Feature photo: Pamela Graff with Winter’s at Wildfire Farm
Article written by: Hilary M. Clayton, BVMS, PhD, DACVSMR, MRCVS – Professor and McPhail Dressage Chair, Emerita
The purpose of conditioning is to prepare the athletic horse to perform his work easily and without undue fatigue. On the one hand, we need to provide the horse with a sufficient amount exercise of the appropriate type to stimulate the physiological changes that make the horse fit. On the other hand, if the horse is over-worked or insufficiently rested between workouts, there is a risk of causing lameness. This article addresses the delicate balance between the benefits of doing enough work and the potential for injury if the amount of work is excessive or the intervening rest periods are inadequate.
In order to understand the delicate balance between enough and too much work, we should begin by reviewing how and why the process of conditioning is effective in making the horse fitter.
The end result is that
- the cardiovascular system becomes more efficient in pumping blood to and from the muscles,
- the muscles become more efficient in using the fats and carbohydrates in the diet to provide energy for locomotion,
- and the musculoskeletal tissues become stronger so that they can withstand a larger amount of work.
Excessive work, though, may result in over-use injuries of the musculoskeletal system, so the trainer must find a balance between doing enough work to stimulate beneficial changes in the horse’s body versus doing too much and risking injury.
The horse’s occupation dictates how fit he needs to be
The horse’s occupation dictates how fit he needs to be. A horse that is used for gentle trail rides a few days a week does not need to be as fit as a horse competing in competitive trail rides, endurance racing, eventing or combined driving. A dressage horse needs a different type of fitness than a barrel racer. So a conditioning program should be specific to the needs of the individual horse and should include work of an appropriate type and intensity for the horse’s occupation.
Photo: Pamela Graff with Winter’s Aria at Wildfire Farm
Within the horse’s body the process of conditioning involves a cycle of tissue damage followed by repair and regeneration of stronger tissues. During a workout there is always some minor damage to the tissues at the microscopic level. The mild damage is not severe enough to show any visible signs of inflammation and the body’s natural response is to heal the damage over the next 24-48 hours. When the horse is worked on a regular basis, these repeated cycles of minor damage and repair result in the regeneration of tissues that are stronger and better-adapted to the horse’s regular workload. Key factors are that tissue growth and adaptation are tailored to the work that the horse does regularly and further increases in tissue strength will be stimulated by increasing the amount of work performed regularly.
A conditioning program is based on starting with a small amount of work, allowing time for the body to adapt, then gradually increasing the workload. After each incremental increase in the amount of work, the new workload is maintained for 1-2 weeks to allow time for tissue adaptation before the next increase.
The amount of tissue damage that occurs during a workout depends on the intensity and duration of the work performed. The horse’s ability to repair the damage depends on how frequently the workouts are repeated. If the horse performs a strenuous workout every day then the tissues do not have time to repair themselves completely between workouts. Under these conditions, small amounts of damage accumulate and this may, eventually, lead to injury. In horses, the suspensory ligament and the superficial digital flexor tendon are particularly prone to accumulate this type of damage and this is why pulled suspensories and bowed tendons are such common injuries in athletic horses. They are classified as repetitive use or repetitive strain injuries.
To summarize, athletic horses need to perform sufficient work to stimulate adaptation of the tissues that are responsible for improvements in fitness and strength but they also needs time between workouts to allow tissue regeneration and adaptation to occur. If the workouts are repeated too frequently then small amounts of damage will accumulate, especially in the ligaments and tendons, making them weaker and more susceptible to injury.
Therefore, we must ensure that the horse has an opportunity for rest and repair. However, when we talk about “rest” in this context, we certainly don’t mean standing in the stall. In fact, standing in a stall is one of the worst things an equine athlete can do. Instead, think about having the horse do different types of work on successive days, and be sure to include some time for relaxation, such as going for a trail ride or turning the horse out.
Stall rest should be avoided whenever possible. Horses are designed to move and graze more-or-less continuously. The frequent loading and unloading of the hooves stimulates blood flow through the feet, and the frequent food intake avoids acid build up in the stomach. Turnout also allows the horse to relax in the natural environment of a pasture. Ideally, a horse should be turned with equine companions or at least within sight of other horses. In a natural environment, horses live in a herd and they have an inherent need for the companionship of other horses. Standing isolated in a stall is a highly unnatural environment for a horse and the only time stall rest is justified is when the horse has an injury or disease that requires complete rest.
Getting back to the process of conditioning the equine athlete, how should the conscientious trainer handle the need for rest? The key is to understand that by doing a different type of work or by focusing on a different part of the horse’s body on successive days we allow time for tissue regeneration. The type of training regime that must be avoided is one that practices the same movements, in the same way and on the same surface every day. The sameness is a big problem; change it up on a daily basis so that you focus on different exercises and work the horse’s body in a different ways from day to day. This is a key concept in developing a safe and effective conditioning program.
Being a successful trainer requires a disciplined approach, but that discipline should be tempered with sufficient sensitivity to appreciate and respond to the horse’s needs rather than slavishly performing a prescribed amount of work every day. If the horse starts to get sour or resistant, consider whether he may be bored with the type of work he’s doing. Think about ways to make it more interesting for him. Trail riding involves different environments that are interesting and mentally stimulating for most horses. You can also school movements such as lateral work and flying changes on the trail. In fact, part of the learning process is to be able to perform movements in different places, so practicing them on the trail helps to solidify the lessons learned in the arena.
Working on different terrain and footing is also beneficial. For one thing, it helps to avoid repetitive strain injuries by loading the limbs in a slightly different manner. Additionally, the proprioceptors in the hooves and limbs sense differences in the feel of the footing, for example changes in hardness and slipperiness of the surface are perceived and the horse adapts his stride accordingly. If the horse steps on uneven ground the proprioceptors initiate corrective action in the muscles, so there is an on-going interaction between sensation and movement. When horses are always worked in a perfectly manicured arena, they are not exposed to diverse proprioceptive stimuli and become less efficient in adapting their gait patterns to the surface type and in making appropriate corrections to prevent a fall when they hit uneven ground or step in a hole.
Sometimes a temporary interruption of the conditioning program is necessary due to a minor setback such as a hoof abscess or a respiratory virus. If the horse is laid off for a couple of weeks there is no loss of fitness but work should be reintroduced gradually taking a few days to return to the previous work schedule. When a longer layoff is necessary, it is reasonable to assume some loss of fitness. As a rule of thumb, for each month off, allow 2-4 weeks to regain the lost fitness.
Some sports, such as hunting and polo, traditionally lay horses off at the end of the season and do not work them again until they are brought up and prepared for the next season. This is not a good way to manage an equine athlete. It is much better to keep the horses in light work during the off season which is known as ‘active rest’. Even a half hour hack two or three times a week is enough to maintain a baseline level of fitness that can be built upon in preparation for the next season.
Plan a conditioning program based on your long term and short term goals. The long term goals take account of the major events or competitions that require the horse to be at peak fitness. The short term goals are your milestones along the way – the checks and balances that indicate whether you are on track to meet your objectives. Regardless of our eventual goals, always factor in the need for different types of exercise and include easy days so that your horse will come through the conditioning process fit, healthy, sound and happy.