Ask A Trainer

 
Ask a Trainer

BIO OF JANINE ESLER

 

If you would like your training or endurance questions answered, contact Janine at:

Esler Arabians, Phone: (916) 652-8937, esler.arabians@gmail.com

 
Janine Esler is one of the most successful endurance trainers in the country. She trains all breeds of horses in many disciplines but specializes in Arabian horses and endurance training for the horse and rider. Janine also specializes in "problem" horses and solving those problems for the life of the horse. Janine lives in Granite Bay, California, where she also breeds champion Arabian horses including her Khemosabi son, Khemistreetu. She has 6 Tevis Cup buckles and has successfully completed scores of horses on multi-day 250 and 50 mile rides. She stresses safety for horse and rider as well as enjoyment and longevity. Janine has hosted many training clinics and has been a featured speaker at the 2001 AERC convention in Reno. She has authored the monthly "Ask a Trainer" column in the AERC News as well as the Tevis Cup Website.

 


 

QUESTION:

My horse "Buddy" is an 8 year old Arab gelding. He has been progressing very well in his trail training and conditioning for endurance with his trainer. My trainer rode Buddy and I rode another horse on a training ride. Buddy was steady, relaxed, exhibited a fast willing walk, and was eager to trot at any time asked. Buddy's mouth was relaxed and accepting of his snaffle-bit, and he responded with very little pressure. My trainer said Buddy was ready for me to ride. The first few times I rode Buddy on the trail he seemed a little nervous. I took this in stride since I was a different rider than he was used to. The nervousness then progressed to bit chomping, an unwillingness to move forward at the walk or trot when starting a ride, to a near uncontrollable jig on the way back.

 

Finally Buddy began refusing to go forward at all at the start of a ride. He would rear, wheel, buck and try to go home!

I consulted my trainer. She took him for a ride with no problem. Obviously, I assumed that Buddy just doesn't respect me! What can I do to gain his respect? I am a good rider and have taken many lessons in the past. I am using the same cues my trainer taught me so I can't see how Buddy could be confused. I am a heavyweight rider and ride in an English saddle.

 

ANSWER:

Buddy is trying to tell you something with his bit-chomping, refusals and other behaviors. He is telling you that he is in pain when you ride him, but not in pain when his trainer rides him. How is this possible? Your trainer uses a different saddle than you do. She is a featherweight and you are a heavyweight. She is a veteran, a perfectly balanced rider and you a novice riding asymmetrically. The combination of these factors greatly increases the danger of pain-induced behavior, i.e. refusals. Other common pain-inducing behaviors include: inability to walk properly downhill, shortened, uneven stride on one or both front legs, tripping, unreasonable fatigue or lethargy, ear pinning, tail swishing, side biting or biting at the rider's leg while riding, running away from the saddle at saddling time, rear lameness and finally (if you don't catch on to the above) simply running away from you when you go to get your horse! The steps necessary to alleviate pain-induced behavior are as follows:

 

1. Have a professional saddle fitter help fit and correctly position your saddle. Remember an incorrectly positioned saddle can be as painful to a horse as an ill-fitting saddle. The most commonly made mistake is positioning the saddle too far forward thus preventing forward motion of the shoulder. I see very few English saddles work for anyone but featherweights on endurance events because they don't distribute weight to a large enough surface area. Most importantly, listen to what your horse is telling you when you try out a new saddle. He is the final judge. All the theory in the world means nothing if your horse is still telling you that the saddle is hurting him. Can you tell by theory which running shoe will work painlessly for you without trying them out for long distance? Surely not! You must carefully and astutely experiment and observe to make sure that your horse will be comfortable for long distance riding. Anything that just irritates him short distances will become agony during long distance endurance events.


2. Before attempting long distances (anything over 25 miles) be sure that you can ride in a correctly balanced fashion over all terrain. Practice "becoming one" with your horse, get off on steep downhill grades. Can you imagine running down hills with a poorly balanced heavy backpack? Other factors can also cause pain in addition to bad saddle fit and improper balance while riding. Other causes include: An over-tightened cinch, sore feet (improper shoeing, angles, lack of protection on rocks), carrying the rider's weight improperly (head up, back in reverse arch, etc.) Many of the above require retraining the horse, changing tack, etc. Just remember, an unruly horse is an uncomfortable horse. Care, common sense and the diligence of listening to your horse's communications will help ensure the longevity of time you will get to spend with your endurance horse on the trail.

QUESTION:

I bought an "experienced" endurance horse last spring. He had been ridden on one 100 mile ride and several 50 mile rides. He completed them all with a heavyweight rider. How could this horse have successfully completed 400 miles of rides and be so miserable for me to ride?


