The next session was that of vet Hugh Suttern and racehorse trainer Charlie Longsdon. This was a session I was really interested in because I am not convinced many amateurs truly fitten their horses properly. It’s a fundamental skill and one I was looking forward to learning more about.
What are the most significant changes now?
Hugh Suttern started with this question. ‘In the long format days there were two seasons – Spring and Autumn. Most people had a plan to progress to do a long format three day event and with this riders had a targeted and focused fitness programme. Now we have short format. The events are easier to host so there are lots more events, we also now have CIC and CCI and so the year is continuous. Horses are kept at a more level level of fitness. There is no structured fittening programme like the past. Horses are now in a more constant state of readiness.’
Has the modern TB horse changed?
Charlie Longsdon answered ‘Trainers like Fred Winter were trotting on roads in the 1960s/70s/80s and twice a week the horses would canter. Martin Pipe introduced interval training and had a far fitter horse through cantering everyday up and down hills. It’s all about fitness. On heavy ground you need a fit horse. The beautiful old fashioned TB cannot take on that intensity of training and thus you are getting lighter and more athletic TBs which can cope with the work.’
Hugh Suttern discussed interval training. ‘Every horse is different. You work on different aspects. One box does not fit all. Interval training is the right way. It improves both the heart and lungs and gives the least chance of injury in the process. Interval training is proven. When you are training a horse keep a note of everything.’
Charlie Longsdon – ‘I have 70 horses in training under a system and if things go wrong I know where I am. If you only have 1/2/3 horses it is hard to know if you are on the right track. But keep a note of how that is reflected in their competition record and then tweak or change in the future. There is no exact science to getting a horse fit but you need to look at the horse and know what suits. You need to work out the optimum and records are vital.’
Charlie Longsdon – ‘Everything is logged daily. We weigh before and after racing so we know what the optimum weight for that horse is. Blood tests are taken and combined with historical records.’
Hugh Suttern – ‘Blood tests will never replace good management and brain, but they give you a profile for the healthy horse. If the wheels fall off the you have a history. If the problem lies elsewhere or if the red and white cells have changed you can identify a problem.’
Charlie Longsdon started taking bloods when he had over 50/60 horses in training because you cannot give the individual attention so much. By eye is as good but this needs detailed attention.
Hugh Suttern – ‘A huge change has been in surfaces. Everyone now works on good surfaces. The size of the arenas has also improved so horses can work well in an arena. There is a reduction in joint problems but there is an issue that some horses work too much on arenas and surfaces. 15-20 strides before a circle and you lose going forwards and looking at the horizon. Road work/hacking should be structured in so that horses mentally retain the idea of going somewhere.’
Charlie Longsdon – ‘Our racehorses don’t go on the roads, they stay on the farm. We don’t do much roadwork with them and just tend to do a couple of weeks walking and trotting before we start hack cantering because they are fresh and it makes them easier to manage. We have woodchip gallops which are fantastic. The only weather we cannot use them in is snow. All weather tracks have made training easier. Flat horses use different gallops which are harder in going that jumpers. Woodchip as a surface is slightly slower than Polytrack. Kempton rotorvate their Polytack deeper to make it slower for the National Hunt bumper races.’
‘My horses are trained to lead or be tucked just behind. Terrain makes a difference, most trainers have gallops which are on a hill.’ Charlie’s gallops rise 150ft over 5 furlongs. Charlie admitted it took him 2 years to work out how to use his gallops to the best.
Do lower levels need to gallop?
Hugh Suttern – ‘I have several clients who never gallop. They work in the school, cross country school and felt that they were quite capable of getting round 1* and they use competitions to bring the horse to full fitness. Once you get to 2* level then you need to have a fittening programme. The change from long format means people spend more time in an arena for dressage and show jumping. The horse has to be more trained. The focus has moved away from fitness in eventing now.’
Hugh Suttern – ‘You have always needed blood in a horse. The warmblood was stereotypically lacking in blood but just now they have a lot of blood. Those that are not TB are genetically built to have higher body fat and respiration. Naturally they don’t travel as well. So to get the same level of fitness as a TB you need to work them harder. Focus on that part of the preparation and body fat.’
‘A blood horse is capable of cruising round – non TBs need to watch their body fat.’
Charlie Longsdon – ‘Every week we weigh our horses to have a record. A horse which has done maybe too much might lose weight after racing. We have a good look at them once a week. It’s an extra way of getting the best out of a horse.’
Heart rate monitors are not used by Charlie Longsdon though he hears that eventers use them. A few national hunt trainers use them but Charlie did not see the need to yet.
Hugh Suttern – ‘If you undertake to use one you can link them with GPS and at what speed. You can then link this into taking lactate blood samples which makes it even more accurate with fitness. You learn a lot about the fitness process. It’s a tool which has been available for many years yet most do fitness by feel. A heart rate monitor deepens the knowledge of what is happening and what you are trying to achieve.’
