The Evaluation and Training of Arabian Endurance Racing

Traveling distances up to over 100 miles per race, Arabian equine endurance racing pushes the horse and rider’s athletic ability to the maximum threshold. Unlike short distance equine speed racing, this sport opens up to all breeds and ages (over 4 years old) that have been properly conditioned but the Arabian dominates the sport due to their natural stamina and endurance capabilities. An average event propels the pair through trails (Figure 1) between 50-100 miles long over a period up to 24 hours long; however, the elite desert races can reach distances over 200 miles total and durations over 30 hours long (Mcfarland, 2014; Horsetalk, 2001). Equine endurance race events are found all over the world and take place through any weather, terrain, and time of the year.

Arabian endurance race

Figure 1: Example Arabian endurance race environment. Image courtesy from the Arabian Horse Association.

By no means an exciting race in the same sense of the fast-paced Thoroughbred racing, the endurance race horse embodies the saying “slow and steady wins the race.” Far slower than the almost 40 mph reached during the Kentucky Derby, an endurance horse moves at a pace around 7 mph, a comfortable trot (The Old Dominion Equestrian Endurance Organization, n.d.). Periodic stops for veterinarian checks occur throughout the race at designated distance points to check the horse’s general health by timing the heart’s ability to return to a normal state. Additionally, prior to the start of the race, a horse must pass a pre-check for their soundness and ability to race (The Old Dominion Equestrian Endurance Organization, n.d.). Furthermore, crossing the finish line does not automatically signify the stop of the race; the horse must be cooled down and pass the post-ride control check to qualify for completion (Endurance Rider’s Handbook, n.d.).

Winning the race is not judged solely on crossing the finish line first. While there are normally recognitions for the top ten finishers, the highly coveted Best Conditioned award is considered the most prestigious (Wikipedia, 2020). Factors including speed, time to complete, the weight of rider, body condition score, and veterinary evaluations combine to determine the winner of Best Conditioned (Wikipedia, 2020). However, the act of completing the race generally warrants recognition because many get disqualified by failing the veterinary stops along the way (Miller, 2012).

The strict standards and guidelines are created by the organizations that oversee and organize the races. The two major organizations are the American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC) and the Fédération Équestre International (FEI). In addition to organizing the races and rules, these organizations have placed top priorities on equine welfare (Wikipedia, 2020). With the rise of social media and fast news, endurance racing has become a controversial sporting event. Reports of horses being euthanized on the trails, breaking bones, failed veterinary checks, and doping garner media attention and public outrage (Jurga, 2016; Cuckson, 2018). Although these stories represent outliers and uncommon situations, the overwhelming coverage from the media gives a false sense of commonality to the public.

Endurance racing tests the capabilities of even the strongest Arabian horses and riders. Meticulous training and conditioning programs must be followed and could take up to three years to complete (Mcfarland, 2014). In addition to the conditioning program, the horse must be placed on a strict nutrition routine to provide energy and maintain metabolic homeostasis during training. Even with the proper training and nutrition, injuries can create lameness and require rehabilitation. To completely evaluate components contributing to the success of Arabian equine athletes competing in endurance races, one must consider their training/conditioning program, nutritional guidelines, and rehabilitation plan.

Training And Conditioning The Arabian Endurance Athlete

Programs used for training an Arabian to compete in endurance racing are highly variable and depend on the horse’s previous conditioning, age, race type, and natural abilities. For this report, an example training program for a semi-conditioned, 5-year-old Arabian competing in a United States-based race between 50 to 100 miles with average terrain elements will be presented. A warm-up consisting of a comfortable walk/trot for 15 minutes should be completed before each workout in order to loosen muscles and gradually increase heart rate. A similarly styled cool-down should always be done to avoid stiff muscling, poor recovery, and prevent injuries.

Table 1 provides an example of a schedule for the first month of training. The beginning of the conditioning program should focus on long, slow distance work (LSD) which stresses the horse’s aerobic respiration capabilities and trains the body to improve its utilization of oxygen through transportation to tissue and cellular respiration (Southeast Endurance Riders Association, 2001). One recommended way would be trail riding (3-5 miles) at a walking pace. Throughout the month, more trotting should be incorporated into the trail riding in addition to adding on an extra couple of miles. One day a week can include a faster-paced canter, but the distance should be shortened. This first month is meant to introduce your horse to the program and increase their aerobic capacity; it is quite flexible and should include rest days twice a week.