My new horse is 12 years old, 15"2 hands and has good bone. His conformation is correct except his backbone is pronounced and not well-muscled. He also has a lot of muscling under his neck giving him a "ewe-necked" look. When I see him running free in his pasture he moves powerfully and gracefully and uses his hocks and rear-end beautifully. He carries his neck in a relaxed positive arch. When I ride I use a loose rein and only a snaffle bit. This horse did not want me to put the snaffle in his mouth! And unfortunately carries his head very high, with a very choppy, uncomfortable trot. He also is especially awful to ride downhill because he sticks his head straight out, does not respond to the bit and plows downhill much faster than he should. He feels like a snowball gaining momentum as it rolls downhill, way out of control. It is not much fun for me since I feel like the horse will fall and I have no control.


Furthermore, when I ride my horse in a group he feels like he just goes faster and faster and I can not control the speed of his trot, plus often he gallops. When I try to slow him down, he holds his head up really high and does not respond. Does this sound familiar?


It is important to realize that I am an average rider and have taken quite a few lessons to be sure I give proper cues and use my hands and legs properly. How can I correct the discomfort of riding this experienced endurance horse?

 

ANSWER:

Your horse is a "way too familiar" example of a badly trained or most likely, half broke horse being put in a very severe bit with a standing martingale (common name: tie-down) or mechanical hackamore to control him.


The horse is then taken out on the trail normally with groups of horses. He chases them and when his rider wants to stop or slow him down the rider pulls really hard on the very severe headstall. These cruel devices force the horse to stop or slow down virtually from the excruciating pain from the shank bit or tie down, or from his inability to breath caused by the mechanical hackamore. (The mechanical hackamore is a device that pinches the horse's nasal passage vastly impairing the horses breathing when the rider puts pressure on the reins.) Simultaneously, a chain pinches the horse under the chin. Some horses stop; the others, to avoid the pain and breathing loss, hold their head as high as possible to avoid the pain and air loss.


Since pain causes fear, he then braces his neck muscles against the pressure. When this happens, we get the all too familiar profile of a "high-headed", "back-dropped" horse who is in back pain and is not able, or does not know how to engage his rear-end. This horse will literally slam down hills if you release the pressure on the reins. He pulls with his front end. Ultimately, a horse who is thusly "restrained" (not "trained") will physically break down, i.e.: because his head is up, his back is unprotected (down) and his vulnerable front legs are pistoning into the ground. He is also no fun to ride, and dangerous to himself and his rider. In this position he can not move off his hindquarters, rather he must pull with his shoulders. A horse ridden this way for too long will develop front leg problems, (e.g., ringbone,) a ewe-neck from using the wrong neck muscles, an under-developed rear-end, and back problems.


With his head as high as it is, he will build muscling on the underside of his neck. His backbone will become prominent, because a horse that does not carry his neck in a "positive" arch can not carry his back in a "positive" position. Consequently, he cannot build muscle on the top of his back. A horse cannot push off of his rear end using his physiology properly, if his head is carried high and his back dropped. His only alternative is to shorten his stride into a choppy trot (the higher the head, the shorter the stride) and pull with his front end, or break into a short strided lope. (Yuck).


Basically I can look at the conformation of a horse, his conditioning, and his muscling, and know if he is carrying himself properly under saddle. All of this can be corrected with proper retraining, or better yet, spending the time to train a horse properly in a snaffle bit in the beginning. Being in too big a hurry to "get out on the trail" or downplaying the necessity of proper training for your endurance prospect, will always ultimately backfire. The result, either a crippled horse or a bigger training bill next time around. Either way, there are no shortcuts!


Next month, I will answer the question of how do we fix the "hurry-up" endurance horse. Once this horse is retrained properly, his conformation/posture will vastly improve, as will his attitude and performance and the enjoyment of the rider. And, as always, in endurance I stress longevity. A horse bracing against pressure/pain moving improperly mile after mile will not last. A comfortable, happy, willing athlete will feel as good as he looks and last and last.


Happy Trails, Janine!




QUESTION:

How Long Does it Take to "make" an Endurance Horse?

 

ANSWER:

When I am asked this question, I immediately reply, "How long an endurance career do you want this horse to have?" In addition I ask, "What is the quality of experience you would like to have when riding your endurance horse?" Do you want to settle for a "crazed-eyed racer" or do you prefer a powerful, steady, perfect work machine?


There are three unique phases of training for the endurance horse. If any are omitted or cut short, eventually your horse's performance or your trail experience will pay a hefty price.


