Kirsten's Blog Post # 6

How to Condition a Beast Eventer

Conditioning you say?

So you want to get your beast eventer as fit as possible!  You want your draft cross (or other non tb horse) to be fighting fit out there on xc galloping right along with those nimble thoroughbreds!  Said thoroughbreds get fit walking to turnout everyday where as you have been consistently riding your beast for MONTHS and find you are still running out of steam on xc...  What are you to do?!  How do you condition a draft horse? 

Take a nap in the sun, that is what you do!

I warn you getting a heavy horse fit is a HUGE time commitment.  Get ready to not skip rides because friends want to go froyo, because the weather is bad, because you are tired, are because you are stressed and busy.  Get ready to be tacked up and ON your horse for 5am because the temps are going to get up into the 90's with 85% humidity.  Get ready to discover what blisters, rubs, and saddle sores are.  Get ready to learn just how far you are going to need to push not only your horse but yourself.

I don't do mornings....

Sets in the POURING rain

Last summer I broke up Ariat's fitness into two parts, I will tell you what I did and will also tell you what I would do differently if I could do it all again, and how I will condition Ariat in the future.  This may get a little confusing, I will try to explain it as best I can.  I strongly suggest printing out a month calender and in PENCIL sketching out your plans.  As always with horses, Plan A-F generally don't pan out, keep adjusting and working, do NOT skip conditioning rides.  The best advice I received on getting Ariat fit for the 3day was from Denny Emerson who told me it was indeed possible as long as I did not "short change" my horse.  Be committed, because if you are not, it is simply not a fair question to ask your horse to perform. 

I made this in like June... It got changed several times so the numbers are not right, but you get the idea!

Part I --> Was Dubbed "Before Fitch's" and was the conditioning schedule I did leading upto the Area I Champs (we completed at Novice)

We came out of the indoor in April and I started to slowly increase her riding time.  I am a firm believer in breaking the 60 minute rule.  You cannot get a horse like Ariat fit in 60 minutes, hell she takes 45 just to warm up!  So we came out of the indoor and I at first just did slow and steady:

3 minute trot sets (with 2 minute walk breaks) * 3
1 minute canter sets (with 2 minute walk breaks) * 3. 

Now you may be saying, ".......... 1 minute canter sets Kirsten?!" This, for Ariat, was a lot at the time!  It's impossible to get her wind fit at the canter in an indoor.  Something else to remember is that when you come out of an indoor your horses have been on nothing but (hopefully) perfect footing all winter.  This is NOT what they will encounter out on xc therefore I spent a lot of time hacking across different terrain and I am also a big fan of walking on pavement to start building up their feet (barefoot ponies out there) and their bone density again. 

My general schedule right out of an indoor is riding 6 days a week, conditioning sets once a week, jumping once a week, and a mixture of hacking and dressage.

Throughout the month of April and into May I built her up to three 3-minute trot sets and three 2-minute canter sets and then began a very regimented schedule that would be the backbone of our work for the rest of the summer

It is an 8 day rotation of work.  Note that she hardly ever worked a full week without getting a day off, for my schedule it was just easier for me to have something planned for everyday that way if something came up and I had to miss a ride (dressage schools ONLY), it wasn't the end of the world.

Day 1 --> Conditioning Sets
Day 2 --> Dressage
Day 3 --> Jump School
Day 4 --> Dressage
Day 5 --> Conditioning Sets
Day 6 --> Dressage
Day 7 --> Dressage
Day 8 --> Hack

Jumping days were usually my lesson days and if I did not have a lesson I would do jumping-like exercises like cantering over ground poles and small grids to help us build strength.  I am a big fan of building my horses strength on the flat, the mare knows how to jump, she knows her job, the goal is to get her fitter and stronger so she can do her job to the best of her ability.  My jumping position leaves much to be desired, but a lot of that is also a strength issue, so just cantering over ground poles in my short stirrups was a great exercise for me as a rider.

Conditioning sets slowly increased over time (Fitch's is in mid July).  I usually did 2 set days at one time frame and then increase them on the next one.

