This time of year can make for some miserable riding. Whether it is freezing cold or pouring rain it can seem that there isn’t much opportunity to do much more than walking and trotting, often around an indoor arena. It can be hard to imagine you will ever be ready for that first competition of the season. However these often tedious rides may in fact be some of the most important work you do in the run up to the new competition season.
This work creates the base of your horse’s fitness. When you consider your conditioning program imagine it as a triangle. A triangle with a wide base is more stable than one with a narrow base. You do not want your triangle to be taller than the base is wide. Long slow work creates that base. It is the foundation on to which you build endurance and speed work.
The triangles below are a visual example of how a horse’s fitness should be developed (Figures 1, 2). The base of the triangle is long, slow distance work (Figure 1: phase 1), the center is endurance work (Figure 1: phase 2), and the top of the triangle is fast work (Figure 1: phase 3).
So what exactly is going on during this long slow work period? Walking and trotting are generally low in intensity and aerobic in nature. They help strengthen soft tissues and build up bone density. While cardiovascular fitness can be built up relatively quickly the conditioning of the muscular skeletal system takes far longer. Rushing over this period of the conditioning program could very well come back to haunt you later in the season in the form of a soft tissue or bone injury.
Working aerobically means that enough oxygen is supplied to the muscle to enable the use of that oxygen to produce energy (ATP) for work. Both fat and carbohydrate can be used as fuels when working aerobically. Initially carbohydrates are used as they are readily available circulating in blood as well as stored in muscles tissue and quickly result in ATP production. However if fat is utilized as an energy source a far greater yield of ATP is possible, it just doesn’t happen very quickly. A key component of the early stages of a conditioning schedule is to teach the horse’s body to utilize fat as an energy source thus saving stores of carbohydrate for when they are really needed during anaerobic exercise.
Fit horses are less likely to fatigue when they are working aerobically than they are when working anaerobically. A horse working aerobically has plenty of fuel available in fat stores, whereas glycogen stores can run out which can expedite fatigue. A major goal of conditioning is to train a horse to remain working aerobically as long as possible. If you can train your horse to spend more time working aerobically and utilizing fat as an energy source he will have more carbohydrate available for when it is really needed.
The base of your conditioning triangle should consist of low-speed work such as walk/trot for extended periods of time. Horses new to conditioning may need 3-12 months of this type of work, whereas previously trained horses may only require 1 month. The amount of long slow work required by your horse is determined by the “height” of the triangle, i.e. how much speed work or anaerobic work your horse will have to do. A typical amount of long slow work can be up to 1-1.5 hours, but few horses require more than 2 hours per day of this type of work.
During early training, long slow work may be the daily routine to build up this type of fitness. Later in training, this type of work may be decreased to 3 days per week to allow for other types of conditioning (i.e. endurance work and speed work), and eventually may be used only for behavior and mindset instead of adding any fitness.
So embrace the winter weather and all that walking and trotting because it could be the key to a successful summer season.