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Interval Training

 

Interval Training is the method used by many Olympians for swimming and track events; it is used by athletes, professional and amateur, world wide. It is widely recommended by health professionals as a way for many people to achieve optimum fitness levels.

So why is it not used for training and conditioning racehorses? The most likely answer is that Interval Training takes time, and this equates to expense. Moreover, the training of each animal must be highly individualized, no one 'instruction manual' will work for all horses.

Therefore, one must know, going in, that Interval Training is not a fast or easy way to get a horse to the track; one should plan on anywhere from nine months to a year. Anything less is unusual, so don't count on it. IT is grueling work. Conditioning with Interval Training requires a strong rider, a very patient owner and a trainer who pays careful attention to detail in adapting the method to the individual animal as it progresses.

So why bother?

That depends on your goal. If you want a flash in the pan, a horse that might run fast for a short time and then be done, this is not for you. If you want a horse that will endure, and be able to compete in a variety of events well into older age, long after its career on the track is over, then you want Interval Training.

Interval Training would more accurately be called Interval Conditioning. Athletes condition. And that's what we're doing: conditioning a horse to run. Sure, horses run all the time, but not at their top speed for sustained periods of time.

I suppose that's why in conventional training they save those bursts of speed for timed works and race days, the idea being to minimize the likelihood of injury by minimizing the exposure. In actuality, you are increasing the risk, setting the horse up for a greater chance of catastrophic injury. It certainly is no way to create a consistent horse; one must, instead, hope for that rare find, the natural athlete.

Interval Training works very differently. It provides a foundation of what is called LSD: Long, Slow Distance. The intervals will be based on whatever this foundation is built up to. In other words, if you build to a base of 6 miles of gallop work daily, you will be able to do 3 miles of interval work - intervals being that portion of the training where the speed is built.

Now here's where IT may have gotten a bad rap. I recently spoke with a veterinarian who claimed to have experience with IT and swore all it did was produce plodders. Of course it will, if the LSD work is all you do: you will absolutely get exactly what you train for!! You need to understand that the Long Slow Distance is only the basis, not the entire program.

The Long Slow Distance builds the musculoskeletal, vascular and cardio systems, it makes them resilient and builds the foundation for the stressful speedwork that's to come. This is the time where you begin to build the tough hard knocking horse you want in a big money race. How often have you heard phrases such as, "Oh he got clipped," "He was bumped," "She got out of the gates badly," as the million dollar horse wimps out of the race-and that's ok, to be expected, part of the gamble.

Not in my barn. These horses have gotten knocked to their knees, shut out & clipped. What they've done is come back with more fight and determination. And then win. You do not want to stand in the way of a horse that I've interval conditioned!

So much for the myth that interval training doesn't build speed.

But, I digress. LSD is the foundation and that's all it is. As with anything, if the foundation is lacking, whatever you build upon it will ultimately fail, so you gallop. A lot. You build until your horse can do the base mileage you're shooting for in back to back 2 minute licks. So if you're going for a 6 mile base, once your horse can do this in 12 minutes it's time to begin the speed work.

Here's where the high tech part of the training begins.

A horse is never saddled without a heart rate monitor. This provides the trainer with the 'numbers' for each horse. Once you know what your horse's numbers are, you can determine if there's something bothering him (such as an injury that hasn't yet presented itself yet, e.g.: a lameness), if he's being undertrained or overtrained.

Enter the horsemanship aspect of the training. Every horse will react differently to training and conditioning, so besides learning each horse individually and what works for each, you need to learn to read their heartrates and interpret that information to make the most of the training: move on, back off, look for problems when none appear to be present.

Now we enter phase two. From those 2 minute miles you now begin building speed into the horse. This is done in 1-3 second intervals, not by turning the horse loose for 3/8 of a mile. For example, we built to a base of 6 miles, and are now ready for speed. So we'll start with 3 miles of intervals, the first mile is the warm up mile, and it will go at what we last did: two minutes. You check the horse's heartrate, noting the maximum, and, one minute after crossing the 'finish line' you note the heartrate again. That number will determine whether you need to continue, to stop because you've overdone it, or if you're right where you want to be in the conditioning process.

You walk and jog the horse between sets, being careful to not allow what is referred to as a full recovery. We need to be building here, and that won't happen with a full recovery. The times between sets depend on several factors that we won't delve into here, that is part of the horsemanship, in combination with science.

The second interval will be a mile worked in, say 1:58, and the third mile in 1:56. All is the same in terms of recovery heartrates etc. This interval work is followed by 2-4 days of gallop work, build back to your 6 miles, but not at steady 2 minute licks, start out real slow, build to reasonable gallop speed and then work back down a bit. 3-4 days later you do another interval work, the same identical thing. You follow this format another 1-2 times and when the horse is accomplishing it easily and all heartrates are where they should be, the next time reduction will begin with the first mile going in 1:58, second in 1:56 the third in 1:54.

Once you get down to racing speeds there are multiple ways to work the intervals, especially if you aren't racing a mile. You can do 1 mile, 3/4 and 1/2, you can do six 1/2 mile intervals. The way to fashion the runner is limited only by the creativity and horse sense of the trainer.

This has been a VERY brief, very rough and very generalized explanation of what goes into interval training. I haven't discussed Quarter Horse distances, but Quarter Horses are as easily conditioned using intervals as Thoroughbreds and Arabians. We just don't use 1 mile intervals.

I say again, this is not an endeavor for those with limited funds or racing fever. It takes time. And it is worth every moment spent. IT makes for horses built like tanks: they are virtually indestructible, they love to run and when the race is over they're looking around for more action. My 2 foundation stallions, who retired from the track only because Parimutuel rules don't allow horses to race beyond a certain age, have gone on to Endurance Racing. Granted this isn't nearly the speed of a track race-though that isn't for lack of trying on the part of those fellows-it's only because it's cross country and I won't let them go as fast as they want to while leaping over logs and traveling single track through thick forest.

Of this I am certain: it is the interval training they got over 10 years ago that has them competitive in their new sport from the get go. They are sound in mind and body and loving the work--and they are 21 and 22 years young! My data is empirical and my experience is personal, but that doesn't negate a lick of it and may actually be worth more because it's real - not paid for or slanted by someone else's goals.

If you are interested in building a professional athlete from the ground up, or would like to rework a horse that needs a boost to become a real contender, contact us; let our experience work for your horse, and you.

At PFM the only limits are the ones set by your imagination and desire.
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Cyd Birns   USAF veteran           La Vernia, Texas USA                  pfmenterprises@gmail.com