Hugh Suttern – ‘Old problems like tendon and suspensory branch injuries are still there but high suspensory and back problems have come to the fore, more due to day to day repetitive strain at producing a horse to compete successfully at that level. Things are evolving all the time. H&H mentions injuries to high level jumpers, like sub-clinical injuries which affect the performance horse, but these can be minimised by schooling a different way. We learn more over time and how to deal with them.
Charlie Longsdon – ‘We are lucky in racing as the quickest ground is watered. We would not race on ground that you eventers sometimes do. We get problems in the summer months and fewer problems in the winter.’ Charlie said that sometimes they have run a horse in April which is often not great for grass cover because it has not grown yet and 3 months later after a summer rest come back with an issue. Much of this is about management but we have properly prepared tracks in racing.’
Do we condition to jump at speed enough? Charlie Longsdon’s horses jump from the word go. In summer they will jump in a school over poles to chase fences and will probably jump around two times a week. By Christmas they don’t need huge amounts. Nov/Dec/Jan the horses are normally racing with some schooling for the younger horses. Charlie on the whole tends to do a lot of jumping with his horses.
Hugh Suttern – ‘I don’t think it’s necessary and adrenaline would be different. Schooling gymnastically and accurately with prepare the horse and leave the horse in good stead. All I can see is problems if you school at competition pace.’
Hugh Suttern – ‘Modern feed has made a massive difference. Feeding has changed a lot. Eventers overfeed and feed too much. Horses don’t need much to perform well. 2-3* horses at optimum fitness should not be carrying any body fat. Tying up issues are related to this. In the long format days a 4* horse had 2 sections of hay and 8lbs of nuts. The horse did not look great but performed.’
Charlie Longsdon – ‘Feeding is easier now. We feed nuts from Redmills. There is a risk of overfeeding. One year our hay was not great so we moved to haylage and 14% nuts protein. Everything was blowing up and we could not put enough work into them. We went back to hay and horses started winning again. Too much protein and they will struggle.’
Eric Smiley – ‘ I see too many fresh horses as a coach. People tend to feed in anticipation of work and not what they are actually doing.’
At this point Andrew Nicholson joins the panel.
‘My horses are fitter now than when they were doing long format.’ Andrew now rides a lot of half-bred horses which he says you have to stretch the lungs a bit more to get the speed and still show jump the next day.
‘Modern courses are much more demanding on stamina with quick jumps – there are lots of turning fences in short distances. at 4* level. Lots of half-breds don’t recover if not fit. At the middle of a 4* they will hit a flat patch. Course designers have realised this and often have energy sappers in the middle.’
‘In long format the steeplechase did not take much out of them. Now we are running over shorter distances but more pace is needed.’
Flatspot after ten minutes
Hugh Suttern – When on the gallops horses use oxygen and they have to maximise the air into their lungs which means they can take a moment to get up to competition pace but they are trained that the muscles can use oxygen and minimise lactic acid and learn how to deal with it. It is around the 6/7 minute mark that lactic acid builds to a problem. Fit horses at 8-10 minutes get more aerobic in breathing and start to eliminate that. Its important to have a horse fit that can still break the rhythm and not bang the second last fence with their stifles. The fitter horse recovers quicker. The ability to deal and clear lactic will reflect in the showjumping result the next day.’
Andrew Nicholson – ‘My neighbour has gallops. The 4yos will learn to ‘gallop’ around once a week but at about 400mpm [[for context, BE100 SJ speed is 350mpm]]. They are tired the second time up but they are told gently to keep going. You are teaching them to keep breathing and to keep going. They tend to come out the next day better in their schooling for it.’
‘Some of the heavier ones struggle but come out feeling more supple. The 4* horses will gallop every 4 days. They go three times to the top and they want to pull up on the last run.’
Andrew goes and looks at them all at the same spot to gauge how they are looking.
‘The half-bred huffs and puffs but will breathe better at 4 mins. The TB can have its engine worked much harder than the half-bred. The chunkier ones will do some sprint work over a shorter incline which takes 50 seconds. They want to stop at the end and it makes them breathe a bit harder.’
Charlie Longsdon – ‘The 3yo/4yo horses are looked at individually. Some will take it and some won’t. Some of them won’t get near a racecourse until 4yos. As a 3yo we are introducing poles and they canter everyday. The 4yos will be in normal canter work and most will run in April of their 4th year.’
Hugh Suttern – Swimming can be a benefit to problematic horses.
Charlie Longsdon – I keep things simple. You can over complicate things in training. Don’t over analyse everything.’
Andrew Nicholson – ‘I don’t really do any roadwork. I live next to National Trust woods with hard tracks. The horses will trot up over a particular hill. I know how many times they will do it in 30 minutes. The hill is about a minute from top to bottom.
Charlie Longsdon – ‘There is a big divide between 4* and the lower levels. Consistency of fitness is key, all the way through.’
Hugh Suttern – ‘Horses need to be fit for all three phases.’
Key points I took away
1) Make an effort to time all my hillwork so I know exactly how long my hill sets are. With technology I can also work out how long and high they are. This will help me with point 2.
2) Make notes on general fitness to create historical records.
3) Keep an eye on bodyfat.
4) Keep it simple and make sure your horse is fit!