Saturday, June 13, 2009

Straight Sailing: Thoughts on Fitness for Endurance Riders

I'm about to offend some people. I find that I don't care as much as I used to. You don't have to agree with me. You don't even have to read this post. If you choose to do so, pull up your big girl panties and get on with it. All I ask is that you listen to my opinion and form your own.

I've been thinking about rider fitness. No, not the flame-singed, popcorn-strewn "how fat is too fat to ride" debate that refuses to die on equine forums across the net, but fitness specifically for endurance riders. It seems to me that those of us who ask our horses to haul us fifty miles or more over sunbeaten mountains and through mudslicked valleys ought to hold ourselves to a higher standard than the average equestrian.

How high a standard?

Let me put it this way: If I were training for a relay marathon with a human partner, I'd sure as hell expect him to work as hard I did to prepare. If I found out he was spending his afternoons kicked back on the couch with a diet soda while I logged set after set of agonizing miles, I'd be downright irritated. In fact, I'd probably pull my race entry -- or else find myself a better partner.

How many endurance horses would do the same? Judging by my own observations at rides in my area, I'd have to guess at quite a few. Too bad the ponies don't get a choice. Their riders choose for them -- and some of those choices are less than honorable.

A good friend of mine, who is considering getting into endurance, summed up my feelings on the subject nicely: "I wouldn't even attempt it if I weren't in top condition. I believe I have to earn the privilege of having a good partner by being a good partner."

But what, exactly, is a "partner?"

I looked up Webster's definition and found it largely unsurprising:

Partner (n): 1. One that shares; 2. One associated with another, especially in an action; 3. a member of a partnership, especially in a business.

But the final entry that caught my attention.

4. One of the heavy timbers that strengthen a ship's deck to support a mast.

Being that my maritime experience is exceedingly limited, I had to read up on mast partners. It's a simple concept. Basically, the opposing forces of wind and water upon a ship's mast create pressure that is too much for the ship's deck alone to bear. Without partners -- stout timbers fixed between the deck beams around the opening in the deck through which the mast passes, distributing loads across the deck and into the hull -- both mast and deck would suffer damage sufficient to endanger both craft and crew.

Take a look at this image of the mast partners installed while rebuilding the raised vessel Irene. The partners are the cross-pieces between the longer deck beams. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to figure out what would happen if you used a substantial joist on one side and a toothpick on the other.

And yet, many endurance teams attempt to sail through the sport with exactly that handicap. The horses are beautifully, admirably fit, and the riders are...not.

Now wait a minute, you say. I care about my horse. I work hard to keep her fed and watered, floated and ice-booted, vaccinated and massaged and trimmed and clipped and supplemented and stretched.

I'm sure you do. I'm glad you do. That's important. But when was the last time you busted your butt as hard as she does? You know, the butt with those fifteen extra pounds attached. Aren't you supposed to be an athlete, too?

Listen up. I'm not talking about mediocrity here. I'm not talking about lacing up your tennies for a 20-minute walk during your lunch break, maybe throwing in a couple of those tricep kickbacks you read about in the latest issue of Cooking Light.

I'm talking about pure, focused, physical and mental effort. Huffing and puffing, nauseating, self-disciplined, self-denying, self-fulfilling, barrier-breaking workouts that sculpt you into the kind of fit that makes strangers on the street turn around for another look.

You know -- the kind of effort your endurance horse makes for you.

All right. Raise your hand if your hackles are up. Anybody preparing to hammer out a scathing comment about how I'm trying to turn endurance racing into an elitist sport? Take your finger off the trigger, folks; that's not my point.

In fact, one of my favorite things about endurance is that it's a rare sport in which kids can compete alongside their grandparents, and some of its top riders excel despite physical ailments that make them look like everybody's last idea of a champion athlete.

What I am saying is that if you're settling for mediocrity, you're failing your horse. Even if your fitness level is "not that bad." Even if it's "above average." If it's not your personal best -- and that's a moving target, ladies and gentlemen, so keep striving -- it's not good enough.

You don't have to be an elite athlete to compete in endurance. It's a welcoming sport. Care for your horse and give her the credit she deserves, and you'll find friends in ridecamps everywhere. But hear this: Unless you're making a real, concerted, consistent effort to remodel yourself to the best of your ability, you aren't bearing your share of the burden. You aren't the partner you ought to be.

Your horse didn't sign up for this sport. You did. You wanted the fun, the challenge, the adventure and glory. Good for you. Now earn it.

I don't claim to be a nutrition and fitness expert, but for those who are interested, I'll share in subsequent posts a few things I've learned about diet and exercise that have recently honed my personal fitness to an unprecedented level. If I can do it, you can, too.

