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by Liz Finney

Once your horse has gone through the basic fittening (which should include a lot of walking followed by gradually introducing trotting and increasing the distance), after a winter break, it will be ready to progress to more serious training for competitions.

The aim should be to start with a very broad base to your programme, by slowly increasing distance and speed, before introducing faster work. This will mean that your horseís muscles, bone and tendons are strengthened sufficiently before undergoing the stress of competition.

Before entering rides of 40-50km, you should be training 3-4 times a week for one and a half to two hours, covering about 16-20km each time. The quality of training is more important than quantity. There is little to be gained, and potentially more harm done, by allowing the horse to work in an unbalanced outline. Schooling is very important in your training schedule, with ideally one or two sessions a week. If you do not have access to an arena, working your horse in a balanced outline whilst riding out, doing leg-yields etc. along quiet lanes can be a substitute.

After about six weeks, start introducing canter work. Gradually increase the speed and distance of training rides. Your aim is now to start your horse working at higher heart rates, to stress the systems to increase fitness. Include hills in your regime if possible, as this will make the horse work harder without having to increase the speed.

As your horse becomes fitter, itís heart rate will drop more quickly. If you check itís recovery rate after training, itís heart rate should be coming back to resting level after about 10mins. This is a good way to monitor how itís fitness is improving as you increase the work.

When you are aiming at the longer rides of 65km plus and particularly endurance classes, your horse needs to start working at heart rates up to 140-160 beats per minute, sustained for a few minutes, followed by a resting period before working back up to 140-160 bpm again. This, again, is much easier to achieve using hills, though take care not to over-stress your horse, but if on the flat, try to use an all-weather track, or other good surface.

Ideally, two or three sessions a week of this will improve the horse's fitness for longer endurance classes at higher speeds, i.e.120-160km at 14-16km/hr. Endurance horses should work in aerobic mode, using oxygen in the muscles for energy, as opposed to anaerobic exercise used in e.g. racing. Once a horse starts working anaerobically, when the heart rate is usually above about 180bpm, it produces lactic acid in the muscles and quickly tires, needing quite a long time to recover.

Improving fitness will increase the horse's ability to work in aerobic mode. As your horse becomes fitter, it can maintain higher speeds for longer, and recover more quickly.

It is important not to over stress it, but if you do not increase the work, the horse will maintain fitness, but not improve his fitness.

Attention to detail is important. At any signs of over- stress, back off and re-assess. Competitions help to increase fitness, and help to get your horse used to riding in groups, but be selective. Try to avoid too much roadwork and rough going, if possible. Teach your horse to go at the back of a group, as well as at the front.

There is no short cut to producing a strong, fit horse for top-level competitions. It is generally agreed that it takes at least two years to produce a horse up to the top level. Apart from the physical fitness, they have to learn to cope mentally with the longer distances and faster speeds, and to relax in vet gates. Each horse should be treated as an individual, and your programme adapted to suit it's specific needs.

Above all, both you and your horse should enjoy the sport.

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