The Ideal 2 Year Old Training Program

By Bill Pressey Thoroedge Equine Performance

Pedigree and conformation are what you pay for at the sales.

Once you have your prospects, don’t simply train them like everyone else – invest a little extra time and attention, not money for once, and you can gain an edge on the competition by the time you get to the track.


My job is to comb through hundreds of pages of scientific studies put forth by the brightest minds in the equine industry and find things of use to my clients.

By far, the biggest discovery was a specific exercise protocol for 2 year old horses hidden within the landmark Maryland Shin Study by David Nunamaker of the New Bolton Center for Veterinary Medicine:


This study has been around for many years, yet my experience shows less than 10% of those who can benefit from the findings are actually putting the recommendations into practice. On a personal note, I work with an $11,000 yearling purchase that exhibits the same physiological ability of a Derby hopeful for an international racing concern that paid a six figure stud fee in 2008.

My filly adds speed work at the end of gallops twice a week, while the regally bred colt is trained in a traditional manner of 2 mile gallops with a breeze thrown in every 7-10 days. Both will be at the races this fall, stay tuned for an update – but for now let’s look at how YOU can condition your two year olds for maximum soundness and earning potential in the upcoming season.

Why is the practice of ‘legging up’ dangerous for racehorses?

Because 70% of traditionally trained two year olds develop some sort of repetitive loading injury in the shins, which compromises soundness and earning potential.

Old school trainers would often buck shins on purpose, in order to ‘get it out of the way’, rest and resume training. Although many live through this process and come out OK, Nunamaker found that over 12% of these athletes suffer saucer fractures later on in their careers.

Standardbreds don’t buck their shins because they train and race in the same gait, a trot or pace.

Thoroughbreds have shin problems because they often train at varied paces – many slower than race pace.

They build ‘gallop’ bone, not ‘breeze’ bone.  Therefore when breezes are introduced, trouble often arises. When galloping slower than a 2:45 pace, the cannon bone strikes the ground at an angle, and new bone rapidly forms to counteract this.

However, at breeze speeds of 13sec/furlong or faster, the cannon bone strikes the ground at 90 degrees, with more dense bone forming as a result on the front and inner surfaces of the cannon bones – which is ideal for withstanding the rigors of racing. See images below:

Before we begin, I need to indentify two terms: classical training and modified training.

Classical training can also be referred to as traditional training and consists of many miles of long, slow gallops designed to ‘leg up’ the 2 year old for a future at the racetrack. Most gallops stop increasing distance at 2 miles, and paces are kept in the range of 18-20 sec/furlong, or about a 2:30 min/mile. Breezes are introduced at a frequency of once every 7-10 days and range from 1F to 4F in length, with speeds of approximately 13 sec/furlong. Sound familiar?

Modified training can be referred to as scientific training, as its specifics have been devised from Nunamaker, John Fisher DVM, and others through rigorous testing and evaluation of several hundred 2 year olds over the past 2 decades. The gallops typically are shorter, from a mile to a mile and a quarter, and speedwork is introduced much earlier. Twice each week a gallop ends with speed work, starting with 1F in 15 seconds, and ending 3 months later with 3F in :40.

Here are the study details with pictures:

A – Group 1 – traditional training on a dirt track, this horse bucked his shins
B – Group 2 – traditional training on wood chip surface, even less new bone than Group 1
C – Group 3 – control group turned out to pasture, cannon bone still mostly round
D – Group 4 – modified training group, thick/dense bone on front and inside of shin
E – Table of results – green line represents racing 3 year olds, our 2 year olds in Stable 4 (black line) demonstrate superior bone growth compared to this group of seasoned competitors, without even racing yet!

After this initial study, Nunamaker and others went about testing their findings on a larger scale; where 226 two year olds were followed from 5 different stables over a period of 11 years.

Stable 2, with frequent breezes and modified training, was found to reduce the likelihood of bucked shins by 98.6%.

Training traditionally, Stables 1 and 4 had the largest incidences of bucked shins, with weekly breezing found to increase the chances of bucked shins by 36.4%.

Even if they didn’t buck, overall development was compromised by the failure to build race-appropriate bone and tendon strength as a juvenile.

So we now have ideal bone growth in our 2 year olds, imagine how this type of training similarly optimizes the condition of ligaments, tendons, muscles, nervous system, blood chemistry, capillarization of lung tissue, etc.?

For instance, my 2 year old filly will make her debut without Lasix – as her lungs have been exposed to the pressures of speed over dirt in a very gradual manner throughout the past 4 months and the vet suspects, much like her bones, these structures will be well suited for racing.

Modified 2 year old training at Fair Hill in Maryland

Dr. John Fisher, DVM at Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland has been fine tuning this protocol for many years within his own stable.

Young horses are broken to ride in the fall and are able to gallop one mile in 18-20sec/furlong pace by the end of December of their 1 year old year.

The principle Dr. Fisher operates under is that the bones of a young horse need to experience the strains associated with racing speeds as soon as possible so that bones can begin to remodel appropriately. A side effect of this practice is that all other systems of the equine body do as well, especially the tiny lung sacs that cause so much problems later on when they bleed (EIPH).

Rick Arthur DVM has expressed the need for cannon bones to be elliptical in shape, rather than round. Thicker bone development is desired on the inside and front edges in order to better withstand the rigors of racing.

Galloping at 18sec/furlong and slower exposes bone to a stretching, or shearing, type of tension while breezing causes compression like forces which foster bone growth that is ideal for racing.