For example:

Starting Set Numbers (Done for 2 conditioning sessions)
3 minute trot set (w/ 2 minute walk breaks) * 3
1 minute canter set (w/ 2 minute walk breaks) * 3

Next Move-Up (Done for 2 conditioning sessions)
4 minute trot set (w/ 2 minute walk breaks) * 3
1.5 minute canter set (w/ 2 minute walk breaks) * 3

Next Move-Up (Done for 2 conditioning sessions)
4.5 minute trot set (w/ 2 minute walk breaks) * 3
2 minute canter set (w/ 2 minute walk breaks) * 3

... and so on.  With the trot work at first I increased it by single minutes and increased canter work by 30 seconds.  This is horse dependent, just go slow and steady.  Later in the season I was able to move her up in 3 minute intervals at the trot and still just 30 second intervals in the canter. 

**WARNING** While horses do not need to be in a dressage frame for conditioning sets they should be put together and in good balance!  Letting them barrel along on their face or completely inverted is not good!

So this continued until we arrived at the magic number

5 minute trot set (w/ 2 minute walk breaks) * 3
3 minute canter sets (w/ 2 minute walks breaks) * 3

And this is what we did until Fitch's came around.... and while she was pretty dang fit, for her, it was HOT and HUMID, and we almost retired on xc.  She came off xc in rough shape and it took lots of ice and walking to get her temp and respiration back down to normal.  I ran into the one and only Boyd Martin about 30 minutes into my cool down with Ariat and she (... and me....) were still a hot mess and his horse was prancing as if he just arrived at the show.

One tired hot beasty after sets in August

Part 2 --> 3-Day Fitness

After a few days of just hacking (I rarely give Ariat a day off-off after competitions as her muscles knot up) I began to devise how I was going to take this horse from "horse trials fit" to "3day long format fit".  After talking with a few well respected trainers in my area I reflected on my beasty and come up with this:

Day 1 --> Conditioning Sets  (Hack)
Day 2 --> Dressage
Day 3 --> Jump School  (Hack)
Day 4 --> Dressage
Day 5 --> Conditioning Sets  (Hack)
Day 6 --> Dressage
Day 7 --> Long Set
Day 8 --> Hack

As you can see above Day 7 is the only day that changed.  What this basically has done is allowed for a "hard" (not dissing dressage I PROMISE) every other day.  What this allowed me to do is really evaluate her on the flat the day after a "hard" ride.  See how tight she was feeling, how much walking she needed that particular day to loosen up, gauge how much energy I had left after a hard jump school (Her grain and caloric demands went through the roof during this time).

The end goal was this:
On Conditioning Set Days: 15 Minute Trot Sets (w/ 2 minute walk breaks) * 2 and 5 minute Canter Sets (w/ 2 minute walk breaks) * 3
On Long Set Days: 25 minute log trot sets (w/ 5 minute walk break) * 2

Of course you don't just DO this... well some do... DON'T BE THAT PERSON!

I did the same as I did in "Part-1" and slowly increased her times, for the shorter trot sets I started to be able to increase her by 2-3 minutes every 2 rides, if she felt particularly tired after an increase or if the weather got incredibly humid, I brought her back down.  There is a lot of trial and error with numbers, pay attention to your horse, and try and figure out the difference between them being tried from a good hard ride or them being tired because you demanded too much.  I kept here at 3 sets for the trot work until I got up to 3 8-minute sets ( technically 24 minutes of trotting) and then switched her over to 2 10-minutes and then started building her (a bit slower because the time frame was longer) in the 2 set format.

Trotting in off of Phase A

Here is my rational for doing this: Phase A of the 3day is a long trot set, Phase B: is a sprint, Phase C: is a trot set, and Phase D: is your xc (or canter set).  So in my mind if she could do 2 15-minute trot sets (Phases A & C) and then go out and do 3 5-minute canter sets that *should* cover her fitness for the shorter Phase B and then also leave enough for Phase D.

You will notice that 3 days a week I have " (Hack) " after the normal daily work.  These are the infamous "2adays" work days.  Building Ariat's fitness was a slow process and she literally needed legit hours and miles to get her fighting fit!  I would have LOVED to walk up and down hills with her, unfortunately that was not possible for us where we were living and training.  So instead I took her out on powerline trails or over to a local trail system and just walked for about 60-90 minutes.  If she was behaving her beastly self (about 70% of the time) she could be on the buckle as long as she was walking forward with purpose.  This allowed for her muscles to get stretched out, to help her feet build up, and to help her stamina build with low impact on her drafty joints.  I can NOT stress how much simply WALKING your horse will help.  Ariat also seemed to really enjoy getting out and about and not just drilling the work, but exploring and adventuring.