Related Posts

Fit to Ride, Part One: Going for the Goal
Fit to Ride, Part Two: Vice and Advice
Fit to Ride, Part Three: Eating Clean
Fit to Ride, Part Four: Sweet Surrender
Fit to Ride, Part Five: Eating Green
Fit to Ride, Part Six: Milk Got You?

Cross Training -- for you, not your horse
by Liz at Equine Ink

Want to read more posts like this one? Subscribe to The Barb Wire

Stumble Upon Toolbar


Lori Skoog said...

You are right...the horse did not sign up, you did. The horse definately should be only 50% of the "team.". said...

One time I ran down a mountain on foot leading my horse. At the bottom was a trot by vet check. The vet says to me "what do you feed that horse for, get on and ride him!"

It isn't fair to judge riders based upon how they look. I have a friend endurance rider who many would consider overweight (and therefore, not fit or out of shape) and she just completed a 100 mile bicycle race around Lake Tahoe finishing quite well. It wasn't her first.

You might be surprised at how many other activities and workouts endurance riders do, at least the ones I know. I sure wouldn't call very many of my friends out of shape, unfit or unprepared to share equal partnership with their horses on a ride. Even though they might not look like "athletes".

I do agree with you though that it wouldn't hurt to try harder to make our horses jobs easier.

I consider my relationship with my horse a partnership but I have to give him credit where credit is due - Chief definitely does more than 50% of the work on a ride!!

Tamara of In the Night Farm said...

Hi Karen -- I agree with you that appearance is an unreliable indicator of how fit a person is. Some individuals are more genetically predisposed to look athletic than others, just as some are more predisposed to look like supermodels. (At 5'3", I'll never make the grade for that one!)

I'm simply saying that in order to be the best partners for their horses (mentally as well as physically, because of course the horse bears the bulk of the effort), endurance riders should be as fit as possible. Exactly how "fit" looks on a particular individual is irrelevant. :)

Anonymous said...

This has to qualify as one of your best ever posts.
When the gloves are off, you have better aim! Rider/owner responsibility is one of my big issues, and I appreciate your beautiful and hard-hitting commentary on it.
As far as being willing to tick people off, well, it's your blog. You can't please everyone.
I look forward to your future posts on this issue, and to learning from them.
I hope you don't mind, but I'm going to link to this post in my own blog.

Cactus Jack Splash said...

Very good post.
I think fit is the important work. You can be fit and still big. I did a 750 bike ride in 7 days and I was the size I am now.
I have gotten off my horse and hiked along side when needed or just for fun.
I agree that you need to be an equal partner to the horse. The rider should be up to doing what the horse is being asked to do, to be able to support them along the way.
I don't think anyone should be upset when they are told to be an equal partner to their horse.

Funder said...

I sure didn't phrase it as well as you, but I had the same general thought six weeks ago. I joined a gym and I have been working out 5-6 days a week since then. I want to be the partner my horse deserves. I don't want to ask more of her than I ask of myself. :)

Mena said...

Thank you for this. I have been trying to put this exact concept into words for myself, always wondering why I had a problem with the people who are extremely out-of-shape and letting the horse do 100% of the work. This explains it perfectly.

I am just starting a fitness program (for myself and my 5-year-old half-Arabian gelding) in order to be able to do a 25 miler this fall, and after I read the AERC handbook and chose a workout philosophy to follow, I am ready to be the best partner for my horse that I can be (, you should check it out, you sound like you would relate well to this philosophy).

By the way, I stumbled across your blog a few months ago while I was looking for experienced local endurance riders (I live in Logan, Utah... not so local to you, but I guess from Google's perspective, it is) and I found your blog. I love it so much, I have read many of your entries, and I consider you my "online" mentor. Thank you for blogging about your experiences and I hope one day we can meet at an endurance ride!

Tamara of In the Night Farm said...

Thanks, Kim. Links from EH are always welcome and appreciated. :)

CJ Splash -- Thanks. It all boils down to personal best (after the point of basic fitness, of course). As I say, it's a moving target, which is all part of the fun.

Kudos, Funder. Your horse is one of the lucky ones.

Welcome, Mena! You nailed it on CrossFit. My workout partner put me onto that site, and I've learned a lot there. I'm glad The Barb Wire has been useful to you...just be sure to run everything I say through your own filters, and don't hesitate to speak up when you think I'm wrong. :) Surely do hope we can meet up at a ride one of these days!

Spartacus Jones said...

This is a great post, Tamara.
I'm with you 200% (that's 100% for me and 100% for my pony!)


Tamara of In the Night Farm said...

Thanks, SJ. My best -- and yours -- to your pony.

Anonymous said...

