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Endurance: extremely important and easy to train

Schwarzer Isländer im Galopp mit grüner Satteldecke
  1. Definition. What is meant by endurance?

  2. Importance. Why is endurance important?

  3. Physiology. What processes take place in the horse?

  4. Energy metabolism. How does it work?

  5. Training. How do I increase and secure performance

  6. Heat regulation. What is the limit?

1. Definition. What is meant by endurance?

Taken literally, condition (endurance) simply means "state", which is why we correctly speak of good or bad condition. Usually, however, we imagine more: "The state of adaptation of the horse and its entire organism to the respective requirements" is one definition. This means that it can perform everything that is required of it. Endurance means fitness and includes the systems of cardiovascular system, metabolism, musculoskeletal system, coordination and psyche.

Fitness is the instantaneous state of endurance, strength and speed. The aim of training is to improve these parameters, in the order mentioned.

2. Importance. Why is endurance important?

You could say that my horse doesn't need to have good endurance to ride out twice a week for an hour. However, endurance/condition is important for health and important for all horses that are supposed to perform at a certain level: It prevents injuries and overstraining. The primary goal of basic endurance is to develop the physiological basis and metabolism in such a way that the horse can withstand stress with a minimised risk of injury.

If we as humans want to put ourselves in the horse's place, let's imagine the following: I have to walk three times across the riding arena with a heavy backpack. No problem with my current fitness. I complete the next three rounds by jogging. That still works, but I have to puff a bit. Unfortunately, my trainer is merciless and demands more: first the Punch and Judy, then waltz steps and another pirouette and generally, please, everything a bit faster. He also wants me not to moan so much and be red in the face. He wants me to look good and be radiant. After three quarters of an hour, I stumble and pull a ligament.

A good endurance brings advantages to the horse. It can not only move from A to B, but has extra energy for other things, like carrying the rider, arching the back, dressage lessons, oval track tests. And it does it with charisma because it comes easily to it. The horse's psyche also benefits, which makes it easier to get along with humans.

A horse that doesn't gasp after three rounds of trotting feels strong and motivated. It asks, "what more can I do for you? ".

Endurance makes a horse brave and self-confident. It can handle tasks easily and not just like that. What is easy is fun. Endurance is the best protection against overstraining. The horse is trained in such a way that it does not have to live from hand to mouth in terms of condition - it should have something to spare. In this way, it has sufficient reserves in case of special stress or illness.

The acquisition of basic endurance is a long-term project. Getting your horse quickly "fit for the show" is neither beneficial to health nor crowned with lasting success.

3. Physiology. What processes take place in the horse?

What does endurance look like? Can you look at a horse calmly to see if it is in endurance? Would it be possible to determine this in a post-mortem examination without prior knowledge of the horse? What happens inside the horse? When we talk about endurance, we usually mean how quickly we get into a snort. Somehow the term is not quite tangible, even though we can feel whether our horse is able to hold out for a long time or whether it stops early.

Endurance is the external expression of concrete physiological states.

All departments of the organism are involved : Cardiovascular respiration, musculature, supporting tissue, bones, hooves, psyche. These different tissues and systems are supplied with blood to different degrees according to the list. The better the blood supply, the faster they react to training stimuli and change. Conversely, the more sluggish they are, the longer they need to be trained.

a) Cardiovascular Respiration

This system includes the heart and arteries, veins and capillaries. They transport oxygen as well as nutrients and waste through the body. They supply the muscles and organs with oxygen and nutrients and flush out waste products from metabolism. The lungs and with them breathing are also a part of this: through the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, the lungs are directly connected to the bloodstream. As the workload increases, these substances have to be transported faster and faster.

What happens when we start to train our horse?

The oxygen supply to the tissue improves because an extensive network of blood vessels and capillaries forms. These structures grow during exercise and thus increase the capacity for transporting oxygen and nutrients into the muscles and removing excess substances and products from the muscles more quickly.

The heart improves its pumping capacity. The heart muscle contracts more strongly and can pump more blood into the tissue with each beat. This lowers the heart rate. In a horse, this is 40 to 200 beats. For humans, this would mean that they are no longer as fast „at one hundred and eighty“.

During exertion, the blood flows are diverted: At rest, about 15% circulate to the muscle, during exertion up to 80%, at rest the brain uses about 10%, during extreme exertion it only gets 2% of the blood. The more intense the training, the more red blood cells circulate in the bloodstream.