The message to take home here is simply not ‘more speed is better’ but that when you progressively load bones with exercise specific to racing you get an ideal result: bones as strong as a 4 year old, with soft tissues to match, according to Allen Goodship, PhD at England’s Royal Veterinary College.

Details of Modified Training Protocol developed by Dr. John Fisher at Fair Hill Training Center:

-Fisher Stage 1
Finish 2 gallops (TUE and SAT) with final furlong in :15 for 5 weeks.

-Fisher Stage 2
Finish 2 gallops (TUE and SAT) with final 2F in :30 for 5 weeks.

-Fisher Stage 3
Gallops are extended to 1.25 miles twice per week.
Finish 1 gallop (SAT) with final 2F in :26 for 4 weeks.
Finish 1 gallop (SAT) with final 3F in :40 for 3 weeks

From ‘On Bucked Shins’ by Nunamaker, with respect to the above exercise protocol:

“This training program has shown no increase in the injury rate of young horses.

An excellent by-product of this training program is the mental development of these 2-yr-olds. Because of the very relaxed atmosphere of walking to and from the racetrack, these individuals exhibit no anxiety about their work.

For this training program to work the rider cannot be in a hurry to get back to the barn and on the next horse. The 2-yr-olds are not anxious about speed work because it has been in their weekly schedule since the beginning of training.
All the animals walk back to the barn. Walking is a great exercise that does not seem to negatively influence bone modeling or remodeling.”

Another take on the same concept from Dr. Jack Woolsey, DVM:

Distance Speed/Pace Total Time Frequency Duration
1F 15 sec/furlong :15 2x/week 2 weeks
2F 15 sec/furlong :30 2x/week 2 weeks
3F 15 sec/furlong :45 2x/week 2 weeks
4F 15 sec/furlong :60 2x/week 2 weeks
2F 13 sec/furlong :26 2x/week 3 weeks
3F 13 sec/furlong :39 2x/week 3 weeks
4F 13 sec/furlong :52 Every 5 days 2 weeks

*31 breezes in 16 weeks, starting Jan. 1st and ending April 15th – conversely, traditionally trained 2 year olds may get worked from 2-4F on average 12 times before heading to the starting gate.

*Notice how speed is kept constant as distance increases, then as speed increases, distance drops back off. Excellent example of changing exercise variables to induce positive adaptations, in this case as one variable is increased (speed) another is decreased (distance) in order to avoid overtraining.

This is the exact protocol I used with a client in the US who made a very modest purchase at Keeneland last fall. At first, local trainers told him he was going to ‘kill’ this filly with all of the speed work. Now these same guys think that he has a future stakes winner on his hands. The confidence that a young horse gets from being given achievable physical goals that progress logically is astounding.

The Science Behind the Results:

The overriding principle of exercise physiology is that of Progressive Overload. Doesn’t matter if you train a horse, human, camel, or greyhound – every living being grows stronger when stressed in a progressive manner. By simply manipulating the variables of frequency, duration, and intensity – you force the physiological systems to adapt in an effort to survive, i.e. grow stronger.

Another key scientific term is Specificity. The closer the semblance of the training is to the competition, the better the results. Nunamaker proved this over the past 20 years: gallops build a certain type of bone, and breezes build another. It’s the breeze bone that is needed to race safely. ‘Legging up’ may very well indeed aid in aerobic conditioning as well as development of other soft tissue systems, but the long slow gallops of the past are detrimental to bone structure – which is the key system in any developing 2 year old thoroughbred.

How to verify the program is actually working

In order to objectively measure actual performance in the mornings, I use a heart rate monitor/GPS setup and calculate V200, which is the speed of movement when HR hits 200bpm, about 85% intensity for most horses. In effect, this is maximum cruising speed.

I consult with hundreds of horses around the world and I see V200 numbers ranging from 16mph to 28mph. Typically 2 year olds in training range from 20-23mph. However, at the age of 2 this filly is now at 26mph, which is exactly where some 2011 Derby hopefuls are up at Saratoga – classically trained colts of course with ideal conformation and perfect pedigrees.

This is what a gallop looks like on my software when a 2 year old on this type of training regimen is progessing nicely:

Now here’s the tricky part – how to define when a horse is able to gallop a mile in 2:45 ‘comfortably’ and therefore ready to begin the program?

Also, how can one determine if the twice weekly speed works are too much for the individual?

Again I rely on the horsemanship of my customers, along with quantitative data gleaned from my HR/GPS equipment. If a horse typically shows HR of 80bpm when walking to the track but one morning just won’t drop below 110bpm – the workout is aborted.

If that same horse typically gallops at a 2:30 pace on non work days and shows a HR below 200bpm I am happy, but if one day he suddenly spikes to 212bpm – he is taken off the work tab immediately.

More specifically, I define ‘comfortably’ as being able to gallop the required mile in 2:45 and exhibit a recovery heart rate of under 120bpm within 2 minutes of finishing the exercise, with this measurement taking place during the gallop-out via onboard equipment. Once a youngster passes this ‘test’ he is ready to begin the conditioning protocol outlined above.

In summary:

Don’t take my word for it, but look to people way smarter than myself like David Nunamaker, John Fisher, and Rick Arthur for ways to structure training of your 2 year old in order to give yourself an edge over the competition.

Horses will still pull up lame on this training schedule periodically, as in any other regimen – but your success rate and ROI will improve considerably when you utilize science and technology to the maximum at a young age when your prize prospect can set the stage for a firm foundation to last throughout his/her racing career.


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