Member News

CVDA Member Dinah Rojek

What Endurance Competitors
Can Teach Dressage Riders

by Amber Heintzberger (Readers are welcome to contact Amber)

This article is copyrighted and used by permission from the United States Dressage Federation (www.usdf.org). It originally appeared in "USDF Connection," September 2010.

Going the Distance

Endurance riding tests not only the fitness of horse and rider but their training and partnership. In endurance competitions, which can be over courses of 100 miles, horses negotiate all manner of terrain, with frequent veterinary examinations. Only horses judged to be sound, suitably recovered, and fit to continue are permitted to go on from various checkpoints along the route.

An endurance ride has a maximum allowable completion time but no minimum; thus, the first horse over the finish line that’s judged "fit to continue” wins. (Endurance’s cousin is the sport of competitive trail riding (CTR). In CTR, riders aim to complete shorter distances at a designated MPH range. The winner is the horse that finishes within the optimum-time window and is assessed to be in the best condition.)

To tell us more about the sport of endurance, we tapped Stephen and Dinah Rojek, South Woodstock, VT, both accomplished endurance competitors who use dressage training to improve their horses' performance. Steve Rojek won the 2009 Maggy Price Endurance Excellence Award, sponsored by Gold Medal Farm’s Larry and Valerie Kanavy and awarded to the endurance rider who earns the most points in a competition year at designated FEI endurance events. He hopes to represent the US at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Lexington, KY, which kick off later this month.

Wife Dinah Rojek has been involved in competitive trail riding and endurance racing since the 1970s. She has logged more than 23,000 lifetime competition miles and is an FEI 4* judge. A breeder of Arabians and half-Arabians, she has produced two world champions. Today her endurance saddle is mostly retired in favor of a dressage saddle, and she is currently riding and competing at Fourth Level.

Natural Balance
and Energy Conservation

The Rojeks say that, for distance horses, the key to success is self-carriage. Yes, you read that right: These endurance veterans want their horses to be in self-carriage, not just for six or seven minutes in the ring but throughout an entire 100-mile endurance ride. “Teaching [self-carriage] occurs through persistent light rebalancing, from the first time the horse is ridden," says Steve. “It does not matter whether it is in the ring or on the trails; rebalancing must occur every time the horse is ridden. Hopefully, rebalancing becomes a rider’s natural, unthinking response.”

Dinah adds. “It is simply an automatic readjustment—some people call them half-halts—whenever there is that feeling of falling forward or imbalance. It won’t come as a shock that a horse with the strength and agility to be in self-carriage tends to be less injury-prone and more enduring than one that is plowing along on the forehand or, worse, being held up by the rider. The horse is ready for competition when he has learned how to adjust for the terrain at speed with subtle suggestions rather than constant readjustments by the rider.”

According to Dinah, lateral work increases the horse’s maneuverability and coordination at speed and also builds what she calls a “second set of muscle”—a different type of development than that achieved through working in a straight line. “We want both types,” she says, not to achieve high scores but to guard against the endurance rider's bugaboo, lameness. In endurance, the Rojeks explain, the length of the ride is a contributing factor to lameness, and most endurance-horse lamenesses occur in the front limbs and forehand. “Transitions play a role in the development of this ‘second set’ of muscles,” says Dinah. “Trotting very slowly downhill engages these muscles also, but the concept of ‘sit’ must be learned. Sometimes it is easier on a slope than in the ring. We think this is critical for long-term soundness. But it all has to be very light—very up and forward.”

The other energy-sparing factors that the Rojeks encourage in their horses are regular rhythm and a steady tempo. Like dressage competitors, they focus on these basics on their daily training in order to instill them in their mounts. The endurance rider, too, must remain in balance with the horse, over all sorts of terrain. One who sits heavily or unevenly in the saddle will tire a horse prematurely. To hone their own equitation, both Rojeks work regularly with dressage instructors. “Rhythm and tempo are also energy-sparing for the rider, and that means riding better longer” says Steve. “Clearly it would be in the both the horse’s and rider’s best interest to be in symbiotic body postures for as much of the hundred miles as possible.”

Try This at Home:
Ring as Trail & Trail as Ring

Endurance horses in training with the Rojeks work in the arena until they've mastered the basics: “stop, start, turn in three gaits; soft transitions; and responsiveness to legs and reins," according to Dinah. Put in dressage terms, “We like all the horses to be able to perform down the trail comfortably in a First Level body carriage, with flying changes thrown in," she says.

Ring work can also serve as remedial work. For instance, Dinah says, “lf a horse is unbalanced at the canter down the trail, chances are it will be a bigger problem on circles. We would spend the time to strengthen that horse in the ring, working on canter circles and spirals. Another may have issues with relaxation in groups. That horse may be taught some body postures, such as stretching down and out and doing circles at the trot and canter in the ring, with the hopes of providing a ‘go-to' place if things get dicey on the trails."

In turn, “We will often use the trail as one big ring," Dinah says. “Exercises like broken lines, shoulder-in, half-pass, renvers, travers, and leg-yield can all be done on forest roads, with the added benefit of the horses’ having to pick up their feet to avoid obstacles. We do start lateral work in the ring, however, taking advantage of the walls to assist in the ‘bend’ concept. Collected and extended work are also trail-friendly, and there is added ‘listen to the rider’ practice when working in a group, The only exercises we definitely need the ring for are circles and voltes, and for focus."