The spleen builds up a larger reserve that can be used when needed. The higher haemoglobin level means that more oxygen can be transported to the working muscle. The storage capacity for erythrocytes can therefore be trained.

The horse's performance potential depends on its energy reserves and available oxygen.

Respiration means the intake of air/oxygen. The transfer of oxygen into the bloodstream takes place in the alveoli. Breathing is also the removal of the waste product carbon dioxide from the body. The process also releases fluids and heat into the environment. Breathing therefore also serves to regulate the water and heat balance.

A horse takes between 8 and 120 breaths per minute. At the highest frequency, the number of breaths corresponds to the number of possible canter jumps, and thus has a limiting character. A volume of 50 - 1800 litres per minute is converted.

For such performances, a minimum breathing resistance is necessary: hyperflexion or too much bridling cause flow constrictions. A free flow of air through the airways ensures the unhindered working of the lungs and the supply of oxygen to the muscles.

Unfortunately, the respiratory system can only be trained to a limited extent. The tissue that transports oxygen from the lungs into the blood cannot be increased or improved by training. In reverse, damage is largely permanent. However, the respiratory volume, i.e. the amount of oxygen per breath, can be increased by practising breathing technique and breathing muscles.

And that is why all measures that serve to maintain the functionality of the lungs are important. These include low-dust feed, fresh air as well as exercise in the sense of an adapted load through slowly building up cardiovascular training. Poorly trained horses can bleed in the lungs after maximum exertion. An oxygen debt develops in the muscle. The lack of oxygen makes the blood thicker, the blood pressure rises.

The adaptation of the cardiovascular system is the indispensable basis of basic fitness and endurance training.

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b) Musculature

The musculature has four functional areas: Endurance, Quickness, Coordination, Flexibility. Muscles are naturally well supplied with blood and benefit from a well-developed cardiovascular system. They are permeated by a dense capillary network that ensures blood circulation and supply. Training further improves this network and thus the supply to the muscle. It can absorb and utilise more oxygen in the so-called aerobic metabolism.

Enzyme activities take place in the muscle that serve the biochemical production of energy. These also intensify. The processes of energy storage and energy metabolism are optimised. A by-product of muscle metabolism is heat, the removal of which is in turn facilitated by the efficient infrastructure. Muscle fibres „learn“, i.e. they contract in the most energy-saving way possible.

There are three different types of fibre:

Typ I: slow contracting, fatigue resistant, flat, endurance training, aerobic system.

Typ IIA: fast contracting, fatigue resistant, endurance and speed training, aerobic/anaerobic system.

Typ IIB: fast contracting, fast fatiguing, thick, fast strength, anaerobic system.

This results in different training approaches depending on the task of the muscle:

Endurance training - long slow runs
Strength training - riding uphill, dressage
Meanwhile your can train:
Flexibility - dressage, stretching, bending
Coordination - jumping, cross-country difficulties, proprioception training

In addition to endurance and strength, the coordination of muscle movement must be practised in any case. The nervous system is responsible for this. The interaction of employer (horse brain) and employee (muscle) via the telephone of the nervous system can be trained. Through constant practice, nerve pathways and synapses are formed. Horse and rider benefit from a well-rehearsed employee-employer relationship. The rewards of the work are a coordinated sequence of movements, surefootedness and fluid gaits that save energy and protect against injury.

c) Supporting tissue

This includes ligaments, tendons, joints, cartilage and hooves. They have a weaker blood supply and therefore react more slowly to training stimuli.

Ligaments connect bone to bone. Ligaments hold joints together and control the direction and freedom of movement.

Tendons connect the muscles with the bones. They resemble a wire rope made up of countless tissue fibres that is only elastic to a certain extent. They act like springs during movement. When they are stretched (when they move up), they absorb load and energy and then convert it into kinetic energy.

Tendons and ligaments need to be strong and elastic. The best training for the resilience of the tendons is as much exercise and movement as possible when the dog is young. Improving the quality of tendons and ligaments requires frequent, quiet and regular exercise over months.

Islandpferd Rappe mit Satteldecke im Galopp

Later, slowly increasing training stimuli take place through different terrain and more strenuous movement. The most effective protection for tendons is strong muscles.

We can imagine a chord like the rope of an excavator that connects the engine with the bucket. Here, it is not only the movement that is important, but above all the damping of the movement. The excavator operator brakes the falling of the shovel with the engine. In comparison, the muscles dampen the impact of e.g. the front leg via the tendons.