The first step is to train the horse in the arena to carry himself for future trailwork. This includes teaching the horse to be very responsive to light cues from the hands and legs and to move correctly. The correct way an endurance horse should carry weight is in a "rounded frame" so that he can achieve varying degrees of collection. The endurance horse must also be very flexible and show no resistance to pressure at any point on his body. Examples of incorrect caricature include: bracing against the bit, any high-headed movement, a neck that is not relaxed and arched, and a body not in a straight line when traveling in a straight line. Once the endurance horse has achieved these goals and can exhibit them in a relaxed and consistent manner in the arena, he can then progress to the next step. If these goals are skipped or hurried, the horse's physical performance will suffer in his future work. Physical manifestations include sore back caused by tripping and front leg problems lack of proper collection which in turn cause pulling with the front-end rather than correctly working off the rear end. There are assorted other physical woes too numerous to mention.


In addition to the physical problems the endurance horse will suffer, you in turn also experience a lack of pleasure and comfort on the trail. If the horse is fighting the bit he will stumble, will not hold pace, will not conserve energy, and will run away without the group, becoming a danger to himself and his rider. As a second example, if the horse does not yield easily to the leg he will be dangerous on narrow trails and cliffs where leg is required to direct the horse's body safely on the trail. These are just a couple of examples, of which there are many.


Step number two is to teach the horse the trail. Start slowly. One excellent methodology I use is to put an experienced veteran horse in front and ride the trainee behind him. I start with mostly walking, then alternating walk and trot, always bringing the horse back to a relaxed flat-footed walk. Then I begin alternating my trainee in the lead and again behind until he is comfortable, relaxed, and responsive in both positions. Finally I take my trainee out alone. I let him take his time, and I constantly talk to and reassure him. I never, never force him over, by, or through anything! Horses that are forced will remember the punishment and assign it to the object, eventually refusing the object more and more violently. Violent shys in horses are created by people who take the horse too fast too soon. The opposite of "forcing" is "showing" the horse. If I have taken all the proper steps in training the horse, he will understand and trust me. We will be "in this" together. Therefore I will "show" the horse that the object that frightens him is okay. I can do that by dismounting him (if necessary) or touching it, or standing on it, or going over it myself. Since he trusts me, he will follow me! Next time over the object I will encourage and ask and he will always go. Unless rushed or forced by humans, a horse will always trust and not refuse, becoming steady and co-operative. Patience is the key.


The last stage of endurance training is conditioning. At this point we take a well trained, relaxed, responsive and happy trail horse and build him up into a super athlete.


A proper conditioning program for the training horse begins with walking uphill (to build muscle and use of rear-end), trotting the flats, and walking down hill. In the beginning stages of conditioning, I get off the horse and walk the down hills to aleviate stress on the front legs. This progresses in time to walk-trotting up hills,trotting flats, and walking down hills. I do not gallop the horse ever. Within a year from the training onset my endurance horse can complete careful, slow, 10-12 hour 50's. Next they must learn to hold their working trot with other horses and other riders in a ride situation. If you race one single time too soon you will never get your good-mined horse back! Should I ever decide to allow the horse to "race" an endurance ride, it would never be before three years of careful conditioning. It is extremely important that you understand my definition for "racing an endurance ride." Correct racing of an endurance ride means explicitly, setting an even extended trot pace that is sustained throughout the ride without even sprinting or galloping at any time much like marathon runners.
I have some personal heroes who have repeatedly demonstrated that this methodology assures the longevity of their endurance horses. Year after year, season after season, their horses continue to excel in the sport without injury or disqualification. Three outstanding examples of riders who routinely use this methodology preserving the longevity of their horses in the Western region are Hal Hall, Brenda Rudy, and Joe Larkin. These riders stand out as shining examples of how proper methodology puts the horses best interests first without giving up the thrill of competition. Dr. Hank Cook put it this way: "How much do you like your horse?"




QUESTION:

I bought an "experienced" endurance horse last spring. He had been ridden on one 100 mile ride and several 50 mile rides. He completed them all with a heavyweight rider. How could this horse have successfully completed 400 miles of rides and be so miserable for me to ride?

 
My new horse is 12 years old, 15"2 hands and has good bone. His conformation is correct except his backbone is pronounced and not well-muscled. He also has a lot of muscling under his neck giving him a "ewe-necked" look. When I see him running free in his pasture he moves powerfully and gracefully and uses his hocks and rear-end beautifully. He carries his neck in a relaxed positive arch.


When I ride I use a loose rein and only a snaffle bit. This horse did not want me to put the snaffle in his mouth! And unfortunately carries his head very high, with a very choppy, uncomfortable trot. He also is especially awful to ride downhill because he sticks his head straight out, does not respond to the bit and plows downhill much faster than he should. He feels like a snowball gaining momentum as it rolls downhill, way out of control. It is not much fun for me since I feel like the horse will fall and I have no control.

