All athletes benefit from a break. Periods off of work give both body and mind a chance to repair and refresh. For this reason, time off is a necessary part of a sport-horse’s fitness routine.
However, giving your horse time off isn’t as simple as stall rest (unless ordered by your veterinarian) — or pulling shoes and sending the horses off to pasture for an arbitrary length of time. Beneficial downtime only works with planning and attention to fitness.
Equine fitness 101
As explained by Dr. Hilary Clayton (veterinarian and equine biomechanics guru), fitness is categorized into three main types: cardiovascular, strength, and limber fitness.
Equine cardiovascular fitness
Cardiovascular fitness determines how efficiently oxygen is delivered to the muscles. Exercises that target cardiovascular fitness will raise a horse’s heart rate and respiration rate. You can achieve this by adding duration and intensity to a ride, such as through transitions, speed, propulsion, and jumping courses.
What happens to cardiovascular fitness with time off? Horses are adapted for cardiovascular fitness. They are able to maintain this type of fitness for up to a month even with reduced exercise. When cardiovascular fitness is lost, it is quickly and easily built back up. Generally speaking, loss of cardiovascular fitness shouldn’t be your main concern when planning downtime for your horse.
Equine strength fitness
Strength fitness is defined by muscular power. For humans, strength is typically gained by weight lifting. For horses, strength is built up through collection, gymnastic jumping, riding up and down hills, and movement repetition that targets a particular set of muscles. As a horse gains strength, his muscles become “toned” or “bulky.”
What happens to strength with time off? Strength fitness is risky to lose and challenging to regain. Tendons and ligaments take a lot of time to gain strength, and are easily injured if overworked. Without the preservation of muscular strength, a horse is less capable of protecting himself against injury. Overall, horses lose musculoskeletal strength rapidly and gain it slowly.
When planning time off for your horse, aim to maintain as much strength fitness as possible. This can be achieved if a horse isn’t completely deconditioned, and is instead exercised roughly once a week.
Equine limber fitness
Limber fitness is a broader category that refers to suppleness, flexibility, agility, and coordination.
A horse with strong limber fitness can perform with precision, balance, and skill (imagine the impressiveness of an aesthetically athletic horse).
Exercises to improve limber fitness include bending, circling, lateral work, and any drill that emphasizes flexion and softness.
What happens to limber fitness with time off? Time off will reduce a horse’s limberness. A less limber horse will be less balanced and coordinated, which may predispose him to injury. However, a baseline of suppleness can be maintained during rest periods — try gentle ground exercises and stretches when letting down your horse.
What should time-off look like for your horse?
Traditionally, time off was practiced by pulling shoes off and turning horses out to pasture at the end of a busy show season. However, most top trainers and riders have ditched this practice for two reasons:
- Extreme fluctuations in fitness predispose horses to injury (an out-of-shape-horse is more likely to hurt himself).
- Getting back into shape takes a lot of time and physical strain on the horse (especially for older horses).
Thankfully, two new practices of “time off” have gained popularity as training techniques and sports medicine have advanced: strategic layoffs and cross-training.
Instead of ceasing all exercise, a horse will continue some work (one to three days weekly) at reduced intensity. This helps preserve his fitness, while giving his body and mind a chance to recharge.
Also known as “active rest” or “deconditioning,” this approach has two advantages for sport horses:
- Strategic layoffs achieve physical and mental R&R while still maintaining some consistency in his life and your program.
- The sport horse can easily rebuild fitness back to competition level without risking soundness.
Practice a variety of exercise types instead of a workout hiatus. This keeps your horse interested and engaged while giving his usual targeted muscle groups a break.
Examples of exercises you could introduce:
- Trail riding/hacking
- New basic dressage movements
- Riding in a different frame
- Ground work
- Jump some jumps (if outside of your usual discipline)
Cross training is a great option to achieve many of the same benefits as deconditioning. It promotes a well-rounded animal in both skill and strength, maintains some lifestyle consistency, and it’s fun!
Other considerations for planning time-off
1. Know how much time off is appropriate.
If your horse needs a break, aim for about a month of downtime. Any additional month off past the first month will add significantly more time to reconditioning to ideal fitness. At about six months of reduced exercise, the loss of cardiovascular fitness can be significant. Exercise will become very strenuous for him when reintroduced. Any benefits of the break will have likely waned.
Also, keep your goals in mind. Plan backwards from the dates you need your horse at his fittest. Give yourself plenty of time to recondition and prepare. Make sure not to rush any step of the conditioning process.
2. Come down gradually
Dr. Hilary Clayton recommends coming down from your exercise regimen gradually. Take about two weeks to reduce intensity and to change his diet accordingly.
Keep track of how your horse is responding to his corresponding work load. Pay attention to his soundness, suppleness, how quickly he becomes fatigued, how long it takes until he’s breathing heavily, and the time it takes for him to get back into shape. You can use Prospeqs to keep this data organized.
4. Think holistically
When reducing his work load, watch his diet, coat length, saddle fit with potential conformational changes, and his hoof condition. Talk with your farrier about whether it makes sense to pull his shoes to give his feet a chance to repair.
Consider your horse’s mental state with less work, too. Does he need additional engagement with the “unused” energy he isn’t spending on normal exercise? Is time off more stressful for him than having a consistent job that he enjoys?
Consult your veterinarian about other considerations you might have to make for your unique animal.
5. Be patient and diligent when getting back into work after time off.
An out-of-shape horse is quick to fatigue. Fatigue causes injury.
Remember, strength fitness takes time to rebuild, and your horse’s musculoskeletal system is vulnerable during the reconditioning process.
For rebuilding cardiovascular fitness, Dr. Clayton recommends spending about a week introducing cardiovascular exercises gradually.
Ultimately, time off is an investment of time and planning that pays off tremendously. It’s often necessary to prevent burnout, for both your horse and for you as a rider. When you let your horse be a horse, he’ll give you more of himself in return.