But what happens in the event of an injury? The tendon apparatus is overloaded during the impact because the muscles could not cushion it due to lack of energy. Back to the excavator: The shovel hurtles downwards, the engine sputters and can no longer break the fall smoothly. Either the shovel hits the ground and something breaks, or the rope lock is knocked in and the ropes break.

Joints are bone-to-bone connections. All bone ends are surrounded by cartilage mass. The cartilage layers slide against each other as ball bearings. Depending on the load, synovial fluid accumulates between them. Together with the cartilage, it promotes the sliding ability of the bones against each other and thus a buffering of pressure. The formation of the so-called synovial fluid takes place on demand under load. This happens during the approximately 20-minute warm-up phase. Constant stress during training stimulates cartilage growth, similar to calluses on the hands.

The best training for healthy joints is plenty of exercise when they are young.

d) Bones

Bones, as components of the skeleton, also react to stimuli. Admittedly, they do so most slowly because they have the weakest blood supply. Bone substance only adapts to stresses caused by movement over months and years. The bone-building cells in the bones are stimulated to undergo remodelling. There is then an increase in bone mass, bone diameter and mineral bone density.

Rest and reduced stress, on the other hand, promote bone resorption and bone mass disappears. Bones are also trained most sustainably in youth. This makes them robust and less prone to microfractures and bone spalling. Stimuli for remodelling increase with the intensity of training.

e) Hooves

Hooves are a separate, extensive topic. Here too, hoof horn is rather poorly supplied with blood and therefore shows a slow reaction, but benefits from training stimuli and an improved metabolism through endurance training.

f) Psyche

Psyche and body are inseparably connected in the horse. If a horse could speak, it would almost certainly never say something like „me and my body“. When it expresses itself, it expresses itself with the language of the body. We see and experience our horses just as holistically. If we love our horse, it is not only because of its nature, but also or precisely because of its body.

It follows what fitness trainers also preach to us humans: A strong body makes a strong psyche and vice versa. The horse is a flight animal and therefore fitness gives it a sense of security, courage and self-confidence. The horse is a moving animal and enjoys movement. It corresponds to its nature and makes it balanced.

And the horse is a social being: In order to please its rider, it wants to be able to cope with the tasks set for it. If it lacks the strength and stamina to do so, this leads to excessive demands and stress, or even refusal, rebelliousness and going through the motions. Here is our blog post on horse-friendly training.

Thanks to physical strength, it can do everything and everything is easy. Psychological strength makes the horse calm, open to new tasks, capable of learning because it's relaxed, cooperative and able to concentrate.

4. Energy metabolism. How does it work?

Movement occurs when muscles contract and expand again. They need energy for this work. The energy is obtained from nutrients and oxygen.

To begin with, a little biology: The horse eats mainly grass, hay and grain. The most important nutrient in these are carbohydrates. These carbohydrates are converted into glucose or dextrose in the small intestine. Some of the glucose is consumed immediately for brain and nerve cells. The rest is converted into glycogen by liver and muscle cells and thus stored. If there is still glucose left, it is stored as fat.

a) How is energy created?

Through a whole series of complicated processes, ATP = adenosine triphosphate is produced from the stored nutrients. This task is carried out by the muscle cells. ATP is an energy-rich molecule. It is made up of proteins that are chained together by energy-rich bonds. When the ATP in turn breaks down, i.e. when these bonds are cleaved, energy is released. That is metabolism. After decay, new ATP must be built up to maintain the flow of energy. ATP is the energy source for all bodily functions. It is the body‘s energy currency and keeps everything going - from microscopic cell processes to visible muscle contractions.

The task of the metabolism is to produce energy as economically and effectively as possible. As few nutrients as possible should be consumed to produce the valuable ATP. The slower the glycogen and fat depots are emptied, the longer the organism can work.

b) The two energy metabolism systems: aerobic and anaerobic

The most economical process is aerobic energy metabolism. It takes place in the presence of oxygen, during low to medium exertion, such as walking, steady trotting or tölt. In the mitochondria, the „energy factories“, nutrients are „burned“ with the help of the oxygen present. In aerobic work, the body first burns the fats, then the carbohydrates. The glycogen depots are thus conserved for later use. Carbon dioxide, water and about 36 molecules of ATP are produced. Carbon dioxide and water are harmless by-products of metabolism that are simply excreted.