Table 1: Example of the schedule for the first month of training

Day

Workout (including warm-up and cool-down)

Additional Notes

1

Walk/Trot interval work with arena training (5-10 miles)

Gradually increase throughout the duration of the month by gauging how your horse is performing.

2

Trail riding (10-15miles) at an easy trot and walking pace

Increase your mileage each week but keep the same pace.

3

Rest

Allow for muscular and skeletal remodeling.

4

Walk/Trot interval work with arena training (3-5 miles) at a faster pace

Work with anaerobic systems by doing a shorter duration, higher speed workout.

5

Trail ride (10-15 miles) at an easy trot and walking pace

Continue your work with aerobic systems and remodeling muscle fibers to improve endurance capabilities. Increase mileage each week.

6

2-hour trail ride (mileage dependent)

See how far your horse travels in 2 hours each week to gauge progress. Should be able to go farther in the same amount of time if conditioning is effective.

7

Rest

Allow for muscular and skeletal remodeling.

Training for months two and three is shown in Table 2. During this section of the program, you should invest in a heart rate monitor for your Arabian athlete to record data on their maximum heart rate, average heart rate, time to return to a normal heart rate, and trends of their heart rate over this two-month period (Figure 2). This portion is much more structured and focused on building endurance. Trail riding days with long distance, long duration, and slow speed should occur twice a week and reach about half the distance of the race during this period. Interval training that utilizes faster gaits and shorter distances train the anaerobic system and should be completed three times a week to improve muscle conditioning. Two rest days should still be implemented. By the end of these two months, the horse should be able to complete half the distance of the race comfortably and their maximum heart rate compared to exercises completed at the beginning of training should be lower.

Table 2: Example of the schedule for the second and third-month training

Day

Workout (including warm-up and cool-down)

Additional Notes

1

5-10 miles at a comfortable trot pace

A slight increase in speed and the same miles as last month. Increase miles gradually throughout the month.

2

Trail riding (15-30 miles)

Gradually increase up to half the distance of the race.

3

5-10 miles at a comfortable trot pace

A slight increase in speed and the same miles as last month. Increase miles gradually throughout the month.

4

Rest

Allow for muscular and skeletal remodeling.

5

10-15 miles at a comfortable trot pace

Keep the speed moderate but increase the distance over the course of the month.

6

Interval and arena training for 1-hour

Continue to work on anaerobic conditioning once a week.

7

Rest

Allow for muscular and skeletal remodeling.

Training for month four is listed in Table 3. This portion of the training will allow the horse to complete the distance of the race at least once prior to race day. Along with increasing the distance on LSD workdays to above half of the distance of the race, the Arabian should be exposed to more varied terrain with hills, streams, trees, narrow passages, and trail riding with other horses. All of this is done in preparation for race day. Continuation of interval training with longer distances at the same higher speeds allows for conditioning the muscles and aerobic system. Two rest days should still be implemented to allow for muscular and skeletal reconstruction.

Table 3: Example of the schedule for the fourth-month training

Day

Workout (including warm-up and cool-down)

Additional Notes

1

15-20 miles at comfortable trot Pace

A slight increase in speed and the same miles as last month. Increase miles gradually throughout the month.

2

Trail riding (25-50 Miles)

Gradually increase up to the distance of the race. Should only reach race distance once, early in the month, and then gradually decrease as you get closer to race day.

3

15-20 miles at a comfortable trot

A slight increase in speed and the same miles as last month. Increase miles gradually throughout the month.

4

Rest

Allow for muscular and skeletal remodeling.

5

25-30 miles at a comfortable trot pace

Keep the speed moderate but increase the distance over the course of the month to over half the distance of the race.

6

Interval and arena training for 1-hour

Continue to work on anaerobic conditioning once a week.

7

Rest

Allow for muscular and skeletal remodeling.

The Final Week: The final week prior to the race should be eased up in order to have a fresh horse on race day. The longest distance to ride should be a fifth of the race distance, four days prior to the race. The remaining days should only focus on keeping your horse loose and adequately prepared to compete.