Powerlines hacking!

Now, because my horse is huge and because we were increasing these numbers throughout July and August the hottest most humid months of the year this required some tack.  First I purchased an equine HR monitor to keep track of Ariat's vitals.  I did HR, Temp, and Resp after trot and canter sets and logged them.  This allowed me to keep track of her HR on those redic hot days.  Second, I figured out how much more efficient cooling her down with ICE water.  I know, I know, "DUH KIRSTEN, DUH!", but for real!  I would empty my freezer ice bin into a bucket, fill with a bit of water (the ice will melt more as you do your sets) and set that out on a jump standard in the ring I did my sets through.  That way during our walk breaks I could sponge her off a bit and believe it or not, it REALLY helped her core temp.  Then when I got done with sets I would hop off, sponge and scrape for a few minutes, and then pop back on and cool her out under tack.  Because I lived at the barn I could keep copious amounts of ice in my freezer and once I un-tacked her I would go get another load of ice and ice her down in the wash stall and it legitimately cut her cool out time in half.  Lastly, use your brain.  As I mentioned above there were more than a few times I was ON my horse at 5am when the temps were already in the 80s and sticky, but that beats the 99 with 90% humidity of the afternoon.  I also did sets in the dark a few times in the outdoor.  Sets in a ring is just a special kind of punishment, but you do what you have to do!  Remember you can NOT short change a heavier horse.

Sets by head lamp happened 4 times, she is a SAINT

Now if you have been following my blog for a while you will know that Ariat was not accepted through the second jog at the Waredaca 3-day.  She was SO SO muscle sore, I had lightly hacked and stretched her out the morning of the jog and knew she was ouchy, I was not sure I was going to jump her even if we were accepted through the jog.  I decided to present her as it is part of the whole experience, and we were spun.  I will write a separate blog about how I say Ariat is "EPSM-ish", but I believe she had some sever muscle cramping from a number of reasons.  We had a xc fall about a month out from the 3day that resulted in her being a bit back sore and that in essence put a stop to our conditioning work.  I was able to keep her at status-quo, but unfortunately, because she is who she is, she loses respiratory and stamina fitness VERY fast and this took its toll.

Photo by GRC Photo, used with permission
Who would have thunk my beasty could do steeplechase?!

That being said, our last event before the 3day was FABULOUS.  Well, I messed up Stadium... but Ariat managed to keep everything up despite me burying her to EVERYTHING.  And that xc trip is the best I have felt.  Which is funny, because she struggled with the 2 wider jumps on course, my mare has draft-horse power in her bum which allows her to get in deep and get over things, but this does not allow for a lot of scope, so when we get deep to wider fences, she ends up hitting with her back feet.  Just another reason she is now retired from Novice.  But we galloped through the finish flags and she was looking for the next fence and I felt like I could go ride it all again.  That had never happened before!

"I did good right?!  Food now?!"

Something else I recently noticed is that in on xc in May we got 18 and change time faults on a course with similar terrain and speeds at the 3day where we got 19 and change time faults... So similar time faults on xc, only at the 3day this was AFTER Phases A-C.  The mare was fit fit fit and she was strong and just powerful.  Had we not had a bit of a string of bad luck and had I made better management call at the 3day (kept her moving throughout the night instead of leaving her in temp stabling after endurance day) I do believe we would have completed.  At the same time I am so damn proud of that mare, she is a true Beast.

Vet Box - Jumped Clean... slow, but clean

So moving forward, if/when Ariat is back under saddle (Broke herself this February) and *fingers crossed* will be able to return to Elementary/BN eventing I will condition her more like the "Phase 2".  Our sets will not be as long or as intense, but she will be hacked and built up slowly and longer trot sets will be incorporated.  And if by some miracle we get back into an actual competition rhythm, I will return to the 8day rotating conditioning schedule for her.  It work so SO well and while everything will not be quite as intense, that regimented schedule really helped her flourish.

Make it fun!  Sets on the Beach!

