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Conditioning and HR training (long)

>What HR do you think must be maintained on
>a training ride to be of any benefit, and for how long?. I know that each
>horse will vary and that as the horse gets fitter he should be able to
>maintain that pulse (pace) for longer. Do you have any other tips to using
>the HRM?. Lastly what is the best way to attach the electrodes and where
>should they be placed?. As I said we cant get HRMs here so this is all new

I thought some general comments about conditioning horses might be useful
first, then I will try to answer the specifics. 

First, I am no expert, I have only trained two horses. You might want to
watch the posts from Tom Ivers ( and Heidi Smith

Tom Ivers is a professional race horse trainer that pioneered a lot of the
HRM standards and methods for use in the short-track TB racing world. He
wrote a book called "The Fit Race Horse" that was the only thing in print I
could find that discussed using a HRM while training. (The book is NOT
about endurance riding so some of the suggestions don't seem to fit.)

Heidi Smith is a vet who rides endurance, vets endurance races and breeds
horse for endurance riding.

I would invite either of them (or any others) to correct or improve the
observations below.

Now that I have given my disclaimer and pointed you to a couple of
professionals, I will give you my "lay-person" answers with what guides my
thinking as I train my horse. It comes from all I have read (the mistakes
and misunderstandings are my fault) and my "two-rat" experience (if I have
understood what I have seen).

Training a horse is only partly about watching heart rates and heart rate
recoveries. That is actually the END of the training my horses needed to
get ready to successfully campaign in endurance.

Training a horse for physical condition requires an understanding that
different parts of the horse develop from different types of work and at
different rates.

Generally, I understand it as 1) bones, 2) tendons, 3) muscles and 4) heart
and lungs. I have listed these four things in order from slowest to improve
from exercise to quickest to improve. 

My understanding and experience is that you can quickly get an out-of-shape
horse into cardiovascular shape (good heart rates). (It only takes the two
horses I work with 6-8 weeks to get in good cardiovascular shape as
measured by the HRM.) However, a horse can still be very vulnerable to
injury because he is not truly "in shape" when it comes to the other three
items listed above.

I believe that it can take at least a couple of years of training for bones
to fully respond and become their strongest. For bones what is needed is
impacts and particularly impacts with weight (meaning that training with a
rider is more beneficial that just being ponied along on a lead rope.) This
conditioning is NOT improved with speed (except you may get more impacts
per hour if you are traveling faster.) One of the best benefits of
"long-slow-miles" type training is what it can do for bones and tendons.

For tendons, I understand they will attain good condition faster than bones
but still only over the course of a lot of time and work and flexion. I
learned the hard way that traveling down-hill puts a lot of stress on the
tendons of the front legs of a horse. Here is the story: (The nature of the
conditioning helps me make my point.)

Before I knew anything about endurance, I bought 4-year-old Arab, Tzadik.
(I didn't know anything about what Arabs were. I loved him, but he was just
a horse. I also bought a quarter-horse mare at the same time.)  For two
years, I used these two horses to do lots of sight-seeing trail rides in
the steep Rocky Mountains of Utah.  In the summers, it was 2 or 3 evenings
during the week for a hour or two. On Saturday, we went for a longer (4-5
hour) ride. In the winter, we took them out to the desert hills almost
every Saturday. All this work was at a walk. We didn't like it when they
trotted. We didn't know how to ride a trot and it was uncomfortable. Tzadik
always carried me. I weigh 206 and at that time I was using a big, heavy
western saddle that weighted about 50 pounds. I think this foundation was
vital to his later success. (20+/- 50 mi. rides ALL in the top 10, all but
one in the top 5. Two pulls, one for a cut knee from a fall and the other
from a slip on some hidden ice.)

Then when Tzadik was 6 and 15-2, I learned about endurance riding from a
professional horse trainer that was trying to teach me to ride correctly.
She gave me Tom Ivers book and I bought a HRM. I started training Tzadik
for my first LD endurance ride. After about 6 weeks of training (where I
watched his working heart rates for a given work load improve, his muscles
toned up nicely and his recovery times significantly shorten) I rode him in
his first 25 mi LD ride. He had a lot of fun. (I also know the very moment
HE decided it was an endurance "race" and not and endurance "ride." He had
passed and been passed several time without worrying about it. Then, about
the 11 mile mark a horse passed him again and his body language, said "Hey,
you can't do that to me!" and ever since he has been more competitive than
me.) The last 7 miles (before the 1/4 mile I trotted and walked him into
the end of the ride) he cantered at a HR of 114 (very low for as fast as we
were going.) We came in 3rd.  His recovery at vet check and the end of the
ride was very quick.

I thought he was in shape. My BIG mistake.

The next week I was out "training" him on a mountain trail. He went up the
trail at a trot and was very happy and working well. When we turned around
to go home I let him trot back down the trail. He stepped on a root or a
rock and pulled a suspensory ligament. He was immediately lame. I got off
and led him the rest of the way down the trail and took him to a vet where
with got the suspensory diagnosis. It took me 5-6 months of following my
vets advise with various cold packs (early) and hot packs (later)
anti-inflammatory medication and DMSO applications, and NO RIDING until he
was healed from it. It shot an entire ride season (my first). Fortunately
with the good care and instruction from my vet, and giving it LOTS of time,
he completely healed. I have not had a recurrence of injury to that
ligament ever again. 

