After Sonya embarked on her first endurance ride last year, she was hooked. Soon after, the longtime English rider decided to begin training her warmblood up to longer distances with the help of her Hylofit Heart Rate Monitor. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sonya had to alter the plans for her horse's endurance debut but hasn't quit reaching for her goals. Read on to follow her journey and learn about how she is making the transition to a new riding discipline with her trusty steed.
I’ve been a competitive English rider for as long as I can remember, dabbling in everything from eventing to equitation. However, after I aged out of the juniors and had a couple of big hurrahs at the upper levels, I felt myself inching away from showing. As the years went on, competing became more stressful than fun, and I began to realize that I didn’t need shows to motivate me to meet training goals.
So, when COVID-19 happened cancelled all shows for the foreseeable future, I was secretly a little relieved. Plus, it seemed I had found a new calling.
The Whale Becomes The Endurance Whale
Last year, I was lured into doing an endurance ride with a fellow Riding Warehouse customer and now dear friend. The supportive community and sense of connection I felt with horse and nature just made sense. I loved it so much that last fall I hatched a wild idea to introduce my warmblood, The Whale, to endurance in 2020.
After competing in everything from equitation, to hunters, jumpers, and eventing - The Whale takes on his next adventure.
Although I am saddened that the 2020 endurance season is postponed, the COVID crisis has solidified my gravitation towards this new discipline and changed my perspective on what it means to ride. For me, riding is now solely about having fun, connecting with my horse, and always learning, improving, and reaching new goals along the way. Being out on the trails is what I enjoy most, and endurance has opened a door of new learning for me to soak in.
This is not to say that I won’t jump at home and compete in eventing once or twice a year, but my priorities have shifted towards what gives me the most joy – endurance riding!
Getting in the Miles
Now, you might think it’s crazy to do endurance on a warmblood. I will preface any judgement by saying that I have no intentions of doing anything more than slow LD’s (25 miles) on The Whale. Plus, he loves his new calling. I’m a huge believer in cross-training, and his jumping and dressage has undoubtedly improved as I integrate more trail and endurance training into his regimen.
Adding endurance training into The Whale's program has benefited him holistically.
I’ll briefly share what our pre-COVID fitness program looked like, back when I was gearing up for our LD debut in May, 2020. When I started The Whale’s new training program in November, I figured 6 months would be plenty of time to get an already fit preliminary event horse in shape for an easy 25-mile LD ride.
I began working in easy trot rides twice a week, starting at 4 miles. I let him go in a relaxed frame at his own pace, which for a big guy like him ended up being 7-8mph. Every 2-3 weeks I’d increase the mileage by 1 mile. On top of our bi-weekly conditioning rides, I’d try to trailer him out once a week for a longer, slower trail ride with more hills. Below is a sample of our weekly conditioning schedule:
- Monday: 4-mile trot (increasing by 1 mile every 2-3 weeks)
- Tuesday: Day off
- Wednesday: Dressage
- Thursday: 4-mile trot (increasing by 1 mile every 2-3 weeks)
- Friday: Day off
- Saturday: Jump / Cavaletti / Grid-work OR Day off
- Sunday: Longer trail ride (6-8 miles during months 1&2, 10-12 during months 3&4)
The Hylofit Heart Rate Monitor ensured Sonya could increase The Whale's mileage without overdoing it.
As time went on, The Whale’s time to pulse down decreased substantially even with increased mileage. Before the COVID crisis hit, I had worked up to 9-mile trot rides, once or twice a week. He was pulsing down in 2.5-3 minutes, and his average heart rate and max heart rate readings decreased across all my rides.
For instance, before I started integrating endurance work into our program, Hylofit would categorize most of my jumping rides as “Zone 5” rides, where the horse is operating at 90-100% of capacity. After a few months of endurance work, The Whale became much more relaxed over fences, and my jumping came down to “Zone 4” or even “Zone 3” rides.
Staying in Shape Without Going Overboard
With no rides on the horizon there’s no need to go overboard, so I’ve relaxed The Whale’s program. Again, Hylofit has been by my side during every step. Being able to actively monitor The Whale’s heart rate and zone map intensity ensures that I am not overtraining given that our fitness has slipped in lieu of COVID and rainy conditions.
To err on the side of caution, I’ve bumped the length of my trot rides down to 5-6 miles until we’re out of this mess, and decreased the frequency to 1-2x a week. With shelter-in-place policies, I’ve removed my longer weekly trail ride from the schedule as well, replacing it with a long hack around the property and down to the road to mix things up.
This downtime has also given me the opportunity to really focus on building muscle in weak areas. For The Whale, this is getting him to engage his core and lift his back. Strengthening The Whale’s back will help maintain his longevity and soundness. By getting him to carry himself properly, I reduce strain on his legs and mitigate risk for injury when I do get back out on the trails.
I’ll share 3 of my favorite exercises I incorporate into the Whale’s back strengthening quarantine program.
- Raised cavalettis at the trot. They’re a pain to set up, but raised cavalettis have tremendous benefits no matter your discipline. Not only do they make your horse engage his core and lift his back, but they help strengthen the stifles as well. Set them at 4-5’ apart, depending on the size of your horse. The Whale is pretty comfortable with cavalettis, so I’ll even set up 8-12 in a row, or 2 sets of 5 or 6, for him to go through. If your horse is new to raised cavalettis, start small with only 2 or 3 in a row and build up from there.
- Lunging work with therabands. After a barn-mate purchased the Equicore Equiband system and let me try it, I knew I needed by own. The abdominal band stimulates the abdominal muscles during movement, while the hindquarter band encourages proper engagement and symmetry in movement from the hind. I ended up creating my own concoction with heavy-duty therabands, carabiners, shoestring, heavy duty thread, and an amateur but functional sewing job. Regular lunging and riding in my makeshift theraband system has really helped The Whale strengthen his core and build topline. For an extra challenge, I’ll lunge him over some cavalettis as well.
- Slow, stretchy hill work at the canter. Although I can’t get out on the trails, my barn does have one short hill on our gallop track. Hill work is fantastic for building strength and muscle in the hind, but I have a couple of modifications to target the back. After warming up, I focus on The Whale’s weakest gate – the canter. First, instead of letting him charge up the hill, I make him canter slow, like he’s moving through molasses. At the same time, I encourage him to stretch his neck as close to the ground as it’ll go. This really forces him to engage his core and stretch over his topline, all while pushing from the hind up the hill – like an elliptical for horses! The Whale is decently fit, so after trotting up the hill in the same stretchy fashion 3-4 times, I’ll have him work at the canter up the hill 3-4 times on each lead. I always walk back down the hill in-between.
As always, I utilize my Hylofit during every ride to keep track of The Whale’s fitness levels and make sure I’m not overtraining. Plus, you simply cannot beat their customer service! If I ever have trouble, tech guru Kate responds in a heartbeat to help.
I hope these exercises give you some inspiration or motivation during these trying times. There are plenty of things we can be doing with our horses right now so that when competitions and rides are allowed again, we come back stronger than ever.