Conditioning Randoms:

*  Conditioning Sets are just as important for the rider as it is for the horse!  When I started I could barely hold my 2-pt for 1 lap around the ring.  By the end I could hold it for about 5 minutes straight, then go back to posting for a minute or so and stretch back out, and then right back up.  While this was still painful for me, it was POSSIBLE.  Also, in one of my first jumping lessons of the summer my trainer kind of stopped talking, tilted her head to the side, and was like, "whats that? (pointing at my lower leg) What's going on there?"  I had NO idea, but my right leg was just swinging in the breeze in rhythm to A's canter stride.  As I did my trot sets I remained focused on this issue and was rewarded with a "look how much steadier your lower leg is!" comment while xc schooling in August!

Even though this was from a dressage school, I've never seen my lower leg that secure and that on

* FLAIR nasal strips are A-MAZING.  I know it may seem a bit ridiculous to use one at "just" novice, but whatever, they help Ariat out there galloping on xc and I even put them on her for our sets if the weather was particularly horrid.

Photo by GRC Photo, used with permission
Ariat rocking her FLAIR Nasal Strips

* I added beet pulp into Ariat's diet twice a day in order to not only add more calories and bulk into her diet, but also to add a bit of extra water.  I'm lucky in the fact she will eat it VERY sloppy, so I basically filled the bucket with water and she would drink the water down and then eat the beet pulp.

Beet Pulp Kisses!

* Ariat is always a pretty game horse, very forward thinking for a draft, but she does struggle with her stamina (hence all this talk about conditioning).  I DID add the supplement Red Cell into her diet in July and found that, for Ariat, it did not make her hot, but we did have more energy 45 minutes into our rides and we started coming off xc in better shape.

*  Ariat is barefoot and I took a lot of time in the spring building up her hoof condition with hacking on roads, gravel, etc.  I called my farrier in about May and "complained" about her being a bit foot sore and he reminded me that the feet need to build up just like any part of her body!  She only got foot sore after galloping on hard packed paths at horse shows, you know, those paths through the woods that are just really rock hard.  I got into the habit of just packing her feet with a hoof pack after we did work on those types of surfaces and I never had a problem again!

*  As Ariat got fitter she began to get a wee bit naughty/cheeky, if I hopping on for a bareback halter hack, which previous would not be an issue, if I were not paying attention I would find my bum on the ground.  She was just a bit more alert about life and far far too fit for me to not be actually riding.

Bareback halter hacks are okay in the winter when she is fat and lazy

Sets on a local Trail System, almost too fit for me to even take this picture!

* 5 Minute canter sets were hard for Ariat, even at the end, What was especially hard is she got SO downhill and on her face, pulling with her shoulders.  So about every minute or so I would sit down, half-halt, bring her back as if we had a jump in front of us and if she were really trucking even make a transition down to trot or walk and then bump her back up.

* Try and keep it fun!  We also did a 10mile competitive trail ride where my drafty herself placed second in our division with a score of I *think* 97.5?  (100 is PERFECT and we got a few points off for respiratory), everyone was very impressed with her condition and we trotted the entire time, only walking when the trail called for it and she felt fresh until about the 8th mile, then she felt a little tired, but had no problem finishing it out.

A new discipline that we both enjoy!

More hacking!  This time we practiced our Trail Class skills!

I really hope this does not discourage anyone, but possibly invigorates them?  Sets are not fun, I often felt very broken and sore as just the rider the next day, I don't think I have ever crawled into bed with more "stuff" than the nights after I did sets: Heating pad for my back and ice on my knee, ankle, and shoulder.  But it is so important you pay attention to your horses needs.  If you want to compete at Novice, which I consider big for my particular horse, you need to take it seriously and put in the time.

One last HUGE note: Your horses fitness is not the only thing that is important here.  Rider fitness is KEY!  On top of doing all of this I was working in the barn and also hitting the gym 5-6 days a week.  I will at some point write a blog about being a bigger rider, but for now, take your own fitness as seriously as you are taking your horses!  I'm not talking about being skinny or light, I'm talking about being STRONG.  Being strong enough to stay off your horses back for your ENTIRE xc trip, being strong enough to stay up and out of their way when you hit a funky distance or when your horse trips, being strong enough to be able to take care of your horse properly after they have run their heart out for you.  I was NOT strong or fit enough when we ran Groton House last June and it really kicked my ass into gear and I made serious changes and it made all the difference!

So go out there, ride hard, and have fun!

Heading up to xc warmup at Fitch's Champs
What I was saying, "Eventing is Fun!!"
What I was thinking, "Don't Puke... Don't Puke... Don't Puke"

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