Aerobic metabolism releases the largest amounts of ATP in relation to the consumption of the nutrients used. The use of aerobic energy sources such as fats delays fatigue symptoms that otherwise accompany the depletion of glycogen reserves. In addition, fat burning produces about 30% less heat. During aerobic work, a permanent supply of ATP can be produced.

Anaerobic energy metabolism is less economical. It takes place under oxygen deficiency endurances. In particularly strenuous endurances such as sprints, uphill riding, jumping and high school, the capacity for oxygen uptake is insufficient. Now, without oxygen, ATP is produced from glycogen. However, compared to aerobic metabolism, only 2 molecules of ATP are released (instead of 36), and lactic acid is produced as a by-product. This lactate cannot be excreted immediately, but is deposited in the tissue and then causes the muscle to fatigue. An overload of lactate damages the cells. The horse gets painfulmuscle soreness.

Advantage of anaerobic metabolism: This type of energy is quickly available when oxygen is not sufficient, but only during particularly strenuous sporting activities and over a short period of time.

c) What is the deeper meaning of training?

The purpose of any training is to promote the health and performance of the cardiovascular system so that there is always enough oxygen available for energy production.

Under aerobic endurances, the horse can work most gently and economically. Its nutrient depots are spared, and only water and carbon dioxide are produced as metabolic residues. The better the endurance, i.e. the ability to take up oxygen and transport it by means of a strong circulation, the better the aerobic performance. Conversely, this means: the later oxygen deficiency occurs and thus the activation of the anaerobic system. In addition, aerobic fitness training optimises fat burning, which in turn saves glycogen.

The untrained horse switches to anaerobic metabolism earlier than the trained horse. This means that it accumulates harmful lactate in the muscles more quickly. This is also called hyperacidity. The strength of the contraction decreases. The glycogen depots are soon used up. The horse runs out of fuel. The consequences are fatigue, loss of performance, pain. But this does not mean that the anaerobic metabolism is bad in itself. Nature invented it for extraordinary stresses.

It should be noted that even a fit horse can only perform at full anaerobic capacity for about four minutes. Then the lactic acid concentration becomes so high that it shows fatigue. After finishing anaerobic work, the horse breathes deeply and rapidly to compensate for the oxygen deficit and get rid of carbon dioxide. The heart beats faster to speed up the oxygen supply and to flush out lactic acid and pent-up heat. This shows in a high pulse. A horse with good endurance and a well-trained aerobic metabolism recovers faster.

The aim of training is to raise the so-called anaerobic threshold. Both systems are trained, whereby the time at which the horse switches from the aerobic to the anaerobic energy system and the lactate values increase is shifted backwards.

5. Training. How do I increase and secure performance?

When training, it is important to observe the following cycle:

a) Stress - recovery - adaptation - strain

During training, so-called training stimuli are set. A training stimulus is given when a load is so high that the horse‘s body has to react with an expansion = adaptation of the performance. This means that if you never challenge your horse, you will not improve its endurance. That is a wrongly understood sparing of the horse.

Subliminal stress remains ineffective and at best leads to maintenance. The same is true if there is no fatigue after work. Effective training stimuli necessarily show signs of fatigue.

Neither too weak nor too strong training stimuli become effective.

In detail, the following happens: In the course of every training session, micro-damage occurs to muscles, tendons and ligaments. This is not a bad thing in itself. In the recovery phase, the body now eliminates these strains by not only repairing the damage, but also by performing a real tuning of the parts. It builds up the ability to cope with stress more easily. The tissues thus adapt to higher stresses. This is called adaptation.

In addition, during the recovery phase the body refills its energy tanks, nutrient reserves such as glycogen are balanced, the enzyme balance is regulated and toxic metabolic products such as lactate are flushed out. These processes work best during light exercise. That is why we warm up the horse. Pasture or paddock walks are very beneficial afterwards.

b) How long does recovery or adaptation take?

The phosphorus tank (anaerobic) is refilled in a few minutes, the oxygen deficit is compensated for in max. 30 min, the glycogen reserve in the muscle is replenished in 48 hours. Lactate decomposition takes from a few minutes to several days. The build-up = adaptation of circulation and muscles takes days to weeks. Hooves, tendons and bones need months. It is therefore important that the stress periods are always followed by corresponding regeneration periods.

Only in this way can tissue remodelling and renewal take place. If such times are not observed, degradation will occur in the worst case. Before competitions, for example, a two-day break is recommended so that the horse can start with full tanks. Through this process, a well-trained athlete grows with increasing adaptation. Conversely, capacity is reduced by prolonged breaks and thus the absence of the stress stimulus. First the speed is lost, then the strength and finally the endurance.

