When we ask for maximum effort from our horses, dogs or ourselves, it inevitably places stress on the body. Intense training promotes advanced levels of fitness and heightened skill but it can also lead to performance regressions.
While there are many different causes of decreased performance, one thing for certain is that if you do not train your performance horse like the athlete he is, he cannot be the athlete that you want him to be.
When we stumble upon roadblocks in our training, we should search for the reason why. Why is the horse suddenly regressing, traveling off, acting dull, or displaying training resistances? Sometimes the answer is an educated guess, sometimes it’s as concrete as an x-ray, and sometimes it’s a simple solution that has a big impact. Whatever the case may be, determining and eliminating the cause is a crucial aspect of a successful recovery.
The ability to critically examine every single aspect of their program is what can set good riders apart from great riders. Nothing goes under their radar.
Case in point, if you are causing musculoskeletal damage due to an ill fitting saddle, any therapeutic means you use to address the soreness will only be a band-aid. It is not until you replace the saddle that you can expect to start reversing the damage and correcting incorrect movement. While it’s common sense, it’s the one common factor I see that most often prevents successful recoveries.
Muscle dysfunction begins with muscle fatigue. When a muscle is worked in a weakened state, it is susceptible to injury. When this happens you will start to see muscle tightness, muscle spasms, weakness and ultimately muscle overstretching, straining, or tearing. If the horse continues to be worked through his normal paces in this condition, he will begin to compensate for the pain, start to resent his job, perform insufficient movement patterns, and ultimately sustain further damage.
The object is to catch potential problems before they manifest. Warning signs start out very small initially, therefore, the more in tune you are, the more successful you will be. Signs I look for whether working with a human or equine athlete is uneven shoe wear, travel pattern or weight bearing stance. I also look at muscle health such as asymmetry, atrophy, and development. Lastly, I want to know how the athlete’s balance, coordination, and flexibility stack up.
The Balanced Program, The Balanced Horse
To achieve total body fitness, we must address the following areas:
Muscular strength and endurance
While the degree of talent an athlete naturally possesses is not trainable, all of the above traits are and they are traits every successful athlete must have. By combining functional stretching and strengthening exercises into your rides, you will achieve greater flexibility, balance, increase muscle and tendon length, as well as increase muscle elasticity and resiliency. The cardiovascular portion of your program will enhance the respiratory, cardiovascular and muscular systems to sufficiently produce energy by the metabolic pathways. Finally, by continually monitoring the horse’s body composition utilizing the Henneke body-scoring system, you will ensure the horse has the appropriate amount of body fat, muscle development, and is receiving the correct nutrition to optimally perform his job.
The Warm Up
The warm up consists of dynamic repetitive exercises done at a low intensity to prepare the muscles for higher intensity exercise, which includes stretching. Dynamic stretching, which is done under saddle, consists of light cardiovascular exercises. Dynamic stretches are useful in developing neuromuscular coordination, as well as speed and power. Examples of dynamic stretching are: guiding your horse through a cone pattern, lateral exercises with forward motion, or trotting over ground poles.
Dynamic stretching can also be used intermittently during workouts to regenerate tired muscles. Tired, overworked muscles hurt because they are filled with lactic acid. Giving the horse brief breaks with dynamic stretching exercises allows the muscles to return to a relaxed state and it aids in circulation.
Stretching or expecting a muscle to work when it’s unprepared and cold, will only lead to resistance and possible injury. Warm muscles have an increased blood supply, which renders the muscle less likely to be injured during the workout. You must warm up to stretch, not stretch to warm up.
Pre-Show Warm Up
Prior to competition, the most beneficial time to warm up and subsequently stretch your horse is shortly before your class. At this time, you are best able to take advantage of the increased power stored in the muscles you created with the warm up and stretching routine. If you perform your warm up too long before entering the arena, the muscles will contract back to their original length and the stored energy will be lost. If you perform a warm up for too long, you will fatigue the muscles and will consequently lose muscle power.
The Cool Down
A well-executed cool down of approximately 10 to 15 minutes at roughly 40% of the horse’s maximum performance capability can decrease soreness dramatically and increase blood flow to rid the muscular system of metabolic waste.
Post ride or post warm up at a show is the most beneficial time to statically stretch your horse’s muscles. Static-Passive stretching is the gradual lengthening of a muscle by holding a position at the first point of resistance for approximately 15-30 seconds to allow the muscle to relax and reach a greater range of motion. When properly performed, static stretching greatly enhances the horse’s range of motion. An example of a static stretch would be stretching a front leg forward or hind leg backwards.
