Getting Ready for Rolex: By the Numbers

Jenny Caras and Forty are headed to their first Rolex this year. Preparing for the event has taken six years of training and conditioning.

Photo: Jacob Ewing/South Fork Photography

At approximately 3 p.m. on Sunday, April 30, the 2017 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event (RK3DE) will end with the awards ceremony. Competitors from nine countries will have danced in front of three international dressage judges for about five minutes each, galloped at an average of 570 meters per minute for roughly 4 miles while negotiating a minimum of 40 jumping efforts and clearing a show-jumping round with a maximum height of 1.30 meters.

Horses competing at the CCI4* level (the highest international level of eventing) are supremely fit. And while the actual competition lasts barely more than 20 minutes per horse and rider combination over three days, getting a horse fit enough for this competition takes many hours over several years.

That’s been the experience of first-time RK3DE competitor Jenny Caras, of Marietta, Georgia, who’s brought her horse Fernhill Fortitude (aka “Forty”) through the levels over the past six years. Those years have served as a base on which to build in preparation for RK3DE.

Rest and Reconditioning

After completing the Fair Hill CCI3* in October and taking November off, Caras and Forty started conditioning for RK3DE in December with slow canters of a mile in 3.5 minutes, repeated twice on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This increased gradually to three days a week and five times over the mile with 30 second rest breaks between. Then, she added sprint work into one of these days, and then a second day each week.

Slow canters and trot sets (Forty trots for 30 minutes at least once a week) help give the horse a strong aerobic base, enhancing the cardiovascular system, increasing the activity of aerobic enzymes within the muscle tissue, and encouraging the use of fat as an energy substrate. This helps preserve muscle glycogen stores for moments of anaerobic (sprint-type) effort.

Research shows there’s no benefit to doing conditioning work with horses more than two to three times a week. In fact, any more might be detrimental because it places unnecessary stress on the horse’s musculoskeletal system. Instead, Caras said she uses days between conditioning sets for refining skill work in dressage and jumping.

Conditioning for Fitness and Soundness

Many eventers use hills during conditioning to create a more intense aerobic (endurance) workout without increasing distance traveled; this can help save a horse’s legs from excessive miles. Additionally, many event courses run over uneven terrain, and hill work helps improve balance and self-carriage.

While the cardiovascular and muscular systems adapt quickly to conditioning, the horse’s supporting structures (ligaments, tendons, and bone) adapt at a much slower rate. Inadequate slow work increases a horse’s risk of breakdown. This is just one reason it takes years working at lower levels to get a horse “Rolex-fit.” Even when they’re close to competing at the 4* level, horses continue to do work specifically to maintain their supporting structures.

“Forty spends 45 minutes seven days a week in our walker, walking on a concrete surface covered with rubber mats,” Caras said. “This generates low-impact concussion to build bone density. Early in the condition program we walked on the roads, but at this stage we rely on the walker.

“Our horses are also turned out every night in a hilly pasture,” she added. “This not only keeps their minds relaxed but it also helps build condition.”

Eating Like an Elite Athlete

Of course, a horse’s diet must keep pace with the increasing demands of conditioning for RK3DE. A 1,250-pound horse in heavy to intense work needs 30-40 Mcals of digestible energy per day.

“Forty’s diet typically consists of about 20 pounds of grass hay and 9 pounds of performance feed,” Caras said.

Forty’s performance feed provides 1.6 Mcals per pound and is 12% fat and 20% nonstructural carbohydrate.

“We feed grain three times a day to keep meals small and, at the start of April to maintain condition, an additional 3 pounds of the performance feed was added as a fourth meal,” Caras said. “We also add alfalfa not just for additional calories but to help reduce ulcer risk as the competition gets closer.”

Luckily, Forty loves to eat; however, drinking during transport is more of a challenge, and Rolex is a 12-hour journey from their training base at True Prospect Farm, in West Grove, Pennsylvania. Starting the day before shipping, Caras adds water to all grain meals to turn them into soups. She also adds a handful of grain in his water bucket to tempt Forty to drink. Some horses get extra water via a nasogastric tube before shipping, and many arrive at the venue several days before competition starts, so there’s generally adequate time for them to recover from shipping, get settled, and hydrate.

Take-Home Message

The Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event is one of only six CCI4* in the world and currently the only one in North America. Few horses have what it takes to compete at this level, but thanks to years of careful conditioning and attention to detail by their owners and riders, these supreme equine athletes will have earned the right to compete for this year’s title.

About the Author

Clair Thunes, PhD

Clair Thunes, PhD, is an independent equine nutrition consultant who owns Summit Equine Nutrition, based in Sacramento, California. She works with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the United Kingdom Pony Club. Today, she serves as the regional supervisor for the Sierra Pacific region of the United States Pony Clubs. As a nutritionist she works with all horses, from WEG competitors to Miniature Donkeys and everything in between.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from Learn More