 
Furthermore, when I ride my horse in a group he feels like he just goes faster and faster and I can not control the speed of his trot, plus often he gallops. When I try to slow him down, he holds his head up really high and does not respond. Does this sound familiar?


It is important to realize that I am an average rider and have taken quite a few lessons to be sure I give proper cues and use my hands and legs properly. How can I correct the discomfort of riding this experienced endurance horse?

 

 

ANSWER:
Your horse is a "way too familiar" example of a badly trained or most likely, half broke horse being put in a very severe bit with a standing martingale (common name: tie-down) or mechanical hackamore to control him. The horse is then taken out on the trail normally with groups of horses. He chases them and when his rider wants to stop or slow him down the rider pulls really hard on the very severe headstall. These cruel devices force the horse to stop or slow down virtually from the excruciating pain from the shank bit or tie down, or from his inability to breath caused by the mechanical hackamore. (The mechanical hackamore is a device that pinches the horse's nasal passage vastly impairing the horses breathing when the rider puts pressure on the reins.) Simultaneously, a chain pinches the horse under the chin. Some horses stop; the others, to avoid the pain and breathing loss, hold their head as high as possible to avoid the pain and air loss. Since pain causes fear, he then braces his neck muscles against the pressure.

 

When this happens, we get the all too familiar profile of a "high-headed", "back-dropped" horse who is in back pain and is not able, or does not know how to engage his rear-end. This horse will literally slam down hills if you release the pressure on the reins. He pulls with his front end. Ultimately, a horse who is thusly "restrained" (not "trained") will physically break down, i.e.: because his head is up, his back is unprotected (down) and his vulnerable front legs are pistoning into the ground. He is also no fun to ride, and dangerous to himself and his rider. In this position he can not move off his hindquarters, rather he must pull with his shoulders. A horse ridden this way for too long will develop front leg problems, (i.e.: ringbone,) a ewe-neck from using the wrong neck muscles, etc. an under-developed rear-end, and back problems. With his head as high as it is, he will build muscling on the underside of his neck. His backbone will become prominent, because a horse that does not carry his neck in a "positive" arch can not carry his back in a "positive" position. Consequently, he can not build muscle on the top of his back.

 

A horse can not push off of his rear end using his physiology properly, if his head is carried high and his back dropped. His only alternative is to shorten his stride into a choppy trot, (the higher the head, the shorter the stride) and pull with his front end, or break into a short strided lope. (Yuck). Basically I can look at the conformation of a horse, his conditioning and his muscling, and know if he is carrying himself properly under saddle. All of this can be corrected with proper retraining, or better yet, spending the time to train a horse properly in a snaffle bit in the beginning. Being in too big a hurry to "get out on the trail" or down playing the necessity of proper training for your endurance prospect, will always ultimately backfire. The result, either a crippled horse or a bigger training bill next time around. Either way, there are no shortcuts!

Next month, I will answer the question of how do we fix the "hurry-up" endurance horse. Once this horse is retrained properly, his conformation/posture will vastly improve, as will his attitude, performance, and the enjoyment of the rider. And as always, in endurance I stress longevity. A horse bracing against pressure/pain moving improperly mile after mile will not last. A comfortable, happy, willing athlete will feel as good as he looks and last and last.

 

Happy Trails Janine!

QUESTION:

I bought an 8 year old gelding that I plan to ride endurance. He is very spirited and hard to control so I ride him with a pelham bit and tie down. He still constantly pulls on the bit, tosses his head and nothing I do seems tohelp. I did try a snaffle bit, but he was totally oblivious to it and out of control. Do you know what type of bit I could use that would make him respond? He's not bad in an arena but is getting worse on the trail.

 

ANSWER:

Your problem is not one of bits but rather of proper training. All horses in their "natural" untrained state lean into pressure. Somewhere in your horse's saddle training his trainer skipped a step. Instead of showing the horse that if he responds to a very small amount of pressure the pressure will disappear, he may have tried to overpower the horse and make him respond by using more severe bits that produce greater pressure. As you have reported this does not work for long. Your horse will continue to look for ways to avoid pressure (head tossing, etc.) which will escalate into more avoidance behavior (bucking, rearing, refusal). When you tried to use a snaffle bit on your horse he didn't respond because he had not been taught properly.

