“The Art of Pacing” by Sudi Lenhart (Nov. 5 webinar notes)

Sudi, who serves as president of the Southeast Endurance Riders Association (seraonline.org) explained that one reason she loves our sport is because there’s so much to learn, and that she keeps learning more every year. She added that her four horses each help her learn, and motivate her to continue adding to her wisdom.


She defined “pacing” as the speed or rate at which a horse covers trail, and involves the rider’s ability to determine the optimal speed for each horse. She noted, “You’re in charge since your horse can’t know how far you are planning to ride that day,” adding, “Your horse may lie by wanting to go faster than it should, especially at the start of a ride.”


Sudi’s advice for finding a “sweet spot,” or pace at which a given horse can comfortably travel while exerting the least amount of energy (typically staying at a heartrate of 110-120 beats per minute, as measured with a heart rate monitor), is to find a measured section of trail that involves typical terrain for your area, then after covering that section at a comfortable pace, determine your miles per hour and try to stay at or slower than that number when competing. She explained that for one of her horses, the “sweet spot” is a 9.5-10 mph, while for the others it ranges from 7 to 8.5 mph. She said the size or height of a horse is irrelevant; some smaller horses can cover ground as efficiently as taller ones.

While she recommends Garmin products and uses their 220 model to track both speed and heart rate, free mobile apps such as Endomondo can also help you measure distance and pace. She also suggested borrowing a system GOS/heart rate monitor system to test drive before purchasing.


When conditioning a horse, she tries to stay below a heartrate of 140 bpm to keep in the horse’s comfort zone. (Note: Heartrates above 160 mean the horse is working in an anaerobic state that can’t be maintained for long – think of sprinting Thoroughbred racehorses. This may be part of training for endurance riders wishing to prepare their horses for technical terrain/faster speeds.)


Going faster than a horse’s perfect pace may result in the horse taking longer than 10 minutes to meet pulse criteria at the hold, and also impact their appetite, as they may have build up core heat that their circulatory system is working overtime to combat, decreasing blood flow to the digestive tract. It’s always a good idea to have several types of hay and feed to tempt a picky eater.


Sudi next covered the concept of negative splits, in which you start slow and maintain or pick up the pace on each successive loop, depending on how your horse is doing. She explained that making your first loop be the slowest of the day (no faster that that horse’s sweet spot), will pay off with having faster cooling at holds, better appetite and hopefully a horse with plenty of “gas in the tank” for the last loop. She noted that in the National Championship 100 held at the Biltmore Estate in mid-September, only three of the first 12 horses to arrive at the first vet check ended up completing, while all but 1 of the last 12 horses to arrive at the first vet check (including Sudi’s!) successfully finished the challenging ride, which included technical trail as well as hot, humid weather.   She concluded by emphasizing that if you find your horse’s sweet spot/perfect pace, and stick to it, “that strategy will be your friend, your horse will take care of himself and have the best chance of a long career.”


Q&A: What is your advice for rides that start cool, with temperatures increasing dramatically during the day? Starting slow, especially when humidity may be at its highest early in the day, will help keep your horse from building up too much core heat early in the day that may be difficult to dissipate even with intensive sponging and cooling. Sudi added that if you’re on schedule to be able to complete the ride in the allotted time, taking extra time in the holds during the heat of the day to monitor the horse’s heartrate and continue cooling as needed while the horse eats, will greatly benefit horses impacted by extreme temperatures.  


Q&A: What if you haven’t been able to train as many miles as you would have liked before your horse’s next ride? Sudi recommended starting even slower/further back in the pack than you might have. She explained you can leave camp up to 15 minutes after the start of an AERC ride, and for horses that are hard to rate/keep slow at the beginning this may keep them from being caught up in pack mentality and see the day as just another training ride.


Q&A: A mother plans to sponsor her daughter on her daughter’s pony’s first limited distance ride, and is concern about her horse wanting to go faster than the pony. Sudi asked if she and her daughter ride/train together. Since they do and the horses are bonded, she felt it wouldn’t be as much of a concern provided they stay away from being part of a pack, even if it means pulling off trail to put some distance between themselves and other riders.


Q&A: A member with very hilly, technical trail where she trains asked about how to determine the sweet spot given these conditions. Sudi answered that even a half-mile stretch of fairly level ground where the horse can maintain a consistent trot or gait can be used to calculate the sweet spot/optimal pace that horse should not exceed.


Q&A: A member explained that her horse was recently pulled for overtime on a limited distance ride held on a hot, humid day, and asked how she could have prevented this. She said the ride vet advised that her horse probably needed more calcium because of it’s heavier build (which can be given in the form of calcium gluconate). Sudi agreed, explaining that the brand of electrolytes the rider used is very low or has no calcium but that she can compensate by adding this mineral (available online in powder form) or by purchasing a type of electrolyte higher in calcium. While an onsite bloodwork machine was not available for this ride, Sudi explained that she’s had baseline bloodwork done on each of her horses to help determine the optimal electrolyte protocol for each. She also begins electrolyting several days before a competition so the horse arrives well-hydrated.


Q&A: A member planning for her first AERC ride asked about finding someone to ride with her all day to help with pacing, and possibly motivated her horse towards the end. Sudi explained that trying to ride the entire day with the same person may not always work if the horses have different “sweet spots,” but that your riding buddy agrees to go no faster than your horse’s perfect pace on the first loop, its fine to start together and see how things go based on pulsing and vet scores at each hold.


Q&A: Another member asked if a horse’s sweet spot changes over time as they grow more conditioned. Sudi answered that in her experience it has not changed for each of her horses, but that they may be able to cover technical terrain more efficiently so that their rides times may end up being faster. She added that it would be interesting for those starting a horse new to the sport to track this for their horses.

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