Fittening the Event Horse a Hot Topic at International Eventing Forum

Andrew Nicholson and Avebury at Rolex. Photo by Kasey Mueller. Andrew Nicholson and Avebury at Rolex. Photo by Kasey Mueller.

Prominent vet Hugh Suffern and renowned racehorse trainer Charlie Longsdon joined Andrew Nicholson to share their insight on the topic of fittening the event horse today at the International Eventing Forum at Hartpury College in Gloucestershire. Read on for their thoughts, which are grouped under a brief explanation of their background (though Nicholson hardly needs an introduction!).

Hugh Suffern, MVB, MRCVS

His keen interest in equine sports medicine and his own experiences as a competitor at the four-star level eventing were the perfect grounding for looking after equine athletes. He has been an FEI vet for over 20 years and the Irish team vet for 13 years, though three Olympic Games, three Worlds and six European Championships.

Hugh is also the race course vet at Down Royal and Downpatrick, a committee member of The Association of Irish Racecourse Veterinary Surgeons, sits on the Tattersalls Ireland and Cavan Sales Veterinary Panels, Goffs Sales Wind Referee Panel, Goresbridge “Go for Gold” sale Radiography Panel and Irish Horse Board Stallion Inspection Veterinary Panel.

He is a member of the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association Veterinary Committee. High is also a National Hunt stud owner, breeding Cheltenham winner and multiple Grade 1 performer Dorans Pride, Harcon and Premier Victory among others. He also stood national hunt stallions Zaffaran and Insan and currently stands the Irish Derby winner Winged Love.

Here’s what Hugh had to say about getting event horses fit:

  • “The short format has brought changes. There used to be two main events each year and a long focussed fitness programme towards these events followed by a rest.  Now there are more events with horses kept at a level of fitness. This requires special skills.
  • “Every horse is different, and most facilities are different. Not one box fits all, but interval training is the best way forward with the least possibility of injury. But keep a note of everything day by day and year by year.”
  • “Blood tests will never replace good management and feel for your horses, but blood tests will show you what the norm is for any horse that can be useful when a horse is off form.”
  • “Surfaces have improved, and therefore there are fewer joint problems, but some riders do too much in the dressage arena with too much turning. So in the programme, you must hack and go through forests and ride on the road at times. Variety is vital.”
  • “It is not required to start with too much galloping. Long and slow and using the competitions themselves to build fitness works well initially. Also, it is a balance initially with doing all the required training for all the phases.”
  • “Blood is important, and those horses that are not Thoroughbred have higher levels of body fat, do not utilize oxygen as well and tend not to travel as well. Therefore, they need more work. Watching bodyweight is important.”
  • “Heart rate monitors can be used to tie in with GPS and there can also be linked in with measuring lactate levels. It’s fun to use but not vital, although it deepens knowledge and understanding.”
  • “Bowed tendons and suspensory branch problems are in evidence as much as ever, but more back problems and more repetitive strain injuries probably caused by work at home rather than competition strains.”
  • “We are all on a progression of learning…we have to keep studying our subject.”
  • “Jumping gymnastically and doing standard training at a slower speed is sufficient in training rather than too much jumping at speed.”
  • “There is an an overriding problem of feeding event horses too much. Overweight is baggage and causes many problems. Horses don’t need so much food. Many horses don’t need more than approximately 8 pounds of hard food a day.”
  • “Modern courses require both aerobic and anaerobic use, and the horses have to learn to cope with the lactate levels in anaerobic work.  They have to be trained for the turning and changes of speed.”
  • “A fit horse will hit less fences on show jumping day.”
  • “I like swimming horses if they have leg problems.”

Charlie Longsdon

Charlie has already packed a tremendous range of experience into his short career, including spells with Oliver Sherwood, Nigel Twiston-Davies, Kim Bailey, Nicky Henderson and, in the U.S., Todd Pletcher. Notable horses under his care with Nicky included Bacchanal, Marlborough, Trabolgan and Fondmort, and in the U.S., Ashado and Speightstown (one of whose Group 1 winning sons, Lord Shanakill, was trained by Karl Burke).

Charlie has made a considerable investment in ultra-modern facilities at his stable in Oxfordshire, which he said has paid off. Brand new stables, 5 furlong woodchip gallop, 1 mile 2 furlong grass gallop, huge outdoor school for basic ground work and loose schooling, new horse walkers and turnout paddocks located in 450 acres of grass and arable land all contribute to strong, healthy, relaxed horses.

Here’s what Charlie had to say about getting horses fit:

  • “In racing in old days, horses cantered twice a week. Now they canter each day with interval training on hills. Horses are fitter now. Horses are also smaller, not so much the big old fashioned horse, but lighter more athletic horses take the training better.”
  • “Having a history of what works for you is vital. Keep records! We keep a precise daily log and weigh them every week and before and after racing. It helps us to see if they have done too much work or a race has taken too much out of them, in which case we back off them for a while.We also do blood tests every week. With so many horses, it is like having another pair of eyes.”
  • “Our horses don’t go on the road. We use all weather surfaces, which makes training so much easier. We have both woodchip and polytrack. The woodchip gallop is a little slower. The 5 furlong gallop rises 150 feet and the hills mean going a little slower to do the same work. We also have grass gallops and try and use a variety of gallops. The National Hunt (jump racing) surfaces are slightly deeper.”
  • “We don’t use a heart rate monitor, but I think it’s a good idea if you know their norms first of all. Some of the flat trainers are now using them.”
  • “We still get injuries because of speed on firm ground, but generally our surfaces are beautifully cared for, whereas an event horse has to cope with a less consistent and prepared surfaces.”
  • “We jump twice a week in training, starting with loose schooling and usually at speed. In France, they tend to jump every day.”
  • “We changed to haylage two years ago, but our horses blew up. It was too high a feed value. We changed back to hay, and our results immediately improved.”
  • “I gallop according to their individual needs. As 3 year olds, they just canter steadily. It takes six months to 18 months to get them ready for racing.”
  • “I don’t use swimming or tread mills, as I prefer using the right gallop surface and keep it simple.”
  • “Eventers need to be more consistent with their training. I see too many tired horses and riders! This will improve; I have little doubt.”

Andrew Nicholson

  • “My horses now are probably fitter than they used to be. Half-bred horses need more fittening work. In addition, with so many jumping efforts close together in modern courses, it requires greater fitness. The steeplechase was easier because it is a consistent speed.”
  • “I start galloping my horses at 400 mpm as 4 year olds once a week, and they finish tired. This helps all the work in the other disciplines. The four-star horses gallop every four days up a hill, which they do up to three times up to slightly quicker than they do in a competition. The heavier half-bred horse can be breathing more heavily at the end of a gallop but often recovers more quickly than the Thoroughbred.”
  • “They don’t do road work, but they go into a national park and trot up hills on tracks that are fairly firm. They do this approximately every third day. The hill is steep!”