Conditioning principles coalesce between the two disparate forms of sport, to mutual benefit.
One takes place anaerobically and is over in less than two minutes. The other lasts for hours and involves slower, oxygen-sustainable exercise. The sports of flat racing and endurance traditionally have been separate, and previously there's been little to connect the two disciplines.
Moreover, the size and muscle structure of the athletes have always been different. Elite endurance horses are almost all of Arabian breeding, and they tend to be smaller and much thinner than their larger, more muscled Thoroughbred racing counterparts.
The venues have been different, too. Racetracks are usually uniform, and, although there may be some differences in the footing surface, most tracks look pretty much alike from a horse's perspective. Endurance events, however, differ greatly from place to place, as the local topography determines whether it's 100 miles of flat sand (Dubai), steep hills and deep canyon descents (western United States), miles of rolling hills (midwestern U.S.) or forests and mountains (northeastern U.S.).
Mehmet Salih Guler, T. OâKeefe/PhotoLink/Getty Images
Training practices, feeding decisions, physiological demands, injuries and many other details always have differed between flat racing and endurance athletes.
But the gap between these two equine sports has been closing during the past decade. A number of factors have brought many of the conditioning principles from the world of endurance into the world of Thoroughbred flat racing, and some of the speed-training techniques from flat-racing trainers have been accepted and applied to endurance horses. The result, so far, is a blurring of the two sports. Endurance horses are now going faster than ever before, and Thoroughbreds may be starting to get fitter and stronger, with the potential of longer racing careers. There are lessons to be learned in the blurring of these sports, as each discipline has identified and used the best of what the other sport has to offer.
Dwight Hooten, DVM, formerly a staff veterinarian at the Dubai Equine Hospital and currently in private practice in Padosa Springs, Colo., has a unique perspective on the way these two equine sports have influenced each other. Hooten's duties in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) brought him into contact with both types of racing, and he was able to observe training and management techniques for both flat racing and endurance horses.
"Techniques for speed training initially came to the endurance world from flat racing," says Hooten. "This is the single biggest factor in the decrease in overall times for elite world-level competition."
Interval-training techniques had been well-established in the flat-racing world for some time but have only recently been seriously incorporated into endurance training. The standard exercise program for endurance horses previously had been long workouts (12 to 20 miles) at a slow pace, and 100-mile races were usually won in 10 to 12 hours or longer.
"Long, slow distance" was the mantra of the endurance world, and it produced extremely fit horses that could exercise at relatively slower speeds for long periods of time. American rider Valerie Kanavy won the 1998 World Endurance Championships in Dubai, covering the 100-mile course in 9:0:7. This was an excellent time, and her average speed of 17.96 kph represented the state of the sport at that time.
Flat racing and endurance racing are closely intertwined in the UAE, with both types of athletes frequently trained out of the same barns and often by the same trainers. When some of these trainers began to apply their sprint training, interval work and other speed-producing techniques to endurance horses, they noticed improvements. Flat-racing trainers taught endurance trainers how hard horses could be successfully pushed.
Ten years later, in 2008, at the Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid al Maktoum Endurance Cup, UAE rider Omair Hussain al Bloushi rode a young Arab mare to a winning 100-mile time of 6:28:28. This amounted to an average time of 24.7 kph (roughly 15 mph). The last 19-mile loop was ridden at 30.29 kph (endurance rides are contested over a 100-mile course divided into a number of loops with mandatory veterinary examinations and "holds").
But the record did not stay there. Just two years later, in March 2010, Yousuf Ahmad al Beloushi and an 11-year-old gelding established a 100-mile record at 5:45:44. These decreases in performance times represented a substantial improvement in speed in little more than a 10-year period and were a direct result of flat-racing training techniques applied to endurance horses.
The sport of endurance functions on a zero-tolerance drug policy from the upper to the lower levels. It's thought that if horses cannot complete 100 miles on their own, free from any medications, then they shouldn't compete. This has produced a relatively "clean" sport—some really fit horses that don't need pharmaceutical help to perform and a lot of trainers who have only a passing knowledge of how to handle the sprains, strains and other problems encountered when horses run really fast.
"Flat racing has taught endurance trainers how to use medications, not to help horses go faster as much as to help horses heal when they get injured and make a quicker return to racing," says Hooten.