Program Design Essentials
Cross training helps prevent injury and burnout. Repetitive movement day after day without recovery commonly causes overuse injuries. By mixing up the program and having the horse do something different, such as working on the trail, even just once or twice a week, you will reduce muscle stress, achieve greater total body condition, prevent performance plateaus, and keep the mind fresh.
Recovery is the amount of time a muscle group needs to recover from exercise. It typically takes 48 hours to 96 hours for a muscle to recover from targeted exercise. An aged or out of shape horse may need a longer recovery, an extremely fit horse may require less recovery time. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is the muscle discomfort that occurs between 24 to 48 hours after exercise. The cause of the pain is small microscopic tears and inflammation in the muscle tissues. The discomfort is perfectly normal but you do want to take it easy on the horse during bouts of DOMS. Dynamic and static stretching exercises, therapeutic bodywork, and therapy devices such as Game Ready or Back On Track products are great ways to help the horse recover from the pain.
If you practice stopping for 5 days straight, you have not given the hindquarter muscles adequate time to recover between rides. A better solution is to target specific muscle groups each ride and alternate which muscle group you work. If Monday is hindquarters, Tuesday would be shoulders and so on. Changes in muscle development occur during time off, not during exercise; therefore, adequate muscle recovery time is vital.
It takes anywhere from 300 to 500 repetitions to create a new movement pattern and 3000 to 5000 repetitions to undo a faulty movement pattern. I always recommend doing a few repetitions correctly than doing many repetitions incorrectly. Less is more and will result in quicker gains in the end. For example, if you perform 3 rundowns correctly but keep on going until the horse fatigues and runs out of air, you have just negated those first 3 correct repetitions. If you stop while you’re ahead, you will help prevent the risk of regressing.
While it can be easy to quickly advance a talented horse through his maneuvers, we must remember to give the body enough time to adapt to the next level of fitness. An easy rule that many athletes and personal trainers follow is the Ten Percent Rule. This rule is simply increasing the degree of difficulty by no more than 10% per week.
Without rest, you run the risk of over training. Over training or burnout is when an athlete is repeatedly stressed to the point where rest alone is no longer adequate for a complete recovery. Hard training wears an athlete down. It is the time off that makes them stronger. Studies have shown physiologic improvement in athletes only occurs during rest periods following hard training.
When a human athlete is fatigued they often become sullen, depressed, moody, and lose their competitive desire. The same also happens to equine athletes. Many times that cranky, uncooperative horse is simply trying to tell us how he’s feeling.
Rest is extremely important in any training program but what is even more important is when it’s given and for how long. It can take approximately only 4 weeks to start losing muscle. Therefore, if you give a horse 3 months or more off in the winter without any work, you have to start over when you put them back into training.
Without a doubt, yo-yo training is detrimental to the body. Too often I find clients thinking that after turning their horse out in the pasture for several months, he should feel like a million bucks and be ready to roll. They are shocked when things do not go quite so smoothly.
How I like to deal with rest is two-fold. First, I believe it is important to give the horse more rest periods throughout the show season, such as 1 or 2-week periodic breaks, as your show schedule allows. We tend to feel we will lose ground if we stop training but we need to remind ourselves that changes come from the rest periods, not the workouts. The most beneficial time to chose a rest period is when the horse feels good. If you wait until he becomes burned out, you have waited too long. Secondly, during the off-season, I recommend the horse be given a break, but I like to keep him legged up to preserve his athletic development. This usually consists of riding lightly a couple times a week at a relaxing, enjoyable pace for the horse and maneuvers are either not practiced or practiced lightly once a week. This makes the transition back into full training and competition much easier, safer, and more importantly, successful.
Resistances in performance horses can be anything from a kick out on a lead change, tail wringing as the stressed or injured muscle fires in a maneuver, inability to hold correct position in a turn around, lack of concentration, unwillingness to collect or rate, rushing, or a nose tipping to the outside of the circle. Many times resistances are warning signs that the horse isn’t a 100% mentally and/or physically. Certainly, the above can also be the result of training issues but anytime a proven performer stops performing, you should look for a reason - period. Competing demands a great deal from the horse’s body and there will inevitably be times you need to adjust your program to achieve greater gains.
Suggestions for a balanced program:
Long trotting and cantering workouts on the trail to achieve cardiovascular endurance
Do not become stagnant in your routine or your results will also become stagnant
Targeted muscle workouts to properly develop muscular strength and endurance
Continually assess your feeding program and horse’s body composition
Utilize dynamic stretching exercises to ascertain proper balance and coordination
Implement a static stretching routine to increase flexibility
Strategically plan rest and recovery periods
Creating a well balanced training program for any athlete is an art as well as a science and it can make the difference between winning and losing. Training smart is the key to not only optimum performance but also longevity.
(c) Heidi Pichotta