However, I learned my lesson. When I got him back we trained slower and
worked up. I don't count any "down hill" time as part of the training so we
never try to "work" down hill.  Over the years since then he has learned to
place his feet better and his strength and condition has improved a lot. I
now let him choose to trot down hill. He has not again experienced any
injury from doing so. But I NEVER push him on a down hill and I rarely let
him go as fast as he would like. The English expression for that is "once
burned, twice shy.)

Muscles were the next faster-developing part of the horses condition. The
clearest evidence I have of his muscle development is a series of pictures
I have of him over the course of several years riding. I have been back to
the Hell's Kitchen Ride in Gunnison, Utah every year for first four years
of my endurance riding. They took a picture of the horses as a completion
award. If you look at the pictures of my horse, you can see additional
development in his muscles each year for those four years. (That first 25
was at Hell's Kitchen).  He was not NEARLY in as good a muscle condition
that first year as he was each year after that!

There is good side to the extra time it takes to get the factors OTHER than
heart rates into condition. If I have understood what I have read, those
other factors also STAY longer through a period of no training or reduced
training than cardiovascular condition. In other words, I believe I have
read that bone mass and tendon strength don't drop off nearly as fast when
you don't work your horse; like for winter or for an injury recovery.

The point of all that long-winded stuff above was to say: just watching the
HRM for improvement in heart rates and recovery times is NOT the only, and
certainly not the best measure of the horses overall condition. However, if
you have done lots of foundation building and long-slow-distance training
and you are finishing your horse's condition to bring him to his peak, I
have found the HRM and recovery rates to be a good measure of his
cardiovascular condition. It is what I use each spring to measure how he is
coming along to get ready for the next season. 

Now to give you my best shot at your specific questions:

>What HR do you think must be maintained on
>a training ride to be of any benefit,

I believe my horse benefits most when I keep his heart rate at least up to
125 during a training ride. I really try to keep his heart rate at 140-150.

>and for how long?.

In the spring I don't have a lot of day light hours around work. I have
found that if I can get in at least a good 30 minute training ride 2-3
times a week, I will see HR improvement steadily over time. I try to make
sure I do more than that if I can and certainly on Saturday, I try to get
in at least 2 hours. These are minimums. Also, I only count the time that
his heart rate is elevated. If we are going up the mountain, I only count
the time we are going UP. When we start to come down, his heart rate is
never over 80-90 even at a trot down hill. I don't count that as part of
the training ride time. (It is still good for bones and tendons, of course.)

>I know that each
>horse will vary and that as the horse gets fitter he should be able to
>maintain that pulse (pace) for longer.

In terms of how long my horse can keep up the training pace, I don't know
what the outside is. I usually don't have enough day light hours to reach
his "end."  I took something from Tom's book as a quide that seems give a
good indication, though. He said if you stop after a working session, see
how long it takes for your horse's heart rate to drop to 80. If it takes
less than 2 minutes, you haven't overworked your horse. If it takes longer
than 2 minutes, you might need to reduce the amount of work the next time. 

The other way I measure "over-work" is to record the recovery times like I
discussed in the other message. (I always take recovery by stopping dead
from the working heart rate. That lets me compare times better than
"walking the horse down" like you would do in an endurance ride. If I find
that the recovery time today is double or more longer that it has been in
the past, I have probably gotten into the anaerobic level and I have worked
him to hard for endurance training.  (I would love someone to teach me the
benefits, if any, of anaerobic exercise for an endurance horse.) And yes,
you are correct; as his condition improves he will be able to go longer and
harder before you see the anaerobic effects of doubling the recovery times.
For my horse, sustained rates of 165-170 will lengthen his recovery times
from 2-3 minutes to 6-7 minutes when he is otherwise in good condition. 

>Lastly what is the best way to attach the electrodes and where
>should they be placed?. As I said we cant get HRMs here so this is all new

Everything I know about the placement of the electrodes, I learned from
Roger Rittenhouse who sells HRM's and could probably ship one to you
anywhere in the world. He has some good material about training too. You
can reach him at: Roger Rittenhouse <>  He is also a
regular contributor to ridecamp.

I follow Roger's directions to put one electrode just below the withers
high on the horse's side so that it is right under the bar of the saddle.
This keeps the electrode from moving around. (When the electrode slides
around on the horses hair, it can pick up false signals that give false
readings.) The other electrode goes on the girth on the opposite side of
the horse down low on his side (about as high as the horse's "elbow"). I
have found on every horse that I have put a monitor on, near the elbow as
you feel down the side of the horse where the girth goes, there are two
slightly "depressed" spots separated by a slightly "raised" spot on the
side of the horse. I don't know what causes the raised part or if it has a
name. But I have had the most success getting good readings if I place the
electrode so that when the cinch is tight, the electrode sits right on top
of this "slightly raised" place on the side of the horse. 

I also learned one other thing about monitors. I had a training course I
used regularly. I would do my ride and come back to where I parked my
trailer to do my recovery. My monitor worked great all during the ride, but
just when I got ready to do my recovery it would do crazy things. Either
not read or tell me the HR was 240 when my horse was standing. It took me a
while to figure out that I always parked my trailer under some high tension
electrical power lines that went beside the road. The power line messed up
my monitor every time. If I went a little ways away from them, it worked
fine. So, watch out for power lines if they have them where you are riding!

If you have gotten to the end of this long, wordy story you have a lot of
patience and now know more than me! (Everything you knew before plus
everything I think I know.) I don't know if it has been worth your time to
read, but I had fun telling my story.

Good luck to you and your horse.

Byron Harward and Tzadik.

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