an often overlooked piece of the conditioning puzzle.

Any good book or trainer will tell you more about conditioning than I can, but I can share with you some of the observations I have had while conditioning a draft horse that were slightly different. As with all horses, conditioning hard tissue and tendons takes much much longer than conditioning heart and lungs. Most people look at heart rate and respiration as THE conditioning parameters. To a large extent, they are the easiest to measure and they are important. But the hardest part about keeping a draft going in a fast sport is not heart and lungs, it's keeping them sound.

From what I have read, legging up, or conditioning bone, tendons, and connective tissue takes six months or more, depending on the horse. Conditioning heart and lungs takes about six weeks. That means that long before you add speed to push the heart rate up, you need to be riding long, slow miles over some pretty rough terrain to build up the legs. It also improves balance and body awareness while strengthening the stabilizer muscles. This is why I like roading. In my experience, walking and some trotting over hard surfaces really improves legging up. It stimulates dense bone growth. My last jumping trainer once told me that Brego's front tendons felt like bridge cables, huge, tight, and hard. That's a conditioning complement. Trotting endless circles in a sand arena, even in the correct intervals, will not build your horse from the hoof up. You have to get the miles in.

I rode Brego for a full year out on trails before I ever added speed. I would put 12-15 miles in a day at the walk with a little trotting, over very rocky terrain. In fact, I didn't add speed and heart and lung conditioning until just last year.

There's lots of information out there on interval training, especially for eventers and endurance riders. I think interval training does build heart and lungs faster and easier than just riding fast for a long time. So once you have a legged up horse, investigate some good interval recommendations from people a lot smarter than I. Incidentally, foxhunting, with its checks and gallops is great interval training (and very fun)!

The biggest problem for me, when I first got started trying to add speed, was that I was afraid to push Brego. He would be blowing after a few minutes of trotting and I thought he was done. What I have learned over time is that he blows, and he needs a recovery period, but that after five minutes, he was back to 100%. Brego comes off a jumping course blowing, but he's not exhausted. He's more than likely hot, and he just blows. The key is his recovery period. If he is not fully recovered in the desired time, I pushed him too far. If he is recovered in a minute, regardless of the how much sweat and foam and blowing, he was not pushed enough.

I mean, Training level eventers come home with Thoroughbreds completely lathered after a conditioning set. Sweat is not the indicator of over exertion. Recovery time is a better indicator. If he looks as bad ten minutes later as he did while we were working, something is wrong.

Heat is the biggest problem when conditioning a big muscled horse like Brego. For normal horses, humidity is like a 2x magnifier. For Brego, it's 10x. It could be 50 F, if it's humid, Brego can't cool down. If he can't cool himself, he can't recover. So again, the recovery is key, and I have to factor in the weather when taking note of his fitness.

I also keep Brego body clipped in some form or fashion all year. Right now he has a trace clip, but in the next month, we'll go to a full body. This improves his recovery time immensely. Brego has good legs, and he has a good strong heart, but he is just so HOT. So anything I can do to keep him cool while he works adds noticeably to his performance.

One other observation is that when Brego is fit, he recovers faster at a trot than at a walk. So I can use judicious trotting in our interval sets during the break to add to his legging while not pushing him too far cardiovascularly.

So to apply all this information to today's ride:

I make the assumption, when restarting after a long break, that I am starting at zero. So the first few conditioning rides won't even include cantering.

We went down the road and walked the loop in a neighborhood we would later trot. I wanted Brego to see everything and everyone to see him first. Then we trotted three 5 minute intervals with 3 minute breaks. During the first break, I watched his breathing until he recovered and so that set the length of the subsequent breaks. Since we were working on a hard surface, I let him set the speed within the gait, I only asked that he pushed up the hills. I didn't let him drag down on his forehand.

After the intervals, we walk/jogged back up to the farm. Brego was blowing very hard, but couldn't stay in a walk, he was very alert, jigging. Once we got into the barn, he suddenly seemed quite tired. I noticed he was sweating around his eyes and his respiration was high. I untacked him quickly and got him back outside, offering him a drink. Once out in the breeze, he perked up again. He was stifled in the barn and wanted a walk. I cooled him out and within five minutes he was completely cool and dry. So even though he was blowing and sweaty, I didn't push him too much during the ride. However, since we were on a hard surface, I am happy with the amount of work we did.

