A pilot study has provided a snapshot of training and feeding regimes used by top level endurance riders in New Zealand, with researchers finding many kept GPS and heart-rate data, as well as documented training records.
The collection of data found among the 53 national and FEI-level endurance riders in a survey suggested there was scope for further detailed studies to obtain an even more accurate picture of the training of New Zealand endurance horses, the research team said.
The survey, conducted by researchers from Massey University, revealed a strong level of female participation in the sport at a high level, with the 41-50 age group dominating.
Lead researcher Charlotte Bolwell and her colleagues found that endurance horses were managed in a similar way to both competition and leisure horses in New Zealand. Many riders had specific goals for their horses during the competitive season.
The 53 riders who completed the 15-minute face-to-face survey were sought out at four endurance rides, including a 3* FEI event. All were affiliated to Equestrian Sports New Zealand.
The questions covered the demographics of the rider and horse as well as general management and training practices.
The researchers found that, before the first competitive ride of the season, horses were ridden an average of five days a week and were in training for an average of eight weeks.
The first competitive ride of the season marked the transition from long slow distance work to more competition-specific work. Increases in training were associated with a reduction in distance, an increase in speed and no change in frequency.
Conditioning work often incorporated farm work, hill work and hacking, they found.
After a competitive ride, just over half of those surveyed – 57 percent – gave their horses one day off for every 10km covered in the ride.
The researchers found that 81 percent of respondents noted key milestones for their horses during training. Heart rate monitors were used by 61 percent of those surveyed and GPS monitors were used by 63 percent.
The researchers, whose study has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, found that the breeds of the horses identified in the study were consistent with that reported previously, with Arabian and Arabian-cross horses dominating at higher levels of endurance internationally. In all, 92 percent of the horses ridden by respondents were Arab or Arab crosses, with the average age found to be nine.
Endurance horses were generally managed at pasture, the authors reported, with most spending at least 12 hours a day at grass, even more so during the winter off-season.
Most riders fed their horses pre-mixed or straight grain feeds, with few feeding both.
“The opportunity for free exercise in paddocks may explain the relatively short pre-season ‘Long Slow Distance’ conditioning described by many riders (about eight weeks),” the researchers said.
“The contribution of free paddock exercise to the base activity of the horse would increase with increasing paddock size and the terrain of the paddock, and these may be the primary drivers for maintenance of a relatively robust base fitness level in spelling horses.”
An unexpected observation was the increase in training volume reported after the first ride, possibly indicating that riders may use the first ride as a conditioning event.
Most respondents – 79 percent – had been riding in competitive endurance rides for six or more years.
Over half of riders – 58 percent – fed their horses premixed grain feeds, while 23 percent fed straight grain feeds and 11 percent fed both. All riders provided some form of forage, with 53 percent feeding fermented forages.
Sugarbeet pulp and soyabean hulls were often fed as highly digestible fibre sources.
Fifty-six percent added oil to their horse’s feed and 89 percent gave electrolytes. The researchers found that 77 percent of riders provided their horses with a mineral mix. Some reported use of joint supplements, vitamin E, selenium, and supplementary magnesium.
Most of those surveyed said they recorded their horse’s daily training/exercise activity and other details such as injury, feeding, shoeing and vaccinations.
On training, the authors noted: “Many of the respondents provided qualitative data indicating an associated increase in speed and reduction in distance as training progressed.
“These changes may represent an intuitive response to the risk of fracture observed with the accumulation of distances at slow speeds reported in thoroughbred racehorses, although more data is needed to determine if this hypothesis is correct.”
The researcher said further detailed training data needed to be collected to examine how trainers of endurance horses balanced the relationship between load, number of cycles, and rest/recovery periods.
Bolwell was joined in the study by Chris Rogers, Sarah Rosanowski, Jenny Weston, Erica Gee and Stuart Gordon.
Bolwell CF, Rogers CW, Rosanowski SM, Weston JF, Gee EK, Gordon SJG,
Cross-sectional survey of the management and training practices of endurance horses in New Zealand: a pilot study, Journal of Equine Veterinary Science (2015), doi: 10.1016/j.jevs.2015.07.019.
The abstract can be read here.