In human endurance sports, winning performance is a result of both technique and fitness: in that order. Technique accounts for up to 60-70% of endurance performance, more so in swimming and cycling, less so in running, while fitness accounts for 30-40% of endurance performance, less so in swimming and cycling, more so in running. The importance of technique is most clearly demonstrated by studies on the very successful African marathoners who score around average, when compared to other elite marathoners, on all commonly measured fitness parameters (VO2max, lactate threshold, height to weight ratios, muscle fiber types and proportions, etc) - their exceptional speed comes from exceptional technique.
By contrast, successful performance in endurance horses is due primarily to fitness, for two reasons:
1. Endurance horses are nowhere near as fit as endurance humans. Winning horses are generally performing at around 30% VO2 max (compared to winning humans performing at around 70% VO2 max), so even small increases in fitness can create a major performance advantage; and
2. Practically no endurance riders work to improve their horse's technique.
And there is a third reason: aesthetics. As endurance riders, our concept of what constitutes a good moving horse is still largely derived from other equestrian disciplines. Aesthetics drawn from dressage, eventing and showjumping - where good technique involves increased articulation of the joints, a relatively slow tempo, and an emphasis on increased weight carrying by the hindquarters - are particularly pervasive. Movement like is this is entirely appropriate for these sports but incredibly inefficient in getting your horse down the trail over long distances: Our endurance horses should not move like dressage horses! That is not to say your endurance horse should not do regular arena work - he should. Dressage is unparalleled in creating strength, flexibility and balance in your horse. If your horse is conditioned enough to be run a competitive 100 mile endurance ride he should also be comfortably performing arena-work gymnastics (trot shoulder-in, trot and canter half-pass, flying change) with correct longitudinal flexion and some degree of collection, to build strength and suppleness. But he shouldn’t move down the trail like that.
So what is efficient movement like? In human endurance athletes efficiency is characterised by:
1. A relatively short stride;
2. A relatively fast tempo;
3. Minimal vertical displacement (movement is channelled forward, not up and down);
4. Reduced or no braking effect on foot strike; and
5. Utilisation of gravity rather than muscular effort where possible.
The same characteristics apply to efficient movement in horses - it is the type of movement horses evolved to make prior to selective breeding (think hackneys, warmbloods), long hoof capsules and fancy shoeing. In fact, we have a very good model of effecient equine movement in our wild/feral horses.
Watching the desert brumbies in this promotional video from the Australian Brumby Research Unit you can see horses demonstrating unparalleled efficiency of movement. These brumbies serve as a much better model for distance covering technique than do our traditional ideas of good moving horses.
But brumbies are not domestic horses - are they really an applicable model?
Here is The Fury working out for his Haggin Cup award at Tevis 2010. The Fury shows habitual economy of movement, even when razzed up by his handler and encouraged by a vocal crowd. I did a bodywork session on The Fury a few hours prior to this workout and his muscular condition was outstanding. He finished Tevis more muscularly able than most horses start it and could easily have gone out, run and won a 50 miler that morning. Efficient movement is easy on the body.
In this spirit of efficiency I want to introduce two skill-drills that will improve your horse's technique: the school trot and trotting downhill. Skill training involves feelings, movements and habits that may feel unusual or awkward at first, for both you and your horse. Initially, approach these skill-drills in short intervals. As technique improves, gradually increase their duration and difficulty. Once consolidated, you can incorporate your horse's improved technique in general conditioning rides as both of these skill-drills lead to an extremely efficient way to go down the trail. Indeed, the technique developed in these skill drills should eventually become habitual ways for your horse to move and you wont need to give them a second thought.
The School Trot
The school trot (for want of a better name) was introduced to me by Manuela McLean of the Australian Equine Behaviour Center. The AEBC is a successful training establishment in Australia that promulgates classical, ethical and evidence-based horse training. The AEBC have a well developed, systematic and increasingly sophisticated approach to training, oriented more toward traditional FEI disciplines and racehorses, based on correct response to the rider's aids. We cant go into all that here - do take time to look at their articles, books or DVDs.
The school trot consolidates a correct response to the rein aid. In my experience, having ridden many, many endurance horses, practically none understand the rein aid - many barely slow at all, and many more just pull harder. And almost every horse goes faster when the rein is softened.
Ask for the school trot while riding a normal trot with soft rein contact then increase your rein aid sufficiently to have your horse slow his pace. When he slows, immediately return to the soft rein contact. He should continue at that slowed pace and not speed up as you soften the rein. After a period of time in the slow trot ask him to move forward from your leg aid to a normal trot. Then repeat the rein aid for the school trot again. Then use the leg aid for a more normal trot. Etc. This is a basic stop and go exercise. Once consolidated it can have a dramatic and positive effect on those horses that pull or are otherwise difficult to the bridle when out on the trail.
The happy by-product of the school trot as a stop and go exercise is your horse quickly assumes a soft, longitudinally stretched frame, with a forward reaching poll and gently raised back. The movement is flat with little or no suspension and the joints maintain a very slightly flexed position through the entire stride sequence which minimises vertical (up/down) movement of his body as he travels forward. The lack of impulsion enables him to role through the stance phase of the stride quickly and easily with very little braking action. As these attributes becomes habitual in the slow trot your horse will be able to carry them forward in a stronger trot.