Tamara, I applaud your courage in bringing up a subject so touchy to many riders.

My own opinion concurs with yours: I can't ask my horse for what I can't support on my end. I'm not there to be carted around. I'm there to carry myself, aid my horse in carrying me through whatever movements, and be as fit as possible.

And I'm also one of those people who needs to up the workout ante.

I'm very glad to see it recognized that size is not an indicator of fitness. I know people much more fit than I am, (and it shows in their riding), though we wear different sized clothing.

Thanks for the half halt!

Carol said...

As an overweight rider myself that struggles with fitness and diet, I thought I would throw in my thoughts for what they are worth.

First off are a 100% correct and you wrote a great post that I'm sure will get a lot of people thinking about "their" responsibility in their partnership with their horses.

The only comment I would like to make is that I think it's also important to realize how easy it is to make assumptions about someone by only what you see in front of you at that particular moment. Without truly knowing someone personally, it may be hard to know just what they do (or don't do) to try to get in shape.

I struggle a lot with my weight and I try to get as much exercise as I can -- however I am still a large person ( and as I's a struggle). Because I am quite an active person though, I am actually more able bodied than a lot of people who are smaller than me. I am also stronger than a lot of people smaller than me....and believe me when I say this: I have surpised a few people in this area.

On first glance though -- if you don't know me -- you might picture me as being a couch/TV potato who likes to snack and lay around. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I can hardly sit through a movie without getting up to do something. About the only time I make it through an entire movie is when I am at a theater (which also isn't very often). Unfortunately, I do like to snack and I am in a constant battle with that. I usually eat on the run and when my time gets short....well, thats when I run into problems with what I'm eating (Ugh).

I DO feel that I take outstanding care of my horse and I am always conscious of what I am asking him to do with a "big" rider. He never works hard and if he ever started having trouble with me riding, I would be off in a heartbeat. I love my horse and I care about him very, very much. I am very picky about his care and I often don't push him as hard as some people have told me they think I should.

I am constantly working on loosing weight and trying to stay more fit. I also work on my position and seat when I am riding as I feel these things are important too. A person can be thin and athletic, but still not necissarily be a good rider.

Someone who does not know me or know how much I work on things or how well I care for my horse may be quick to make hasty judgements about me and my size but I personally feel that unless they spend a several weeks worth of watching me ride and care for my horse, they really don't know enough about me to assess what I am doing or pass any kind of judgement on me.

I'm sure it is possible that some of these riders are just starting out and are unaware of the fitness level it takes to be a good endurance rider. They will need to learn. Someone such as yourself could be a great mentor and a great help to some of these riders if you are willing.

I know that if I were to ever compete in endurance, my fitness level would definately be at the top of things I would want to focus on. For now tho -- I am happy to just follow a few endurance blogs and to live vicariously through the people that write them.

Like me, I am sure there are many riders that struggle with their weight and fitness as well and also like me, maybe they don't push their horses as hard because of that .....but without truly knowing them, it's something you just may not know...

At any rate, those are my thoughts for what they are worth. ....and I do think you wrote an excellent post here and it definately gives many riders something to think about.

You had said you were going to write some posts about your own workout schedule and what you do to stay in shape.. I hope that you do, as I am always looking for different ideas and motivational thoughts. I will look forward to reading them.

I'm sorry for such a long comment and I hope no one takes any of my thoughts as a slam of any kind...just a little different perspective from someone who does struggle with the weight/fitness issue but who still enjoys riding.

Anonymous said...

i'm an ultrarunner who ventured into endurance riding... i think you're spot on .. with partners BOTH being in shape.

trot on
gp and gazi

Boots and Saddles 4 Mel said...

I'm going to link this to my blog as my post for the day - I couldn't agree more completely. Especailly this year, I've been getting off on rides. I usually do 25% of the ride on foot - running and walking. I no longer ride during the week (mostly). Instead my horse and I go out for a 5 mile run most days. On the weekends we go on longer ride where I do 40-50% of the mileage on foot. I do not want to be the "weak" link.

When I started this sport I had lots of people tell me that I was light enough that I didn't *need* to get off during the ride. I disagree. I can still maintain 6+ mph on foot in most cases and my horse is so much better for it. And please - don't tell me how hard the ride and how "undoable" it was when I ran 25% of it on foot, yet you rode all of it and your horse is exhausted. GRRR!

That being said - my standardbred and me were NOT compatible on the ground at all. getting off would not have gained anything. She walked and trotted faster than I did and really just wanted to get down the trail without me in front of her. The arab actually ENJOYS jogging with me and so we do it often.

Jonna said...