Schimmel Isländer Hengst im Tölt mit Satteldecke
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c) How do I build up good fitness training?

a) Basic Training - LSD - Long Slow Distance Training

Long Slow Distance Training is a term from eventing and endurance sports. It is the method of continuous endurance building and is valid for every sport and leisure horse. LSD means that the horse walks long distances or cross-country for a long time at a constant slow pace. This means an average of at least 1 hour or 8 - 10 km. LSD involves moderate exercise of the cardiovascular system and all tissues of the musculoskeletal system. Training takes place in the aerobic zone at a working pulse of around 120 - 150 bpm. Calm trot is no faster than 12 bpm. If you let them, most horses will find a steady pace on their own and keep their pulse at a comfortable level. By nature, horses are designed to conserve energy. Experienced horses find the magic pulse value of aerobic energy production themselves and then adjust their pace to the terrain.

The prerequisite for this is that the horse is first consistently urged by the rider to walk slowly. It is allowed to walk for a long time. This gives the horse the opportunity to break in. It is given the time to learn a calm, energy-saving running style. Running too fast often results from poor balance. The extended repetitions also give the horse the valuable experience that it has to divide its strength. Tendencies to speed often dissolve by themselves through long running and it becomes easier and easier to encourage the horse to run slowly without a struggle. A running style in which the horse „shoots off“ or „takes off“ in repeated short reprises and discharges itself is not desirable.

How long does long trotting last?

Depending on your fitness, start with 10 minutes of trotting alternating with 10 minutes of walking and then gradually increase to 30 minutes of trotting at a stretch. Always alternate with 10 minutes of walking. Finally, walk for 20 minutes.

What should be the total length of a training session? For the training to have an effect, the ride should last 1 - 1 ½ hours or go at least over 10 km.

How often should LSD be trained?

Three times a week, in between field, track, lunging and rest. After heavy exercise, it is recommended to lunge once and a break once.

How do you increase performance?

The requirements are gradually increased as the adaptation takes place. This means that whenever the horse has easily mastered a level several times, you can move on to the next higher one. But only one thing at a time: either track length or trotting duration or volume or intensity, never both at the same time!

Example: First increase the distance from 10 to 12.5 km at a rhythm of 10 min trot/10 min walk. If this works without problems, increase the frequency to 15/10, then to 20/10 but back down to 10 km.

b) Performance training

If the trot works without any ifs and buts over a longer period of time, i.e. at least 6 weeks of consistent trotting in the aerobic range, then you can slowly scratch the anaerobic threshold from time to time. For this purpose, short gallop intervals are included, e.g. 3 minutes gallop out of 15 minutes trot.
Then the gallop units are slowly increased to 5 min and longer, and there is another 15 min walk to regenerate after the anaerobic load, to fill the tanks and remove the lactate. If the adaptation is successful, the distance is then extended to 15 km. A relevant increase in performance has taken place: Thanks to the built-in gallop, more distance is covered in the same amount of time.

The fatigue state at the end of the work unit should always remain the same as the power increases.

Other ways to increase performance?

You can switch to more difficult terrain and incorporate inclines. Riding uphill at a walk, trot and canter has a strong training effect, as long as you always remember the regeneration breaks afterwards! You can work your horse hard for a short time! But then you must consistently lead him back into the aerobic zone. This is sometimes difficult but absolutely essential. Some horses like to be hot after a canter. In this case you have to walk until the horse is really calm but hardworking. But no dawdling either! The training goal is to be able to lead the horse back to the travelling trot even after such stresses.

How do I keep the benefit?

If you have reached a plateau that you are satisfied with or that corresponds to a set goal, or if you know that you will not have so much time in a certain period of time, then the task is no longer performance improvement but performance maintenance. You reduce a little, i.e. the big efforts to increase are dropped, but you keep riding at the best level you have reached, e.g. once a week, but do easier work the rest of the week. Either do lighter work often or heavier work less often.

Sources: Nancy Loving, Go the Distance, 1997
Dressur Studien, Kondition, 03/13
Bernd Springorum, Hinweise zum Konditionstraining der Militarypferde, 1986
Gregor von Romaszkan, Reiten Lernen, 1957

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The Sportsfreund Studios blog contains numerous tips on dealing with horses. From fitness training to the learning behaviour of horses - you can read it all here. The blog is written by Karolina Kardel from 360 Grad Pferd.

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