There was a term I had heard passed around in my early interest in endurance riding: junk miles. Great emphasis around the sport is on physical training, especially cardio performance and achieving increased speed and distance. I felt indirectly discouraged against leisurely rides with non-endurance training friends. I sensed these wasted miles without purpose of increasing speed or distance goals would be counterproductive.
I was fortunate last year to have two factors force a shift in my riding and training.
- I began to help a friend rehab a middle aged mare who had a long road both physically and mentally.
- Khaleesi began to have intermittent mild lameness that would never present when walking.
This meant I was forced into a lot of walking miles… and doing what I had previously understood in the context of trying to build an endurance horse as junk miles.
I am grateful the timing coincided with two private clinics last year with Emily Kemp (kemphorsemanship.com) and she made me aware the vital importance of balance and straightness.
I have for years desired to build a horse that would carry herself with balance and strength. We all want this I think at some level. Yet I find the patient endurance it takes to build this excellence is more than I have on my own most days.
We found the book How Kind Can Horsemanship Become (available on Amazon) incredibly helpful in explaining why my friend’s little mare practically ran her over in hand and ran away so often under saddle. She was terribly unbalanced and wasn’t able to carry herself with confidence. She was the extreme opposite example of what I was trying to build. Sometimes it’s really helpful to see the results of how things can go wrong in the extreme cases!
Khaleesi and I helped the pair along on countless walking miles last year patiently dedicated to their progress and encouraging them to the slow growth that was necessary (even before the intermittent lameness presented). And a year later the results are stunning to us. It is far from over but the horse has begun to develop muscle in her back and the uneven shoulders and pigeon toes are beginning to unwind and come to more balance.
Walking for miles alone is not the only factor: we have also engineered their nutrition, employed the help of a neuromuscular dentist, done the ground work to create connection and trust, done a lot of work on their feet (Khaleesi in composite shoes now) and do our best to ensure as natural environment as we are able. The slow method works and is very much worth it though it sometimes feels a snails pace to someone who wants to be riding high mileage events.
I felt like the helpful encouraging friend who selflessly gave up my training pace and schedule to invest in this project and friend I believed in. Though I was glad to do this, it took me time to humbly realize it was they who did me the favor.
I really like this article by Manolo Mendez about Developing the Basics and Fundamentals of Straightness. It explains what Emily had begun with Khaleesi and me at our first clinic and how vital it is to know if your horse can travel straight or not. If the horse is straight and balanced then she is able to move freely through the head, poll, neck, back and to the hind (where my motor is). If all of that is working freely together at optimum then her hind end can propel which is what I want and she can carry herself in a strong frame over the many miles I want to be able to do without injury and stress where it doesn’t belong.
If her muscular system and her driving hind end aren’t working optimally it will put more stress on joints, ligaments, tendons, and cardio system as they all compensate. Horses are amazing and can compensate for a long time in other areas before a break down begins! This will shorten her career which I care less about for my riding goals and way more about because it means her body degenerating before it’s time due to my ignorance and impatience. Both of which I am too often guilty of.
Just as we would never pressure a kindergarten child to jump straight to high school and expect them to be able to think critically and produce essays overnight, we should never jump over steps or rush the levels of training (mentally or physically) of our horses.Manolo Mendez
I have always been more impressed with endurance riders with horses that boast long careers over those with low digit finishes- the true greats seem to achieve both. Truly- it is easier to get a horse to run fast over a bunch of miles than it is to keep one healthy mentally and physically over many years in a demanding sport such as endurance riding.
The article continues to explain that it is the rider’s responsibility to ensure the horse develops fitness, strength, flexibility, and balance to physically do the work but also mentally the horse is settled, calm and confident. The rider should always train the horse they have in front of them- not based on the age, breed, pedigree, ambition or the rider’s goals. Ideally the rider should always train in an unhurried and uncomplicated manner.
This seems obvious and simple. Yet simple often doesn’t equate to easy. When I look around me and way too often in the mirror. It’s nice when the human’s goals and the ability and education/preparedness of the horse line up naturally but when it comes down to a conflict in them we humans will have our way, and usually the willing spirit of the horse will do it’s best to help us even at his or her own detriment. Until they can’t.
There is a verse from Jeremiah that reminds me to search every corner of myself: The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked… who can know it?
I know we hate to believe this about anyone and even more ourselves (that is the point) but for the grace of God go I. We are all, everyone of us capable of immense selfishness and we all are masters at justification and self-deceit. Admitting this is the first step to freedom from it. I think as horse people we have to root it out ruthlessly if we care to look honestly. Your horse will thank you for it.
The most obvious evidence of this is any tool that forces something a human is unwilling to take the time to train and communicate in a way the horse is comfortable with. And there is a mass market of gadgets and tools to try to short cut just about any education and comfort gaps you might find.
I also liked the section about breathing and how good breathing leads to good work. A horse with elevated breathing due to tack, tension or mental concerns will not be able to build the same athleticism. Their muscles AND brain need the oxygen flow to encourage both physical athleticism and concentration. Recognizing and encouraging softness is vital at every step.
Now I look at the concept of junk miles differently. I consider any ride where I don’t prioritize my horse’s softness, balance, and ability to work in both physical and mental self-carriage with me as junk miles. Khaleesi IS currently sound and strong. I hope to begin to compete again this year, but at what level I cannot determine yet.
On a recent 12 mile trotting ride Khaleesi had mental softness and amazing self carriage. The speed overall trotting was around 5-6 mph which is not really fast enough as we begin to compete again. I decided to push the limits to see where they were and asked for 1/2 mile of increased speed.
I felt her fall apart underneath me compared to the strength and balance she had carried for over 10 miles earlier. I also sensed unease in her mentally- she knew what I wanted and she wasn’t able to perform it for me properly. I could sense it in the tension building between us. I wonder if this feeling was normal for me before; she is only stronger than she was two seasons ago. Now I feel the difference and it is striking.
After 1/2 mile of faster paced trot I gave her a generous rub, thanked her for trying so hard for me, asked for a short walk recovery, and then return to trot at her own speed based on how she could carry herself (she will find this on her own beautifully and offer it to me!). I loved the feeling of lightness and strength that she resumed easily.
Any ride I ask her for speed or distance she cannot carry in strength both physically and mentally are junk miles and any ride I am focused on her softness and ability in that day, working with the horse I have- not the one I think I should have are quality miles. This process will be a longer one… that I realized, but when we finally complete a 100 mile ride I want to look back with no regret that I did it at the expense of my horse instead of to honor her and be truly a partnership. I hope, I believe, this is possible. I am willing to wait. I am willing to do it with her, not in spite of her.
This takes a lot of thought for me to ride with quality and excellence each step. I am not always successful but I do try. Here are some things I try to keep spinning on all my rides now.
- First I must be soft in my body and balanced with all my joints loose in order that I do not create blocks in the horse’s movement.
- Then I must remain as straight in my body as I can in order to avoid creating asymmetry in her.
- Then I have to be aware of my hands and ask if I am encouraging and supporting her, and never holding her in a false frame with the bit or jangling around on a loose rein that doesn’t help her find structure.
- Can I feel lightness and energy in her body with strength underneath and behind me? Is she feeling heavy in the front pulling along on her front legs because I’m blocking somewhere the through energy on her whole body?
- Am I encouraging or allowing her to rush instead of allowing a speed to develop that she can carry in strength and staying mentally settled. Is she relaxed?
- Is she breathing? Am I breathing?
There really are no shortcuts.