Conditioning of the Equine Athlete

Equine Management Notes BR Farm
HEALTH CHECK: Before starting any fitness or conditioning programme, a thorough health check should be undertaken. (FW11-500NN)

WITH spring approaching, thoughts are turning to preparing for shows and competitions. During a competitive season, the main objective for trainers, owners, grooms and riders of competition horses, is to assist the animal to compete at the highest level possible, while keeping them free from injury. Achieving this objective requires consideration of the many factors influencing the horse’s performance, and the planning and application of a conditioning programme tailored to the individual animal.

Before starting any fitness or conditioning programme, a thorough health check must be undertaken and general horse management should be up to date including vaccinations, weight management and teeth checks, parasite testing and farrier visits.

Understanding Fitness

The fitness components that can be developed during training over a period of time are strength, speed, endurance and skill. Depending on the discipline to be performed, horses will require varying amounts of each component. For example, a racehorse running five furlongs on good ground requires significant amounts of speed and strength, but little endurance, whilst a dressage horse requires high levels of skill and strength, but less speed and endurance.

Understanding how much of each fitness component your horse requires for competition is central to an effective conditioning plan. Horses need the correct level of skill required for the task, and enough endurance to complete the competition without becoming fatigued. A fatigued horse may be more likely to stumble and suffer an injury. Strength is needed for most competitions, although how much will usually depend on how much power output the rider is going to ask the horse to produce.

Physiological changes that are likely to happen during a conditioning programme

During a conditioning programme, changes will occur within the horse’s body structures and systems. The key areas where changes occur in response to exercise are;

– Muscles, which will have a better ability to use oxygen and they will increase in size and strength.

– The heart will adapt with training by increasing in size and thickness of the muscular walls, especially the ventricles.

– Bones will increase in strength by laying down new bone.

– Decreases will be seen in heart rate and respiratory recovery rates over time.

– Muscles will see an increased number of blood vessels supplying each muscle fibre, which increases the amount of oxygen to the muscle and aids with the removal of by-products, such as lactic acid.

– Increased number of oxygen carrying red blood cells plus improvement in the extraction of oxygen from the blood.

A complete conditioning programme, from bringing a horse in, up to competition time, will vary depending on the horse’s age, breed, health and soundness, previous fitness levels, and the competition and discipline to be performed.

Throughout any conditioning programme, there will be a gradual increase in work level, including exercise duration and intensity. Periods of long slow work will increase bone strength and muscular and cardiovascular fitness. Roadwork can be useful at any stage in a conditioning programme, to provide variety in the schedule, which is important, however research has showed that trotting on roads should be kept to about five minutes per day, as the forces on the hoof are 20 times higher than on a good grass or arena surface.

As the horses’ tolerance to an increase in exercise improves, they will sweat less, their respiration rate will become lower during and immediately after exercise and they will recover much quicker after each session. It can be useful to use heart rate monitors to measure your horse’s pulse during exercise and determine correct work levels. Correct nutrition levels are vital to ensure that the horse has enough energy to fuel the increased activity and feeding rates will normally need to be increased as the level of exercise intensity grows.

Rest days are an important aspect of conditioning throughout the programme, to ensure the body is able to repair, which will help to prevent injury and increase longevity. Many professional trainers and riders will give their horses at least one day off per week, as well as some less strenuous days, but this can be tailored to suit the individual horse.

As the competition date approaches, a tapering off period which will see a decreased duration but a similar intensity of exercise in the week before competition has been shown to enhance performance.

If you are unsure about increasing your horses’ activity level, please consult your vet or professional trainer or coach before making any changes.

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