 

Your choices are as follows:
1. Put a bigger and bigger bit on your horse until he eventually becomes so obnoxious you can't ride him at all and nobody else will want him either!
Or

2. Send him to a competent trainer who will re-teach your horse pressure in the proper manner. The trainer can then show you how to ride him comfortably.
Believe me, it is money well spent so that you and your horse will spend many happy years on the trail together!

 

QUESTION:

My 8 year old gelding has been trained and conditioned for one year. We have done two 50 mile endurance rides slowly and carefully and are now conditioning for next year's Tevis Cup. I plan to do at least six more 50 mile rides prior to the Tevis. Should I also include some fast 25 mile rides to improve his wind and stamina?

 

ANSWER:

No. It takes three careful years of conditioning before you should go fast (race). You sound like you are doing a very good job of building up your horse. If you are planning on riding the Tevis Cup after two years conditioning you should concentrate on building and maintaining his working trot, developing a fast walk and including at least one 75 mile ride or one 2-day multi-ride ride into your training schedule. It is important that your horse gets comfortable with the distance more than developing speed. In three years if you've had no serious injuries feel free to begin his interval training. Interval training should consist of extend trotting and slow galloping for 2-3 miles at a time during a normal conditioning ride, allowing ample recovery time at the walk.

 

QUESTION:

During conditioning my horse for and competing in a ride, when can he have water and how much?

 

ANSWER:

My initial answer is to encourage your horse to drink whenever there is water available. If you know you are getting close to water, it always helps to walk your horse before you reach it to calm him down and drop his respiration. He will then be more likely to relax and drink more while gulping less air. Under extreme conditions, i.e. cold water and hot weather, or a long time between water, etc., you should only allow him to take a few gulps at a time, then walk him a little and repeat until he has drunk his fill. This practice will help avoid stomach cramps from icy water or bloating from too much water all at once. Whenever possible have your crew at vet stops pour water into buckets and let it sit in the sun to warm up. Never withhold water from a horse during strenuous ongoing exercise. Dehydration is a leading cause of metabolic horse disqualifications in endurance. Electrolytes should never be given to make a horse drink, rather only after he has consumed a generous amount of water.

 

QUESTION:

I purchased a 6 year old Arab gelding who had 90 days professional arena training and 60 days trail training. I rode him on the trail with his trainer when I bought him and he was excellent. I now ride him with my boyfriend and his horse. Since my boyfriend's horse is much more experienced on the trail and in endurance competition (he has won several 50 mile races), I let him lead on our trail rides. My rides are getting more and more awful. My gelding won't respond to the bridle, he breaks into a gallop, jigs, and when he does trot he feels uneven. He also stumbles often. I have tried riding him in the lead, and although he behaves somewhat better, he is very hesitant and seems afraid to move forward at a trot. What shall I do?

 

ANSWER:

I can understand how your horse could have been good on the trail when you rode him with his trainer. You must understand that your trainer surely rode him on a very regular basis unlike you. She also may have ridden him at specific speeds (medium training trot, fast walk, no gallop) on the trail since your horse has only 60 days trail training. You also mentioned that your boyfriend's horse is a very experienced endurance horse who has won several 50 mile races. How fast a trot is he using? Over what type of terrain? Obviously your horse cannot handle the speed or the terrain of the faster, more experienced horse. Therefore he is panicky and scrambling to keep up, meanwhile not watching where he is stepping, or paying attention to your cues. Either your lead horse must slow down and compensate for your horse's lack of experience or you need to ride with somebody who will. It takes time for a horse to develop a correct steady working trot over different types of terrain. It also takes time for him to physically negotiate uphills, downhills, and all the obstacles found on our trails. These become even more difficult as speed increases.
You should always ride with another horse who will ride at your training level. Also ask your trainer how often and far she was riding your horse per week. Start from where she left off and do the same as she if you want to get the same results. Once your horse begins to respond in a focused and relaxed manner you can slowly advance. Remember, conditioning and properly training a good endurance horse is a progression and takes a lot of time. There are no shortcuts. Be patient and think of trail training is terms of years instead of weeks or months.

 

QUESTION:

I have a 6 year old Arabian mare that is doing well in the daylight arena. As the next step toward her trail training I have enrolled in a 12 week (one night per week, 4 hours per night) horse rider training class being given at our local Junior College. In the first night of our class we were asked to just walk and trot individually in the arena. To my surprise my mare acted totally crazy, i.e., she sweated and ignored all her cues. If she is this freaky in just being in a different arena how will she ever deal with everything she sees on the trail?