Because endurance horses must be fit enough to compete without the aid of anti-inflammatories or any type of pain relievers, diuretics (furosemide), antiulcer medication or any performance-aiding products or supplements, there's a lack of familiarity among those in the sport with many routinely administered drugs. Many endurance riders and trainers don't have the expertise or ability to aggressively treat post-race problems ranging from tendonitis to sore muscles, respiratory conditions and sore feet.
"The flat-racing world has a much longer history of dealing with injuries," says Hooten. "Racing trainers have a better established system of diagnosis, medication, treatment and rehab for performance-related injuries."
Because of the speeds now being seen in endurance racing, the types of injuries (e.g., tendons, ligaments, bone-related problems) more closely resemble those commonly seen in flat racing.
Martha Misheff, DVM, PhD, a veterinarian at the Dubai Equine Hospital, who spoke at the Newmarket Orthopedic Discussion Group, says, "Many of the newer musculoskeletal injuries at endurance competitions are increasingly similar to those of racing Thoroughbreds. Endurance horses are suffering from lameness caused by proximal suspensory desmitis, concussive foot problems such as pedal osteitis and fractures related to stress pathology."
These are all at the top of the list for causes of lameness in racing Thoroughbreds as well, so endurance trainers have begun using flat-racing techniques for post-competition treatments and tendon and ligament maintenance. And they're using medications to aggressively treat problems.
The fact that no medications are allowed in the sport of endurance is an important part of what endurance racing has taught flat-racing trainers. Endurance horses have to be, above all else, fit. This good conditioning is a big factor in keeping these horses sound, despite all the miles they must race. If the horses are more fit, the argument goes, they won't break down, and, thus, they won't need medication. Endurance horses tend to remain competitive for much longer than their Thoroughbred counterparts, with many endurance horses accumulating tens of thousands of competition miles.
"Good strength conditioning and fitness from endurance-based training showed flat-racing trainers they could then take these horses to their maximum potential speed and finish with a sound horse," Hooten says.
To illustrate this point, Hooten outlines the accomplishments of trainer Mubarak Khalifa bin Shafya. He began training in 1994 and primarily managed endurance racing and breeding concerns for Sheikh Saeed bin Maktoum. By 2004, Shafya was the leading endurance trainer for the Maktoum family and managed the group of horses that successfully competed at the Endurance Test Event at the Kentucky Horse Park in advance of the World Equestrian Games. That year, he was also assigned to train a few flat-racing horses that had been injured or had fallen off in performance at other stables in the Maktoum organization.
"He did not know much about flat-racing training when he started with these horses," says Hooten, "but what he did was what he knew." Shafya trained the horses like endurance horses with a lot of long trots and miles on prepared sand tracts in the desert. He first developed a good fitness base, and he then applied speed-training techniques. And the results showed. At the 2009 Dubai World Cup, Shafya recorded 12 winners for the Maktoums that included some of the horses he had originally been assigned. The hard fitness training he used as part of his endurance regimen helped heal and condition these horses for speed as flat racers.
"Most Thoroughbred flat-racing horses are not fit," says Hooten. "No professional athlete sits on the couch for 23 hours each day," he adds. Endurance training, as a base, can benefit all racehorses and may well help reduce injuries.
J.D. Fountain of Fountain Racing Stables in South Carolina says it's tough to get traditional trainers to accept this idea. Fountain trains for both disciplines. "I have trouble getting people to spend enough time riding my horses, because it's not the standard way of training," Fountain says.
Change doesn't come easily, especially in a sport as steeped in tradition as horse racing. To get the best performance from horses competing in both flat racing and endurance, trainers had to first go against established ideas. Endurance trainers had to add interval training and speed work into their programs. The dramatic increase in racing speeds and the repeated recent lowering of the 100-mile record time shows that endurance trainers have been paying attention. Flat-race trainers had to reexamine the concept of "fitness" and find ways to get their horses out more to put more miles on their feet and more fitness in their ligaments, tendons and bones. It's not yet clear if most people in the race horse world got the message.
Editor's note: A similar article by Dr. Marcella titled "Trainers from different disciplines can be successful by bringing new techniques to routines" was posted on the Thoroughbred Times website June 23, 2010.
Dr. Marcella is an equine practitioner in Canton, Ga.