Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Light has Changed and It’s Time To Ride!

When I took my mare to her first cutting practice in 2 ½ years at Cactus Creek Ranch, I wasn’t expecting tons from her.

She has pretty much enjoyed her time off and I have watched her condition shift from competition ready to “fluffy” as she has learned to enjoy a less rigorous life.

It turns out the time away from cattle work hasn’t done me any favors either. My seat was not where it should be, and my timing was off a tic and them some.

My surprise came when my little horse cranked it and went to work like she hadn’t missed a day. She ran a little short and a little crooked, but like I said, both my timing and seat were off, the problems were mostly mine.

Where she had changed was in her physical condition. She doesn’t have the muscle tone, endurance or speed she should have to practice, much less compete. I don’t want to make her sore because she’s out of shape, she’ll get banged around enough while I remember where to sit.

Cow work is supposed to be fun. If it makes her sore she won’t want to keep working.

So how am I going to get us back up to snuff? Both of us need to hone our reaction time from a thought out maneuver to an instinctive one. Cutting puts a lot of strain on hocks and stifles, not to mention backs and shoulders. I don’t want anything to tear or wrench or crack. On either one of us.

I would imagine any regular competitor, in any event, will face the same dilemma if their horse has spent most of the winter working on hay intake and dozing, instead of collection and turns.
What a horse needs to compete is strength, elasticity and wind. I don’t have to actually be cutting to build those things. As a matter of fact, I could end up hurting my horse if I jump her back into the fray without building her first.

When I was a kid I did a little endurance riding. Competing in the NATRC (North American Trail Riders Conference) competitions gave me an incredible understanding in how to safely condition a horse. Learning to check my horses heart rate was one of the best tools I was given. The recovery heart rate is a universal way to assess fitness for any breed in any sport. In order to evaluate the condition of your horse you start with her resting heart rate. In order to be accurate it’s best to have a stethoscope.

Most horses will have a resting heart rate of 42 beats per minute (bpm). Just like us, the fittest horse will have the lowest heart rate, sometimes as low as 25 bpm. Moderate work will bring a horse’s pulse up from 75 to 110 bpm and can go over 200 bpm during heavy work. A healthy horse will recover to below 60 bpm within 10 to 15 minutes of rest.

Horses in poor condition can take 30 to 45 minutes to recover.

The easiest way to know when it’s time to increase exercise levels is when the horse can recover between 44 and 55 bpm within 15 minutes of rest. If the horse’s bpm is over 72 after exercise then you have worked the horse too hard and need to back off.

Or you can count the respiratory rate (breaths), which, while more general, is much easier out on the trail. Again, start with a resting rate, which will be between 8 and 16 breaths per minute. You can count how many breaths the horse is taking by watching the nostrils or flanks. The recovery time from exercise is the same as with the heart rate. If you want to be completely thorough, check both. The heart rate to respiratory rate ratio should be three to one, or two to one. If it becomes one to one you’re in trouble and the horse needs to quit. I don’t want my horse’s workouts to be all about following a flag or blasting through her turns right away.

When I was a kid, Mark Reynor, a great cowboy, told me, “Trotting builds muscle and loping builds wind.”

My horse needs muscle and wind in order to hold it together while turning repeatedly on her hocks and accelerating with everything she’s got to control her cow. I’m going to work on conditioning her by getting on the trail, long trotting and loping in the arena, and adding hill work to encourage getting underneath herself and to build her back. It keeps things interesting and will strengthen her mind while saving her hocks for competition.

Whatever we decide to do, it’s important to start each workout slow. Five minutes of walking and five minutes of trotting can get the horse's body temperature raised and blood flow increased to working muscles. As a result, the muscles and tendons are loosened which increases the range of motion and helps avoid pulling or tearing of tendons and ligaments. The muscles are warmed up, allowing them to handle harder work by smoothly relaxing and contracting. A moderate warm-up will help the horse dissipate heat during intense exercise.

On average it takes a month to see increase condition on a horse. I’m going to try to ride from three to five times a week and make sure she gets at least a couple of days rest. Like any exercise program, a horse needs time off to repair muscle and stave off fatigue.

I’m going to work my horse up to a heart rate from 130 to 150 bpm. Which would put her breath rate anywhere from 45 to 75 or so breaths per minute. It’s easy enough to check this while in the saddle by with a watch and a second hand. Count how many breaths in 15 seconds and multiply by four to get a rough estimate of how your horse is doing. I want to work my horse to about 75% of her limits every time we go out.

Once I have her in better shape we’ll pick up on refining her maneuvers. I’ll still take her to cutting practice a couple times a month, but I’ll be careful not to over do.

While all of this is going, on I have to work on myself too. I can clean up my leg cues in the arena instead of waiting until I’m wasting cattle. If I’m an active participant on our trail rides I can work on my core strength and seat instead of sitting like a lump. Staying on during all the spooks and jumps, which my little darling will inevitably want to share, will get my butt where it belongs.

In a few months I’m thinking we’ll be good to go. Does it sound like I’m getting ready to compete a little? Hmmmm.


