Friday, January 7, 2011 by Duncan McLaughlin
In human endurance sports, winning performance is a result of both technique and fitness: in that order. Technique accounts for up to 60-70% of endurance performance, more so in swimming and cycling, less so in running, while fitness accounts for 30-40% of endurance performance, less so in swimming and cycling, more so in running. The importance of technique is most clearly demonstrated by studies on the very successful African marathoners who score around average, when compared to other elite marathoners, on all commonly measured fitness parameters (VO2max, lactate threshold, height to weight ratios, muscle fiber types and proportions, etc) - their exceptional speed comes from exceptional technique.
By contrast, successful performance in endurance horses is due primarily to fitness, for two reasons:
1. Endurance horses are nowhere near as fit as endurance humans. Winning horses are generally performing at around 30% VO2 max (compared to winning humans performing at around 70% VO2 max), so even small increases in fitness can create a major performance advantage; and
2. Practically no endurance riders work to improve their horse's technique.
And there is a third reason: aesthetics. As endurance riders, our concept of what constitutes a good moving horse is still largely derived from other equestrian disciplines. Aesthetics drawn from dressage, eventing and showjumping - where good technique involves increased articulation of the joints, a relatively slow tempo, and an emphasis on increased weight carrying by the hindquarters - are particularly pervasive. Movement like is this is entirely appropriate for these sports but incredibly inefficient in getting your horse down the trail over long distances: Our endurance horses should not move like dressage horses! That is not to say your endurance horse should not do regular arena work - he should. Dressage is unparalleled in creating strength, flexibility and balance in your horse. If your horse is conditioned enough to be run a competitive 100 mile endurance ride he should also be comfortably performing arena-work gymnastics (trot shoulder-in, trot and canter half-pass, flying change) with correct longitudinal flexion and some degree of collection, to build strength and suppleness. But he shouldn’t move down the trail like that.
So what is efficient movement like? In human endurance athletes efficiency is characterised by:
1. A relatively short stride;
2. A relatively fast tempo;
3. Minimal vertical displacement (movement is channelled forward, not up and down);
4. Reduced or no braking effect on foot strike; and
5. Utilisation of gravity rather than muscular effort where possible.
The same characteristics apply to efficient movement in horses - it is the type of movement horses evolved to make prior to selective breeding (think hackneys, warmbloods), long hoof capsules and fancy shoeing. In fact, we have a very good model of effecient equine movement in our wild/feral horses.
full article here