After I turned Brego out, he cantered around his field some more, just to flaunt that he was not tired. But for a moment, in the barn, he looked exhausted. He was just hot. So, I need to do more to cool him and will likely body clip him before too much longer. By the way, today was sunny, 50 F and about 35% humidity. He just has too much hair for his liking.

Brego showed me we are not starting at zero. He should bounce back into good form within the next six weeks.


Anonymous said...

wow. Thanks for this. My big girl, after a winter on a round bale, is starting out the season as the fattest horse I have ever seen. On a scale of 1 to 10, she is definitely a 9. We need a fitness plan for the obese. With 3" fur.

Working hard is hard, but we will have access to 90km of trails, starting tomorrow. We will walk our way to fitness.

Andrea said...

Yeahhhh Brego! One question - is this conditioning on hardpacked dirt roads, or paved roads? We're currently working on the pavement, though we will shortly be transferring over to a set of bridle trails that once upon a time was an old railroad line - hardpacked ground stone-type trails with great footing, and there is a rumor that near the end of them, there's a huge field perfect for gallop work. I guess we'll find out when we get there!

Julia said...

This is so inspiring! Great info on springtime conditioning. I've been away for University for a year, and although my boy (Percheron x TB) has been leased out to two riders and kept in shape when i get home next month I'm going to have to take him outside on the roads and in the field to get him ready for the event season!

I'm really interested in what you were saying about building up their legs. From what you're saying any horse that's been in the field or in the working in an arena over the winter would need this type of conditioning! I think this is something that many riders overlook.

I'm going to go do some more research on interval training- thanks for the info!

Daun said...

You have a good plan! Long, slow miles will keep your horse sound and give you "insurance" when she is fit enough to add speed!

How did the show go????
We are working on asphalt, which is my preferred paved surface. The boots are for the "starting at zero" thing and because his feet are wet and soft from the spring thaw. At he end of last season, we hunted on roads barefoot and he held fast in first flight.

I am jealous of your packed trails and gallop field. I need to find a gallop area around here once we're ready to add speed.

I think all horses could benefit from roading. But don't overdo it. Eventers, foxhunters and endurance riders have used roading forever, but it as a bad rap because people overdo it and the horse is lame the next day. Think of a human jogging on concrete. Conventional sport medicine says to only add 5% more speed or 5% more distance (not both!) each week when conditioning for road jogging. That's a small amount, but humans need to build up hard tissue as well. Top athletes have an incredible amount of bone mass to support their mega muscles. We should apply the same principles to our horses.

In the good ol' days, horses were used to transport people miles upon gravel roads and these same horses were used for the hunt on weekends. They had roading built into their lifestyle. Now we keep horses in stalls 20 hours a day and only ride in perfectly manicured arenas, you know, to protect the horses! But we don't realize that we aren't stimulating them to build the infrastructure they need to protect them when they take that funny step out on course or when we step up the conditioning from Novice to Training.

Well, that's just my opinion anyway. :)

dp said...

Just an aside, but road riding can be very hard on foundered horses. Even after successful rehab the strength of their laminar tissue will be compromised, and doing much trotting on roads is inadvisable. Walking is safe and beneficial, but lots of trotting is asking for trouble.

Daun said...

That's a very good comment, DP. Thanks for posting that. I agree and I should have said in my earlier post that roading is good for horses who are otherwise sound or not compromised from preexisting conditions.

The bottom line is: Know your horse. If it doesn't work for them, don't do it.

Tina said...

I live in Derry, New Hampshire and I have a similar relationship with my draft mare, Maggie. She is a Percheron/Belgian and is 11 years old. I have had her for 7 years now and I finally hope to show her dressage this year. You and your horse are an insiration to me. I struggle with self doubt at times and with losing some of my confidence after a bad fall (not my mare's fault at all-was galloping in a field and she ran over a wasp's nest and was stung several times on her belly). Anyhoo, maybe we may run in to one another at some point? My mare is big, bay, with a white star.

Daun said...

Tina! So good to hear from someone close!

I would love to see you around. Are you going to show dressage at the Wentworth show at UNH on April 26? We might be there or Green Acres.

I understand self doubt, believe me. I am riddles with angst. But my big boy keeps finding new ways to show me he loves me and he's still having fun, so we keep doing what we're doing.

We are very lucky to have them in our lives.

manymisadventures said...

Wow, I really loved this post.