I have been enjoying the comments that this post generated. I like that you took a risk of "steppin in it" a little to point out something you feel strongly about.That's admirable. It would be interesting to hear what some of the other "riders out there do to keep themselves fit while trying to manage the time issue of conditioning horses for endurance.

AareneX said...

New reader here, and appreciating the strong words!

I'm not competing in endurance this year (too much "life", not enough "day") but I will be helping at the vetchecks and gradually increasing the fitness level of both my STB mare and me before we hit the long trails.

I'd like to say, as one who has spent lots of time lately hanging out at vetchecks and helping riders who need an extra hand, it's sometimes REALLY obvious which people are the fit/active riders who HELP their horses on the trail, and which riders are just up there steerin'. When you take the saddle off and watch the horse move, you can see the difference.

Boots and Saddles made a good point about making time on foot vs making time in the saddle. I rode an Arab who was soooo slow downhills that I'd get off just to hurry him along. My STBs, though, were/are quicker with me up top...and my current mare is so tall that I have to find mounting blocks to re-mount, so I have to plan those carefully!

However, you can help your horse while still mounted. A fit rider won't fatigue as quickly, and can ride in a lighter, more balanced fashion for much longer than an unfit rider. A fit rider also won't get DIMR nearly as quickly, and will take better care of the horse's needs through the ride.

It all adds up to: keep trying to get fitter. Thanks for the post, I needed that!

Jackie said...

Okay, just finished a 50 miler and I have sore thighs, and now guilt after reading the blog!

I'm going to do more walking and hiking with my horse this summer in order to get more fit.

Thanks for the kick in the pants.

Life at Star's Rest said...

As always, a wonderful and thought provoking post which is why I just left you a little award over at my place!

I used to run many miles along side my horse when I did endurance conditioning. I always wanted to try ride and tie but that was way before back injuries brought my running career to a halt. These days I find yoga to be one of the best ride assistance programs I have. Carmon

Tamara of In the Night Farm said...

Sorry for my slow response, all. I'm traveling and haven't been online as much as usual.

Jane -- thanks...and I love the "half halt" line. :)

Carol -- Can't tell you how much I appreciate your courage and time in drafting such a thoughtful response. You bring up some excellent points. I particularly agree that a heavy, balanced rider is better than a lightweight, unbalanced rider any day of the week! You're also correct that fitness, like any long-term commitment, is a personal decision and a personal journey in which you must find your own satisfaction, and to hell with what passers-by may say.

gp -- Oooh, ultra! Cool. I believe there's great benefit in having done sufficient (human) endurance work to understand what your horse is going through during conditioning and racing.

Boots -- Thanks for the link. :) I, too, enjoy extended runs alongside my ponies. I find they're excellent for bonding and confidence-building (I often do this from a ground-driving rather than a leading position), as well as fitness. However, I've found that cardio work of that variety is insufficient to get me in top condition, and issue I'll address in upcoming posts.

Hi Jonna. :) I concur -- would love to hear what other endurance riders are doing to get or stay in shape! I'll write more about my own methods, which are relatively new to me (and very effective) soon.

Welcome, AareneX! :) You're right on about fitness making a huge difference whether you dismount and run with your horse or not. In fact, I think the larger issue is whether you're strong enough to really help your horse through 50+ miles FROM THE SADDLE. Keep on, keep up, keep striving!

Go Jackie and Tia -- congrats on another successful ride! Kicking in the pants? My specialty. Stay tuned for more. ;)

Hey, thanks, Carmon. :) Ride and tie interests me, as well -- and so does the application of yoga to riding fitness. I'd love to explore that a bit. Thanks again for thinking of me with the award. :)

Boots and Saddles 4 Mel said...

I find that a combination of running, pilates, and exercise ball is great for maintaining fittness. Adding swimming is ideal, but I can't swim right now due to my commute.....I'm still OK with just the running.

I think that it's important to find something you'll stick with. I LOVE running. A lot of times I'm getting off and running, not because my hrose needs it, but because I need it. Swimming puts me in better conditioning than running (I htink I've been running long enough I'm too effiecient), but I don't like it well enough.

Michelle said...

I loved this post because this is something that I've been thinking a lot about lately. This applies to all competition horses - even my own western pleasure Appaloosas. I have watched many classes where a horse struggles to stay round and in frame as the rider flops around on his back. I also want to note that (to me) fitness is not just about weight - flexibility, strength, and endurance are just as important. Countless times I have seen stiff riders with back sore horses, or riders exhausted because they don't have the strength or endurance to post around the entire arena and hanging on their horses's mouth for support.
You are 100% right. Being a responsible horse owner - ESPECIALLY at upper levels of competition where we ask that much more of our mounts - includes taking care of ourselves as well as we take care of our horses. Thanks for the info!