 

ANSWER:

Your mare was reacting not to just "another arena" but a barrage of new stimuli. Too many new things were going on at the same time so that in your mare's very limited experience they were very frightening. Why? Because she could not perceive and deal with any of them one-at-a-time. What you had seen as just "another arena" obviously looked quite different to her. Were there many other horses?; a loudspeaker?; was it night?; were there lights?; maybe a tractor in the corner?; some kids running in the bleachers? In addition to all these things, an arena is a clearing. An open area or meadow is a very vulnerable place for the instinctively defensive animal that your mare becomes vulnerable to such a stressful environment. Most of the horses that exist today are the ones that carry the genes to escape danger. When trail training a horse your first step should be to use a trail with as few man-made distractions as possible, leading with one smart, calm, experienced horse. If this is not possible, you should always walk in front of your horse until she becomes accustomed to the new situation, then mount up and ride.

 

QUESTION:

I have an Arabian gelding who was a good arena horse when I bought him but had never been on trails. I rode him out several times with my sister's experienced trail horse leading. He was pretty relaxed. Now when I take him out alone he refuses a lot, wheels and heads back home and is resistant to go forward. I know he's faking it because he was relaxed on his first rides! My friends tell me that if I were a stronger rider I could make him go down the trail. I find that the more I try to insist, the nastier he becomes. He has even begun rearing during refusals and is hard to catch in his pasture. He used to come right to me. Does he just not want to be a trail horse or is there something I can do to make him like it?

 

ANSWER:

Yes. There is something you can do. All of the avoidance behavior you have experienced with your horse comes from fear. If repeated often enough it will become habit. The longer this goes on the more violently the behavior will escalate and the longer it will take you or the trainer to correct it.

What has happened is that you have expected and asked too much from your inexperienced horse too soon. He is not "faking it". He does not understand that concept. Your horse was reasonably relaxed and confident on his two initial trail rides because the lead horse was relaxed and confident. Your horse is a herd animal. If the leader of the "herd" says "everything's okay", your horse will follow. "Two trail rides does not a trail horse make!" He obviously still needs the security of the calm lead horse. Continue in this manner until your horse is relaxed while in the lead and following. Then you can attempt trail riding solo.

At this juncture it is important that you have bonded with your horse and have the experience and calm composure to replace the lead horse with yourself. If you do not fit this description, send him to a trainer who does. Remember, it is our job to give the horse security, and make trail riding fun for him, not be his disciplinarian and drive him forward out of fear of us. I have never met a horse in all of my training experience that didn't love being a trail horse, eventually.


QUESTION:

What is the best strategy for the months preceding the Tevis Cup Ride and following it for maximum conditioning and success?

 

ANSWER:

I have always believed that the actual conditioning for the Tevis Cup Ride should end one month prior to the starting date. I will take the premise that you will be competing on a relatively well-conditioned horse, i.e., at least in his 2nd year of conditioning, 3rd is even better.

 

I like to take my horse out of a 3-4 month resting period in mid February. I bring him back to his baseline of conditioning in approximately 6 weeks. This is accomplished by 3 rides per week, consisting of two 12 miles and one 20-25 miler for the first 3 weeks. During the next 3 weeks I ride one mid-week 12-15 mile ride and a ride Saturday and Sundays equaling another 40-50 miles in those two days. Next I like to ride two 50 mile rides one month apart. Each is followed by one week's rest and then at least two 15-25 mile rides per week.

 

All of this conditioning is in preparation for the most effective and important part of my horse's conditioning: the multi-day ride. One month following the last of my two 50 mile rides I like to do a 5-day 250 mile ride very carefully. No racing, no injuries. If your horse is not in shape for that, try at least a 3-day 150 mile ride. If he cannot do that comfortably, he will certainly have a rough time on the Tevis Cup Ride and will be at higher risk of injury, lameness and metabolic problems. If at any time during your horse's conditioning from February thru your multi-day he loses too much weight, loses his appetite, seems lethargic or develops a dull look to his coat it is imperative that you back off on your conditioning. Either do fewer miles or slow down or both until his appetite has returned and he is maintaining weight and energy because you are actually doing more harm than good. All these negative signs are signs of "over-conditioning" a horse so pay attention closely to your horse on a daily basis.

 

After you have successfully and carefully completed your 250 mile multi-day ride your horse will have risen to an expendentially higher degree of conditioning than separate 50 miles can ever achieve. Approximately one month from Tevis all your actual conditioning is over. It is now time to rest your horse for at least 2 weeks and then take him on only a couple short rides (10-12 miles) to keep his muscles loose two times during the last two weeks prior to the Tevis. Also concentrate on putting extra weight back on your horse. He has plenty of muscle now, so cover it with plenty of fat. This is the fat he will be using for energy when Tevis time comes around. I have sometimes been criticized for keeping my gelding Kholt-45 "too fat". But at the end of his multi-days and at the end of Tevis he always looks like he is ready to go into a halter Class! (Note his picture one week after Tevis). It is a proven fact that a conditioned horse who is fat enough has a much better chance of completing the Tevis than one that is leaner. So feed him all he wants during the last four weeks.

