By Hilary Clayton, BVMS, PhD, MRCVS, DACVSMR
Many equestrian sports have an annual cycle in which a competition season alternates with an off-season. Even in the sports that continue on a year-round basis, most trainers schedule a break from competition, which gives the horse a chance to recover mentally and physically from the stress of traveling and competing. Consequently, long-term conditioning plans are based on an annual periodicity.
Benefits Of Deconditioning
At the end of the competition season, the horse benefits from a period of “active rest,” which involves riding or driving for pleasure two or three times a week to preserve the strength and suppleness of the musculoskeletal tissues, while allowing somewhat of a reduction in cardiovascular fitness. If a baseline level of fitness is maintained through a reduced work schedule, reconditioning of the horse proceeds much more rapidly the following season. It is not recommended that horses be let down completely—except during recuperation from injury—because large oscillations in fitness are detrimental to long-term soundness.
In older horses, it is particularly important to maintain fitness in the off-season because reconditioning takes longer as the horse ages.
Definitions And Concepts
What is fitness? The conditioning process comprises three distinct, but complementary areas known as cardiovascular conditioning, strength training, and limbering exercises. Cardiovascular conditioning enhances the ability of the respiratory, cardiovascular, and muscular systems to produce energy by the appropriate metabolic pathways. Strength training is directed toward increasing the power or endurance of the muscle groups that are important for performance of the specific sport. Limbering exercises increase the range of motion of the joints, which makes the horse more athletic, improves the aesthetics of the performance, and reduces the risk of injury.
What happens when your horse loses fitness? When a horse ceases to perform conditioning exercise, it loses fitness. The rate at which cardiovascular fitness, musculoskeletal strength, and suppleness are lost determines the time required to recondition the horse following a layoff. This is an important consideration during rehabilitation.
For example, when a horse is forced to rest completely due to injury, loss of cardiovascular fitness depends on the length of the layoff. After a month of stall rest, there is some loss of oxidative enzymes in the muscles, but this has little effect on performance. However, after six months of rest, horses have more difficulty completing a standard exercise test—they sweat more, indicating less effective thermoregulation; their breathing is more labored; and there is a marked increase in the post-exercise blood lactate concentration due to the reduced aerobic capacity.
How can you prevent loss of fitness? When the horse is let down at the end of the competitive season, a baseline level of fitness is maintained during the off-season by performing cardiovascular workouts twice a week at a reduced intensity and duration. Layoff of a month or less causes minimal loss of cardiovascular fitness. However, the workload should be reintroduced gradually over a period of several days when exercise resumes.
If the horse has been off work for longer than a month, it is reasonable to assume some loss of cardiovascular fitness, although this may be regained relatively rapidly. As a rule of thumb, beyond the first month, each additional month off requires a month’s reconditioning. A more significant concern is the loss of musculoskeletal strength, which is regained relatively slowly. A single workout each week usually is sufficient to preserve the strength of muscles. Other tissues (tendons and ligaments) probably adapt to changes in workload more slowly than muscle. These components of the musculoskeletal system lose strength more rapidly than it can be rebuilt, which is a primary concern when laying horses off.
What other factors should you consider in deconditioning? As you enter into active rest or “roughing off,” you must consider the whole horse. Take approximately two weeks to come down from the current level of fitness by decreasing both exercise and diet gradually. In addition, increase the amount of daily turnout, removing blankets one at a time as the horse begins to grow a longer, thicker coat. Try to remove your horse’s shoes for a couple of months each year to encourage a healthier foot to grow. Due to individual foot characteristics, this procedure might not benefit every horse.
You, your trainer, and your veterinarian know what is best for your horse and your equine competition goals. Work with these professionals to develop a strategic plan to bring your horse up from rest safely, as well as down from competition. This will increase your chances of having a healthier mount for a longer time.
Hilary Clayton, BVMS, PhD, MRCVS, DACVSMR is a native of England, earning her degree from the University of Glasgow. A lifelong rider, competing extensively in eventing, show jumping and dressage, Dr. Clayton's interest as a veterinarian and researcher emphasize on the biomechanics of equine gait.
Reviewed by original author in 2016.