Try This at Home:
Fitness Work

Endurance requires physical fitness, which means lots of time in the saddle, both out on the trails and in the arena. Dressage riders often tend to get stuck in the arena, and while you probably won’t follow the Rojeks’ plan with your dressage horse, a little fitness workout on the trails can not only improve any horse’s fitness but also keep his mind fresh.

“Physical fitness is again horse-dependent," says Dinah. “The general format we use preparing for a 25-mile ride with an unfit horse is six weeks, five days per week, six miles per day. The speed is increased each week, and by the fourth week the horse should be able to comfortably trot the mileage under an hour in hilly terrain and recover to a low pulse."

The Rojeks use heart-rate monitors to help gauge their mounts' fitness, and their many miles and hours of training have yielded some interesting discoveries. “When using [heart-rate monitors] during ring work, some horses will have a considerably and consistently higher pulse going in one direction over the other, indicating which direction requires more effort," says Dinah.

Try This at Home:
Mix It Up

Even though the Rojeks log plenty of mileage with their horses, they make it clear that they never ride just to get their horses fit. By mixing things up in the ring and on the trail, they have fun with their horses and friends while training their horses and increasing their fitness. “We never ride for fitness per se; every time we step onto a horse, we are also schooling," says Steve. Example: "We sometimes do ‘trail class’ days. It works like this: A group of three to six riders goes out together and takes turns ‘calling.' We may start with something like ‘Walk four steps; halt’; then, as the horses warm up, it might go something like ‘Walk to sitting trot; leg-yield left; rising trot; sitting trot; leg-yield right; canter right lead; sitting trot; canter left lead; sitting trot; shoulder-in left’ as we go down the trail."

Even though her current focus is primarily dressage, Dinah believes that she and her horses get a huge benefit from riding outside the arena. “Going down the trail, over uneven footing, and—perish the thought—up and down hills in balance is fantastic for all horses," she says, acknowledging that some horses find varying terrain quite foreign at first. “My current dressage horse was confused beyond description by a world that wasn’t flat and perfectly groomed!" she chuckles. “I remember the first time I rode him on the Vermont trails: He charged uphill and then stood, completely baffled by how to get back down. After attempting piaffe, passage, and some moves that have yet to be named, he very slowly learned that he could walk and even trot downhill, He now happily progresses through bodies of water and mud and over downed trees."

It’s a boon for dressage shows, too: “When the weather is dreadful at shows and the dressage rings are soup," Dinah says, “he doesn’t even notice."

Try This at Home:
Get Back to Nature

“Philosophically," says Dinah, “I think one of the most important things endurance riders look at is the lifestyle of their equines. Since endurance riding is a no-drug sport, all we can do to help our horses is to ensure they have the best possible environment physically, physiologically, and emotionally. What that means to us is to focus on what a horse is: a nomadic, foraging herd animal. Horses are not physiologically or emotionally designed to live alone in their own manure and breathe all the stabling byproducts—ammonia, mycotoxins, et cetera—that destroy airways and hooves.

“To add insult to injury, many horses are infrequently fed large high-carb meals and minimal forage," Dinah continues. “It is often done [by caretakers] truly believing that this is doing the best for the horse, because we humans tend to think other species are like us. But there is no doubt in the minds of the scientists who study equines that confinement in stalls for more than twelve hours a day increases damage done by ulcers and may lead to higher rates of colic. This, combined with the aforementioned high-carb mixed-grain concentrates, limited forage, and NSAIDs [nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug] contributes to the leading cause of unnatural death in horses: colic.”

For the science behind Dinah’s concern, she urges readers to check out the Web sites of various respected veterinary schools, such as the University of Guelph in Canada (equineguelph.ca) or the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, which includes Virginia Tech’s Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center in Leesburg, VA (vetmed.vt.edu/emc).

“Last but not least," Dinah says, “horses who are confined and isolated from other creatures develop stereotypies, which are abnormal behaviors like cribbing and weaving. Then we finish off the scenario we created with things like cribbing straps, taking away the little bit of comfort the horse had."

“If only we could be more educated about horses and their real needs, we would improve in all sorts of ways," Dinah concludes. “The standard practice is that endurance horses generally live out 24/7 in groups With run-in sheds, constant access to water, and forage. It is true that Arabians-and that is the dominant breed used in endurance-have a higher rate of colic and seem more sensitive to confinement than other breeds, but I think all horses are at risk if it is the biggest killer. My dressage horse also hangs out 24/7 with some buddies and seems to be a happy member of the gang. I found some workarounds to keep his coat looking good; that was the only reason I could come up with to warrant keeping him in a stall."

Amber Heintzberger is a freelance writer and photographer and the award-winning author of Beyond the Track: Retraining the Thoroughbred from Racehorse to Riding Horse. She lives in New York City.

An Expert’s
Recommended Reading

Endurance expert and dressage competitor Dinah Rojek is a big proponent of as-natural-as-possible horsekeeping. She urges riders and horse owners to learn as much as they can about equine behavior, horse health, and the effects of stabling, infrequent feedings, and other imposed practices on the horse’s well-being. Here are three books she wishes were on every horse owner’s and barn manager's shelf:

All Horse Systems Go by Nancy S. Loving, DVM (Trafalgar Square)

Equine Behaviour: A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists by Paul McGreevy (Saunders Ltd.)

The Sound Hoof: Horse Health from the Ground Up by Lisa Simons Lancaster, DVM (Tallgrass Publishers).

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