 

A mistake that I have seen over and over again is the person who decides to perform their horses' conditioning the last six weeks prior to Tevis. They ride the horse often and hard. The result is not a horse that comes up to a new level of conditioning, but one that breaks down to an all-time low. He loses weight, becomes borderline anorexic, and sustains microscopic stress-related injuries that on race day can progress to lameness. He also has no fat reserves and therefore no energy storage to pull from. Equate this with yourself. Work 6-80 hour weeks, don't rest, don't eat, then run Tevis! Ouch!. Again, rest during the last month prior to the ride is paramount after proper conditioning has been accomplished. This process is known as "tapering to the event". Then simply ride your ride. (I will discuss in future articles proper strategy for different levels of conditioning).

 

Using this methodology there is at least a 75% chance of finishing. The average finish rate is 45-55%. Add good crew management and accept that it's a tough ride that they keep making tougher every year with a "Rock out there for everyone". Good luck.

 

Now the ride is over. Even if your horse finished relatively sound, rest him for one month! Feed him all he wants. Tell him he is your hero daily. Then you can begin to "leg him up" for several weeks with short 10-12 mile rides and go to your next 250 multi-day ride. Go slowly and go carefully. You will feel how your horse does this effortlessly. Do several more50's carefully a month apart and then again REST.

 

Your horse will get very comfortable with the natural rhythm of this method because it allows him to recover from the micro-trauma and avoid the macro-trauma associated with other methods of mindless endurance conditioning. Remember, do your conditioning homework first and taper to the event! Happy trails and good luck.

QUESTION:
What is the best strategy for my horse's first 50 mile ride?

 

ANSWER:

Before attempting my first 50 mile ride I need to be certain that my training horses respond to their cues in the arena and on the trail. They need to stop with minimum pressure, side pass, back and respond lightly to the rider's hands and legs. They must also be able to exhibit various degrees of collection on a light rein using a snaffle bit and a running martingale. Next they need a degree of confidence on the trail. They must still show the same responsiveness "under duress" on the trail as they did in the less stressful setting of the arena. Therefore if your horse is not very responsive in the arena, he will be very unresponsive on the trail and certainly become a "wacko" when ridden on his first 50 mile ride in a group of other horses. The "holes" in your horse's training will become more apparent as you progress on to more difficult situations. Conversely, a well-trained horse will get his "kinks" out, learn to concentrate and "get to work" on his first 50. This training goal invariably transpires on the second 25 mile loop. At this point much of his anxiety should have dissipated due to the working distance. Having a strong training basis he will finally be going down the trail (anxiety free) drawing and responding from his excellent "nearly automatic" arena training.

 

Your secondary goal is for your horse to finish his 50 mile ride relaxed and confident. It is extremely crucial that this goal be met as that is what he will remember and it will imprint on his behavior for the rest of his endurance career.

The exact opposite reaction is achieved in a horse with a weak training basis who is advanced to trail work too quickly and taken on a 50 mile ride to "calm him down". Believing that an untrained horse will calm down during the duress of a ride is pure foolhardiness. The horse will become increasingly anxious and out of control as the ride progresses, working himself into a panic frenzy. I see many examples of this condition who are dismissed from the ride by the vets. He will end his 50 mile ride (if he makes it) scared and wild-eyed. This is the feeling he will remember. In turn, the next ride will be worse.

The moral of this story is there are no short cuts in training. The endurance horse needs training from the ground up even more so than many other disciplines. Why? Because what we ask of them is incredibly difficult, stressful and even painful if not done as a training progression. As an equestrian group endurance horses are certainly the most poorly trained of the performance classes. Often the endurance horse is completely devoid of actual professional training. Your trained horse's first 50 mile race requires correct strategy and homework. The old saying is accurate: "horses run on instinct, not on intellect". It is our job through proper initial training to replace the "herd" with ourselves. We must become the herd. Then only will your horse not succumb to the primal "herd instinct". He will bow instead to you, his new master and mentor for safety and direction. It is imperative to gradually approach the inevitable dangerous situation of moving with a large group of horses. On the first ride I always start 5 minutes behind the last horse to leave. I mount my horse and hit a medium trot. The medium trot is ingrained in my horse's mind because that is the speed they have been taught to hold during all of their trail training. It is automatic. Since it is automatic, in a chaotic time, i.,e., "race/herd time", it will become a safe place to be. Horses need to feel safe moving; it is there that they will find peace.