Adaptations Of The Muscular, Cardiovascular, And Skeletal Systems

According to Lari Shea, a decorated endurance rider with almost 7,000 miles of experience, “it takes about six months to condition soft tissue and the heart, one year to condition tendons and ligaments, and two to three years to remodel bone” (Mcfarland, 2014). This is assuming the horse is completely green with no training or conditioning. Realistically, a four-year-old horse would be able to prepare to compete in a Limited Distance with adequate training (Mcfarland, 2014). However, with training, the Arabian athlete and trainer must successfully condition the equine’s muscular, cardiovascular, and skeletal systems to be considered fit enough to compete.

Due to the long duration and slow speed of endurance racing, the primary muscle fiber type utilized is Type I, slow-twitch fibers (Qaisar, et al., 2016). The fatigue resistance, high oxidative capacity, and aerobic means of utilizing oxygen of this fiber type allow for Arabians to compete in these 50-100 mile races. Incorporating the LSD work into their training agenda allows for hypertrophy of these muscle fibers and conversion of Type IIX fibers into Type IIA. Table 4 shows the differences between the types of muscular fiber; for example, the high capillary and mitochondrial density of Type I fibers allow more oxygen to reach the muscular cells and higher aerobic respiration capabilities. By increasing the distance in LSD work gradually, the horse’s muscular system will adapt by improving aerobic capacity and endurance capability of the equine athlete.

Table 4. The differences between the 3 main types of muscular fibers. Image courtesy of Semantics Scholar

Fiber Type Slow-Twitch (ST) Fast-Twitch A (FT-A) Fast-Twitch X (FT-X)
Contraction time Slow Fast Very fast
Size of motor neuron Small Large Very large
Resistance to fatigue High Intermediate Low
Force production Low High Very high
Mitochondrial density High High Low
Capillary density High Intermediate Low
Oxidative capacity High High Low
Glycolytic capacity Low High High
Major storage fuel Triglycerides CP, Glycogen CP, Glycogen

Incorporation of faster speed, interval training is also important to ensure the horse is capable of completing a gallop finish, canter uphill, or other occurrences that places a demand on the anaerobic system. While the majority of the muscle fibers should be Type I, a good training program also conditions the horse to improve their anaerobic capacity to cover situations where the horse utilizes their Type II muscle fibers. While not the main source for muscular respiration, Type II muscle fibers, and anaerobic capability should still be considered and conditioned when training for an endurance race (Barnes, 2016).

As the infrastructure supporting the muscular system, the skeletal system must adapt by improving the auxiliary abilities of the ligaments, tendons, and bones through strengthening. The two rest days per week are paramount to allow for skeletal system remodeling as it is a gradual process that occurs during periods of rest. This provides a foundation of strength that the muscular system will build off of to allow hypertrophy of Type I fibers and limit instances of unsoundness or lameness.

During aerobic exercise, the heart rate of the horse should be between 110-170 bpm, and during instances of anaerobic exercise the heart rate should be between 170-280 bpm (Firshman, 2012). The use of a heart rate monitor (Figure 2) would greatly improve the trainers’ ability to determine the effectiveness of the training and where the horse is with energetics. Respiration rate should be approximately 90 breaths per minute at a comfortable trot. Adaptations due to training should include longer durations to reach working heart rate, faster speeds at the same heart rate, and the ability to go for longer distances without noticing fatigue through monitoring heart rate and breathing rate.

Horse wearing heart rate monitor

Figure 2: Horse wearing a heart rate monitor. Image courtesy of Health Check Systems

The majority of work performed by the Arabian is at the trot gait. A moderate trot uses aerobic respiration with the utilization of oxygen to provide fuel for the muscle fibers. The adaptations of the muscular, cardiovascular, and skeletal system all are due to the training focused on improving the endurance capabilities of the Arabian at a trotting pace through aerobic respiration.

The last system in consideration for endurance equines is their thermoregulation system. The adaptation to the thermoregulation system is dependent on the climate and weather experienced during the race. While the horse is not in active control of how their body thermoregulates, the rider must be the source of adaptation. Dousing the horse with cold water during veterinarian checks, providing hydration at streams to ensure the horse does not dehydrate from sweat, blanketing the horse after the race are all examples of ways the rider helps their equine partner thermoregulate.