Conditioning is not usually a huge concern of mine - Pandora's half TB, and McKinna is a tad like the energizer bunny - but since I am planning to do a lot of riding and eventing this summer, I've been just itching to get out on the roads with Pandora. There's definitely nowhere to gallop, but there's a nice loop (takes about an hour to walk) that's very quiet, with polite drivers.

It will also be very good for desensitizing! Pandora goes bravely forth with a horse with her, but she's very tense and refuses to go out by herself. This is something I plan to work on as soon as the forecast doesn't say "scattered downpours!"

Glad to hear that Brego's doing well. He is lucky to have such a conscientious owner like you :)

Katie said...

That was a very interesting post. I'm used to riding thoroughbreds so its cool to see how heavier breeds work. I love your blog :)

Wrangler said...

I think legging up is great, and a really important part of conditioning a horse. Just a question, though.. I saw that you put easy boots on (the guy I work for refuses to use them for reasons unknown to me...) but aren't you afraid that too much work on hard ground will result in road founder?
I suppose if you work him into it, the risk is a lot smaller, but yeah.. just curious.

Daun said...

No, I don't really worry about it. I start the season in padded boots, but we're only talking 15-20 minutes of trotting. The biggest danger right now is the wear and tear of the asphalt on wet feet.

If I had a horse who had only been worked in an arena (i.e., no concussive legging up) and I worked them for three hours on a road for a week, then I might get a bit of inflammation, no? Most horses who get road founder get it after miles of galloping on hard surfaces or years of work without protection.

Legging up is important, but I really don't do any speed work on asphalt. As the trails dry and become passable, I will spend less and less time on the road. But I am not afraid of riding on the road (well, I AM afraid of drivers. :) ). Some riders avoid even a walk across the road and regard it as instant death to their horse's legs. I will hunt at the end of the season along the roads, when the hounds take us that way. I wouldn't at the beginning of the season, but then I wouldn't hunt right now in his condition either.

Moderation is good and thinking about what what your horse needs goes along way. That's why there's no real answer, just what works for Brego and me.

Anonymous said...

My big girl stumbles, recently resulting in us landing in a big heap. My coach was wondering if she might do better in front shoes, just to help her with the breakover. She has short squarish toes, but she still drags the right one in the dirt every once and a while.
I am wondering how your big guy moves in easyboots. Does he pick up his feet more?

Tina said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PlaysWithPercherons said...

I'd LOVE to hear more about this! Keep us informed...with lots of detail! I don't know much at all about conditioning, so if you could point us to some good resources, that'd be great!

Laura said...

Thanks for posting this - Brego is lucky to have such a thoughtful owner! :-)

I didn't really think too much about the connective tissues,etc. part in the legging up process - interesting stuff. I've never had to condition a horse for eventing or hunting, so it didn't really occur to me. Makes sense!

I'm sure alot of people just jump on their horses and go, without out giving conditioning much of a thought

Tina said...

Hi Daun,
I am going to go the Wentworth show as a spectator (I will be flying back from California the day before). I will be watching my friend, Sarah, show her Friesian. You two know each other I guess-small world, huh? I plan to show at the SNHDCTA schooling shows and some at Oakrise too. I may also give MRF a try or NEDA at the FARM. Just going to do mostly Intro this year, but I don't care-just want to have fun and show off my beautiful draft! I will be sure to say hello at the Wentworth show! Take care and I look forward to reading your blogs!

Angelina said...

Hi! Wow, interesting post!:D I read somewhere that a good way to get healthy bones is to do long walks on paved roads. I've always heard something in the lines of "trot two meters on asphalt and you and your horse DIE INSTANTLY" (i'm not exaggerating too much here). So it's interesting to hear the other side of the story!

I had horses when i was younger and want to learn everything i can about training until the next time i buy a horse, so this blog is really interesting reading.

Easy boots can be hard to come by over here, esp for horses with bigger hooves than TBs (my last horse was an Ardennes + pony cross, it took forever to find a big enough boot for him), so is it possible to get started without them (but with normal or rubber shoes)? If i start a lot more carefully than i would have with them (like one min of trot three times over half an hour on asphalt)? Would it make a difference with only walk, if i let the horse walk long enough, or wouldn't the bone be stressed enough to grow then?

You said asphalt is your preferred paved surface: So does that mean the rumors are true, and that hard-packed dirt roads are harder than asphalt?

Oh, and one more question: I guess you don't have a problem with frozen roads over there in Texas, but here in Norway when the temperature drops to -20 degrees C the roads are HARD. Should roadwork faster than walk be avoided in those circumstances?