Here is a short video, in normal speed and slow motion, demonstrating the school trot. The exercise is still new to this horse, an off the track Arabian who shows some of the contact issues common to ex-gallopers. He also lacks the relaxation and balance to slow the trot significantly, but does so enough I think to demonstrate the concept. The school trot is primarily a neuromuscular skill - once the neural wiring is established and your horse can maintain good balance in the absence of momentum, the trot can become very slow and sustained for very long periods of time.
Practice the slow trot exercise a few times a week, starting with five to ten minutes and building to fifteen, even twenty, minutes. Initially, the majority of the work will be in a normal tempo with just a few strides, maybe half a circle, of school trot. Gradually increase the amount of time spent in the school trot and further decrease the energy until you can maintain a REALLY SLOW trot for several circles with no loss of balance, no change in stride length or tempo, and a consistent but slight flexion through all the leg joints. Once established, try building the qualities of the slow trot (relaxed, longitudinal flexion, minimal suspension) into the normal trot. Spend a few weeks working on this and then start incorporating periods of school trot while out on the trail during conditioning rides. Continue to focus on correct response to the stop and go aids and allow the relaxed back to be raised and a forward stretching neck (NEVER mechanically pull your horse's nose in with a rein aid to put him 'on the bit'), remembering that elevation and suspension (up and down movement) is wasted energy and does nothing to move your horse along the trail.
In this photo, a less complicated horse is learning the school trot. Particularly note the relaxation through the body. Tension and activity is reduced so only those muscles that are absolutely required are used: all others are fuly relaxed making this horse appear draped from the rider's seat.
Trotting downhill requires all the attributes of efficient technique we have been discussing. Developing the downhill trot in a skill-drill will further consolidate those attributes of movement common to overall efficiency. And because the ability to trot downhill provides you with a minimal-energy, gravity-assisted method to cover more distance in less time, once good technique is developed, you can include trotting downhill in your conditioning and competition strategy with obvious benefits.
But first a couple of caveats:
1. Before beginning our trotting downhill skill-drill, ensure the school trot is well and truly consolidated and your horse has sufficient coordination and balance to move at a slow tempo with minimal suspension - what goes up must come down and, thanks to gravity, it comes down harder when moving downhill. A relaxed, slightly raised back is also needed as the lumbar region experiences increased flexion (lumbar tuck); and
2. This skill-drill is not appropriate for shod horses. Trotting downhill, requires a healthy foot with intact energy dissipation structures (refer to Is Concussion Really A Problem for details) and good health of the muscles and tendons involved in elastic recoil (where muscles and tendons store energy from impact and transfer it into propulsion - a system that does not fatigue and can perform indefinitely). A peripherally loaded hoof cannot dissipate energy correctly and trotting downhill, where mass is accentuated by gravity, further predisposes stressed tissues with increased risk of concussive injuries like ringbone, sidebone and road-founder. The digital descent of the coffin bone and poor anterior/posterior balance of shod horses also means they are rarely are able to benefit from elastic recoil as a propulsive force, leading to increased muscular stress.
The videos above should help convey the concept and the 'feel' of travelling downhill. On the left we see poor technique: a lot of muscular effort, a longer, slower stride, feet landing well in front of the center of balance with significant braking action on foot strike and concurrent shock and braking action. On the right we see good technique: lightness of foot, smaller faster strides, the body balanced over the foot on foot strike with minimal braking and shock. Watching these videos, imagine what this might feel like in your own body. Or, better still, go out and try it for yourself (but begin on a gentle, smooth, grassy slope until you get proficient!).
Start practicing your horse's school-trot on downhills. Begin on a gentle grade, with good footing, and for a short distances, concentrating on all the attributes you developed in the school trot. Focus on correct technique! As your horse becomes proficient, practice on steeper grades, more complex footing and/or longer distances. Once your horse gets the technique he will feel like he can trot like this forever. Eventually you will be able to build up to a faster trot while moving downhill and, with his correct form, gravity provides your horse with additional propulsion instead of additional impact stress. However, whenever the grade is steep or the footing suspect, stick to the slower tempo you developed in the school trot. Of course, with some minor changes in emphasis, everything that applies to the trot, also applies to the canter, but that is a whole other blog...
Here is the horse we saw in the school trot video above, using the attributes of the school trot to practice the trotting downhill skill-drill. Notice that the horse remains on a light contact without speeding up. He remains relaxed and attentive with good balance. His lightly flexed joints and short strides allow him to descend with minimal impact and concussive strain. Even when he takes a misstep onto a rock, his good balance and relaxed, slightly raised back allow him to continue down the hill without making a large corrective move. Horses that lack correctly trained rein aids and are up on the bridle lack this balance and are prone to tripping on rocks and slipping in muddy conditions, even when on the flat.
With a little practice these two simple skill-drills can have a tremendous impact on your horse's ability to perform efficiently, not only in the arena or on those downhills but by improving his technique to minimise energy expenditure while over the entire trail. Happy riding!