Is your eventer fit enough?
The answer to that question, at least according to the research, is probably no.
A study published in 2014 looked at horses and ponies selected for the 2010 European Eventing Championships. 4 months before the championships they underwent fitness testing and were classified as either ‘good performers’ or ‘average performers’. Just 6 weeks before they were due to compete 45% of those horses had to be withdrawn due to a locomotor injury and interestingly, the horses classified as average performers were more likely to be injured than those classified as good performers. The researchers concluded that the good performers at the start of the season (i.e. those who scored better on the fitness tests) were less likely than the average performers to become injured as the season progressed. Now I’m guessing most people reading this won’t be aiming for the next European Championships (apologies to any that are) but the moral of the story still applies - have your eventer fit for the beginning of the season and you reduce the likelihood of getting sidelined by injury later on.
But what about the ‘fit enough’ part of the question? At this point we need to understand how hard a horse is working when going cross country. A useful measure of workload is heart rate. As a rough guide the heart rates, measured in beats per minute or bpm, for each pace are as follows:
Trot and slow canter between 70 and 140bpm
Fast canter between 140 and 190bpm
Gallop upwards of 200bpm
Studies demonstrate that the heart rates of eventers going cross country can fluctuate between 140 and 200bpm irrespective of the level of the class they’re competing in. Meaning that a horse competing at the lower levels can have heart rates as high as horses competing at advanced level. That’s because many factors, besides fence height, influence how hard a horse is working including the ground conditions and terrain. Your horse needs to be fit enough to cope with hills, turns, water and deep going as well as galloping, jumping and accelerating away from fences. Other research suggests that exercise intensity is generally much lower during normal day to day training sessions than during competition. In other words, most event horses are not being trained at the intensity required for competition.
So how do we train in a more sport specific way?
All horses benefit from a base level of fitness regardless of their discipline. In the early stages of getting your eventer fit walk and trot produce a noticeable increase in fitness. Beyond 6-8 weeks of training, trot has very little impact on fitness although it’s still essential for warming up and cooling down. In practice this means that after completing 6-8 weeks of basic fitness work (building up to 45-60 minutes of walk, trot and slow canter 3-4 times per week) you need to reduce the amount of time you spend in trot and gradually introduce faster canter work. You may be surprised to learn that by this stage only 2-3 days per week of fitness training is required. Less really is more as long as you’re training at the right intensity. To achieve that, start increasing the amount of time spent at heart rates around 160-180bpm by doing regular fast canter / gallop or hillwork sessions. In this way the majority of horses can be brought to competition fitness within 10-12 weeks. It’s worth noting that the recovery period from this type of intensive exercise is 24-48 hours, so aim to leave a couple of days between each fast canter, gallop or hillwork session. For the same reason, you may want to reconsider giving your horse a ‘pipe opener’ the day before your next event.
Other important principles to follow when planning your horse’s work include:
Gradual, incremental increases in workload over time
Variation in the type of work, particularly on a day to day basis
Individual, horse specific training based on age, experience, previous training, past injuries and any time off
If you’re not yet convinced let me leave you with one final thought. Kentucky Equine Research looked at how fitness influenced performance in 3-day event horses and found that the fittest horses had better dressage scores. Maybe read that again. By getting your event horse fitter not only do you give yourself the best chance of a good cross country round, you also reduce the likelihood of a locomotor injury and could improve your dressage score. What’s not to like!
If you’re interested in learning more about the science of fitness training I recommend reading Equine Exercise Physiology by David Marlin or visiting his website davidmarlin.co.uk. Alternatively Getting Horses Fit by Sarah Pilliner is a good balance of science and practice.