Thanks for writing such an informative blog!:D

Daun said...

We'll either be at Wentworth or at Green Acres. It's too bad they are having the dressage show on the same day as the event series kick off. I have torn loyalties. :)

Yes, I know and love Sarah and of course Daatje is a dream. I am one of their biggest fans. I haven't heard from her in a while, I should ping her.

Brego does not travel well in his easy boots. He wears them infrequently and they don't really fit, so I can't say he moves better in them. But, he has the kind of feet that don't fit (wider than long). Brego stumbles a lot, in general, when he is unfit and tired, or on his forehand. Right now, at the beginning of the season, it's a miracle he can walk. At the end of last season, he wasn't stumbling much at all.

If your mare is otherwise fine barefoot, you can play with breakover by rasping her toe. Then you can see if that would help before putting shoes on. If she otherwise needs shoes, it's possible they will help.

I would caution somewhat against changing the way of moving too much with artificial means, be it boots or shoes. Stumbling is one thing, but I wouldn't try to correct bare narrow or cow hocks with shoes. You will end up tweaking the leg in a way it does not want to follow. Just something to discuss with your farrier.

Daun said...

Great to hear from you all the way in Norway!

Knowing nothing about your horse or environment, I am loath to recommend an exercise program. But you are asking all the correct questions, which shows you will do great in answering them. My recommendation would be to take your horse on a walk on the road and feel how he moves. Some horses feel like jackhammers on roads, and I can't prove this, but I think those horses have compromised support systems in their legs. These same horses might feel like jackhammers in a sand arena as well.

Brego feels almost the same on roads or in the arena, he feels "bouncy". I can feel him being short strided somewhat because he doesn't like his boots, but I don't feel like his canon bones are being stabbed into the pavement or his knees are being crushed. You can also listen to the footfalls easily and see if you hear any irregularity, indicating discomfort. So go on your walk and the add a couple of trot strides. Ease up and down from the trot, no abrupt transitions and then seriously think about what you felt.

If your horse felt "normal", then consider adding some trot roading into your program, building up slowly.

I like asphalt over cement or other pavement. I am not sure if packed gravel can be as hard as pavement, but I am sure it can. I have trotted Brego over many surfaces and honestly, I worry more about deep sand than hard ground. But I listen to his joints and how they feel.

You can get started without boots, of course, they are just a tool. Watch for wear on the hoof from the road surface though. When Brego's feet are wet, they wear easily (but that also tells me where he wants his breakover and other interesting tidbits). When his feet are hard, he can road all day and not see any wear.

Angelina said...

Thanks for your long reply! You asked about my horse, i was just talking in general, as i no longer have my standardbred or my ardennes + pony cross. I'm planning ahead for my next horse, so to speak. But when i get another horse, it'll probably be one of those European riding horse breeds, like a Swedish or Danish Warmblood or one of the German breeds, or a warmblood/coldblood cross. I don't want a thoroughbred because after having a half-ardennes as my best friend for many years, they TB's are just too...narrow and skinny for me, if that makes sense. But anything's possible, i've even thought of buying one of those little Fjord horses, which we have masses of here.

As for environment, i have access to fields, huge forests, paved roads, gravel roads, steep hills, basically everything. I just lack the horse! The reason why i ask such detailed questions when i don't even own a horse myself right now is because my biggest fear is that my next horse will suffer under my lack of knowledge... I don't want to be doing anything harmful to him.

Anonymous said...

thanks for your comments. We have kept squared-off toes....and she has done really quite well. So far, only one fall. One too many for my nerves though.

I will give fronts a try if my farrier concurs. She was wearing front shoes when I got her. Maybe as much to help rebuild my confidence as for her.

Given your comments, I won't run out and try to find size 7+ easy boots.

I do know that fitness (um, rather fatness) is the root of this problem.

Byrd968 said...

i am trying to re condition my shire TB cross. I have access to miles and miles of bridle trails, however the multi purpose trails that connect sections of horse trails have been paved with blacktop. there can be up to a half mile stretch of pavement / asphalt between horse trails.
I want to confirm that slow trotting is acceptable with boots on pavement? Also, when purchasing boots, what brand and fit did you pick? Any troubles with lost boots, poor fit, or any other troubles that i should consider when picking out boots?

Anonymous said...

Just interested on what boots you use, and what boots you have tried in the past that did not work well. just the choices of ezboots are mind boggling... Thank you