 

Within a few miles my horse will start passing (at the trot) other horses in the back. Do not try to make your young horse walk too early. He will buildup too much anxiety and burn up more energy than at the medium trot without covering any ground. I allow the horse to trot for a distance I feel safe for his condition. Then I ask him to walk. If I cannot achieve this on his back I get off and ask him to stay behind me at a walk. (All my horses are taught this behavior prior to ride time). When my horse's P&R's are down I will continue his trot. The trick to covering distance on a young newly conditioned horse is to never allow them to go "red on the dial". Know when to ask them to walk. If you wait too long, they will not recover in the vet check. Conversely, if you ask too soon they and you will expend extra energy fighting each other and the walking will serve a negative purpose. I then continue to alternate walking (on a loose rein) and trotting working with my horse to both cover ground and conserve energy. In addition I always keep my horses "In frame". The definition of "In frame" is slightly collected with a rounded back and very little pressure on the snaffle bit. Horses carrying the same rider, over the same terrain "out of frame" have a much greater chance of tripping, pulling muscles, and getting sore backs than ones moving properly. The horse ridden "out of frame" with his head up and his back down will suffer leg trauma from his front legs "pistoning into the ground. This practice is especially evident on young or less conditioned horses and is exacerbated by a heavier rider on bad terrain.

 

At the lunch break I encourage my horse to drink and eat as much as possible. I put them in a situation that will make them relaxed and comfortable.

 

The second 25 mile loop is always magic. The first 25 removed most of the anxiety. The lunch stop dropped their adrenalin rush. I use the last 25 miles to amble along at whatever walk-trot combination the horse's condition allows him to comfortably handle. I work at keeping a perfect medium collected trot and encourage him to walk fast on a loose rein. I make this a very controlled 25 miles, encouraging the horse to listen very closely to me. In this way at the finish I have a focused, relaxed, happy athlete that was my goal. He remembers this experience as positive, not freaky or scary. Every subsequent 50 mile ride for the first year I do exactly the same, methodically grooving the horse like a tennis player grooves his swing.

 

After three progressive years you will have a veteran endurance horse on whom you can ride your ride comfortably and correctly regardless of the inevitable" herd of out-of-control racers" doing this sport incorrectly on the trail the way it ought to be. A team effort. This method requires patience but places the horse's attention with the rider and vice-versa, the way it should be: A true team effort between horse and rider.

Last month we discussed the problem of the "hurry-up" endurance horse. He is a horse who has been raced too soon and had very little proper training. He does not carry himself properly and is under control only in a severe headstall. He also does not know "pace".

 

I always take this type of horse back into the arena. I need to teach the horse to "back-off" from slight pressure rather than being controlled by heavy pressure and pain. A horse who has been raced too soon will be full of anxiety. He will be nervous and too fast because he was exposed to too much too soon.

 

Once back in the arena I begin to teach the horse how to "give to" pressure. This is best accomplished by quietly tapping on a part of the horse's body that you wish him to move. If he does not respond by moving away, I tap harder. When he does move, I stop all tapping and tell him "good-boy" and kiss him. You should get to the point that you can move any part of the horse's body with very little pressure.

 

It is also important to help the horse respond better to your legs. He must realize that if he moves away from the least amount of pressure the pressure will stop. Horses love the pressure to stop. Once they learn this they will continue to move away from less and less pressure.

 

Next I transfer this release of pressure training to the mouth. I put only a snaffle bit in the horse's mouth. I ask him to move his head "side to side", starting with whatever pressure is necessary and releasing the pressure immediately when he responds.

 

When I begin riding the horse I keep him at a walk. The slower the horse's gait, the more he can think. I flex his head side to side using pressure with the same-hand and same-leg until he gives. I then transfer it to the other side. Next I teach the horse to drop his head and collect with very little hand or leg pressure. I then ask the horse for a fast walk with his head in a comfortable position (never straight up as this will shorten his stride). I teach the horse 3 more "gears": slow collected jog (for downhills, etc/) : medium trot, and extended trot. The horse should learn to hold these separate speeds until asked to change them with very little correction from the reins.

 

Once this is all accomplished I can then take the horse back on the trail. I am careful to be very exact with each "gear" I put him into. I also take it slowly to rid him of the anxiety he has developed by "too much, too soon". I start by taking the horse with one other calm veteran or alone; not in groups! In this way the horse becomes comfortable, focused, and relaxed. He is no longer controlled by pain, but understands how to respond and avoid pain altogether. Now this horse can become a team- mate with the horse enjoying the ride as much as you do!

 

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