  1. Great and timely post Mugs! I too have a couple of equines that have been enjoying a lazy and hay filled winter in the northern climes. So I really appreciated this lesson on how to properly identify heart rate and respiratory rates. I will help a lot when I'm bringing my horses back into condition. One question though: if a gelding looks like he is expecting the miraculous birth of his first child (yes he is the photo child for easy keeper gone haywire!!) does that affect his getting into condition, other than it will take longer!! :D
    Thanks for another useful topic! Lynn

  2. This is killing me Mugs!! I want to go cut again!! I can't though because my horse has a stifle injury. He was given to me, so I can't do much about it. The vet says I can trail ride, but not cut, too much for his stifle that is full of arthritis and spurs. I have been trail riding him, and for the most part he is awesome! Never had issues with him until today...I went with 2 other ladies and one of the horses did nothing but trot and lope sideways and that got my horse wound up. He started jigging...and have NEVER had this issue with him before!! It was really frustrating and when I went to lope with the others, he just wanted to run full speed ahead and when I tried to pull him up, it was like pulling on a brick wall. All he did was gape his mouth and run through the bridle. He is very responsive at the walk and trot, but not the lope....what can I do get more control at the lope?

  3. Sounds like a sound plan! Good luck and we'll all be watching how it goes!

  4. The farthest north NATRC sanctioned CTR is in Fairbanks, Alaska in July. I have a horse you can ride if you want. Unless Tammy at horsetrailriders beats you to her.

  5. Excellent timely post! I may be "inheriting" my mom's 16yo Arabian in a few months (she never rides anymore and I want a horse). He's been sitting in a pasture basically for the last 10 years and I've been worrying about how to get him back in shape. Having some set numbers for breathing/pulse will definitely help make sure I don't push him too far, too fast.

  6. Nice post! Good info for sure about the heart rate - yeah, coming out of winter, I am a puny, sorry, weakling...

  7. That's nice! I have very unscientifically just checked the breathing, and started up again when the breathing has come down.
    I will count the breathing next time, and see what result we'll have, should be interesting...

  8. I have a question about conditioning...

    Is the whole 2:1 or 3:1 ratio (heartbeat to respiration) supposed to be after trot work? or canter work?

    My problem is that when I gallop my horse, the ratio even goes up past the 1:1, when his breathing is at a higher rate than his pulse. I know he's not out of shape - he's never tired due to it, and last season I did gallop intervals weekly all show season, and rode 5 times per week on top of that, usually with trotting hill work once/twice a week - but every single time I took his PR, his breathing was over his pulse.
    He vet checks fine and his recovery rates are awesome (he's usually back down to resting after 10 minutes, in spite of breathing rates sometimes in the hundreds).

    Is this something I should be concerned about?

  9. rispah-I would go by the recovery rate. If he comes back withing 15 minutes (10 is better) I wouldn't worry.

    Slippin- your boy needs to get his butt in the arena. WTC transitions, have horses pass him, have him pass, that kind of stuff.
    Then back on the trail with a quiet trail buddy and practice the same thing.
    Zig zag when he jigs...I just wrote about this, maybe your friend with the spaz horse will get a clue.

  10. The current endurance criteria is 60 bpm. There's an absolutely dead-easy way to roughly check that on the trail, no stethoscope - you could even do it from the saddle if your horse isn't going to take advantage of you. Slap your hand on your horse just forward of the girth. Is her heart going thump MORE than once per second or LESS than once per second? For a really rough estimate, you don't even need a watch - just count one-mississippi two-mississippi in your head.

  11. Funder- 60 bpm when? what does it tell you, it's safe to continue? Is the time to wait still 10-15 minutes for a horse in good shape?

    My info came from my vet, I wasn't going off of my 30-year-old NATRC directions. She was telling me how to safely recondition my horse for cowhorse.

    Info for endurance would be a plus if you don't mind expanding a bit.

  12. Oh I'd be happy to, I just don't want to bore a bunch of other disciplines with our rules. :)

    Once you get to a vet check, your horse has to pulse down to 60 beats per minute or less before your timer starts. At a check, you have a hold (15, 30, 60 minutes) where you have to stay there and let the horse eat and drink. Your hold time does not start til your horse pulses down - if it takes her 10 minutes to pulse down, you've got a problem brewing. (and your effective hold is 10 minutes longer!) Again, at the finish, your horse has to pulse down to 60 bpm or less or you don't complete. It's the most basic sign of a fit and well horse. A horse that's not drinking or has lameness brewing or is too hot won't pulse down, even if it looks fine otherwise.

    Endurance riders usually know where the check is - if it's in camp, of course you know when you're getting close to camp, and if it's an out check you can probably figure it out. People (like me) on horses that aren't the pinnacle of fitness will walk in, or hop off and lead the horse in, so the horse pulses as soon as you get to camp. People on those FEI-level horses just canter in, give their number to the timekeeper, walk over to the person who takes the pulse, and they're down to 60. It's really amazing.

    The takeaway message for other disciplines is: Any normal horse should be down to 60 within 10 minutes or you're pushing too hard. Charting your recovery times is great, but if you just want a quick check - hand on girth, wait til you can feel the thump of the heartbeat, decide if it's faster or slower than once per second.

  13. Thanks :)
    I have been lurking on your blog for some time and just want to say I love it! Even though we do completely different disciplines (I'm one of them crazy eventers :P) I still learn loads from reading this blog :)