Maggie Pattinson of On the Hoof Distance Training and chef d’equipe of the English team, ran a small fitness training clinic at Milton Keynes Equestrian Centre in August which we were lucky enough to attend.
Maggie started the training by explaining about aerobic and anaerobic exercise, aerobic meaning that the blood is fully oxygenated and so the heart and other systems can work efficiently. Aerobic meaning that the level of work has increased to a point at which a lack of oxygen means that performance will diminish. Flat work race horses will often do the entire race in the anaerobic zone, however this means that after a certain distance performance will drop off very rapidly. So for consistent and sustainable performance such as an endurance ride you need to ensure that the horse is working in the aerobic zone. However to increase the aerobic threshold you do have to occasionally push into the anaerobic zone.
Regarding initial fittening of the horse or pony Maggie believes there is no short cut to the general graft or 4 to 6 weeks of walk work early in the year. However she did say that you should not underestimate the benefits of hacking out, so any mums who go out with their friend should not feel guilty about having a chin wag, as you are actually helping to build a good level of base fitness! Conversely whilst very good fun, blasting around the countryside flat out does very little to generate long term fitness.
Maggie had brought several heart rate monitors that could be fixed to the horses saddles so as to monitor the level of exertion on the horses system at certain paces. This was carried out at various combinations of pace depending on the individual horses. Each horse did a warm up lap starting with a walk section and following with trot for the remainder of the circuit, at the end of the circuit the recovery time to a level of 60bpm was taken. This provided a base line, and also gave a rough indication of each horses fitness. Then a series of circuits at different paces were done each with a target BPM rate in mind. The riders were asked to assess which pace to adopt to get the required BPM.
The readings from the heart rate monitors were occasionally quite surprising, for instance whilst a resting pulse rate when untacked could be in the late 30’s or low 40’s even a gentle walk could raise it up by 10bpm, if the horse was a bit spooky or made to go away from their stable mates then it could go up to 80bpm even when still walking.
At higher paces different horses could behave quite differently to what you would expect. For instance Shine who has wonderful extension and can trot for England actually had a much lower heart rate at canter. Conversely Archie had a lower pulse rate at trot, but was not significantly slower in that pace. Another thing that was rather counter intuitive was that in some cases the recovery time back to 60 bpm actually got better the more work they did, an example of this was Shaz who would definitely benefit from a significant level of warm up in advance of the event proper.
It was also obvious the effect that fighting with an onward bound horse can have in increasing the pulse rate, when allowed to have its head the pulse came down and very quickly the pulling match stopped.
One other thing that was quite surprising is how high the pulse rate could get under exertion. A horse with a resting rate of 40 could easily get up to 180 on an extended canter.
One thing that was common across all of the ponies however was that a consistent pace gave a lower overall pulse rate and better recovery. During a circuit where the ponies changed up and down pace frequently the pulse was higher and the recovery time longer than when a consistent pace was done even when the consistent lap was quite fast.
What was good is that each of the riders went away with a couple of personalised tips on how their own pony behaves under work, and a good indication of what would work for them. Also, encouragingly for those riders with older horses, we learned that if the horse has been kept in work for most of its life then it has a good heartrate.