The equine endurance athlete experiences many changes and adaptations to major body systems during the period of conditioning to prepare for a race. An example of a successfully conditioned Arabian horse is found in Figure 3. The systems a trainer must physically change to allow for maximum efficiency of performance include their muscular, cardiovascular, and skeletal system while still considering the effects of the endocrine and thermoregulatory systems on the equine’s overall capability. A successful program will see the equine athlete able to complete the race fully, recover effectively during veterinarian checks, experience lower heart rates as training progresses, and visually improve their body condition through muscling.

Conditioned arabian

Figure 3: Highly conditioned Arabian (Hat Trick LA) with 600 miles of experience competing in endurance races. Image courtesy of Practical Horseman

The nutritional demands of an equine endurance athlete far exceed the dietary requirements for a horse at maintenance. The energy demand alone is doubled for horses classified with a very heavy activity level. That means the total digestible energy (DE) an endurance Arabian consumes is two times the DE a pastured Arabian requires. Meeting the nutritional demand of an endurance athlete means selectively choosing the feeds that will fulfill their metabolic requirements. In addition to feeding a slightly increased amount of forages like hay, the horse should also be supplemented with high energy concentrates to ensure their heightened energy requirement is met. Besides meeting the basic nutritional requirements for energy, protein, fat, and fiber, a trainer could also include supplements into the horse’s diet for further improvement (Kentucky Equine Research, 2011).

Arabian horses have proven to be one of the most successful breeds nationally and internationally in endurance racing and on the racetrack. Their natural athleticism and striking beauty have made them one of the most well known and prosperous breeds. However, success does not come without hard work; following nutritional guidelines, taking physical care of the horse, and developing an appropriate training program is critical to the success of an Arabian horse in endurance racing.

References

  1. Barnes, A. (2016, July 8). Training endurance horses. Retrieved from https://veteriankey.com/training-endurance-horses/
  2. Collective Wisdom for Endurance Riding. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.olddominionrides.org/EndurancePrimer/01.html
  3. Conditioning For Your First Endurance Ride. (2001, April). Retrieved from https://www.seraonline.org/Conditioning.pdf
  4. Cuckson, P. (2018). Exhausted Winner Provokes New Endurance Controversy. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://horsesport.com/horse-news/exhausted-winner-provokes-new-endurance-controvers y/
  5. Endurance Rider’s Handbook. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://aerc.org/static/AERC_Rider_Handbook.pdf
  6. Endurance riding. (2020, January 7). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endurance_riding
  7. Firshman, A. (2010). Heart rate and respiratory rate response to exercise in horses (Proceedings). (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.dvm360.com/view/heart-rate-and-respirator-rate-response-exercise-horses-proceedings
  8. Jurga, F. (2016, September 26). Blood on the Trail: The history that equine endurance racing will never escape is back to haunt it. Retrieved from https://equusmagazine.com/blog-equus/blood-trail-endurance-escape-history-horse-54038
  9. Kentucky Equine Research Staff. (2018, July 6). Feeding Endurance Horses Day to Day. Retrieved from https://ker.com/equinews/feeding-endurance-horses-day-day/
  10. Loving, N. (2008). Emergency Care at Equine Events: Endurance. Retrieved from https://aaep.org/sites/default/files/issues/proceedings-08proceedings-z9100108000136.PDF
  11. McFarland, C., & Shea, L. (2014, June 23). Endurance Riding 101. Retrieved from https://horseandrider.com/horseback-trail-riding/endurance-riding-101
  12. Miller, A. (2012, February 28). Desert riders uphold ancient tradition. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2012/02/27/sport/winning-post-qatar-endurance/index.html
  13. Preview - The Shahzada - the World's Longest Endurance Ride: Horsetalk.co.nz - equestrian feature articles. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.horsetalk.co.nz/features/cj-2001shahzada-prev.shtml
  14. Qaisar, Rizwan, et al. “Muscle Fiber Type Diversification during Exercise and Regeneration.” Free Radical Biology and Medicine, vol. 98, 2016, pp. 56–67., doi:10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2016.03.025.

By Jordan Schroeder, Krista Schutter, and Peggy Auwerda.
The report is a project for ANS313 Exercise Physiology of Animals

Category: