How to keep your horse competing by avoiding injuries

Getting your horse fit and managing a half-way decent dressage score can seem like the biggest obstacles in having a successful eventing season but there are a few simple steps that may improve performance and minimise the risk of injuries:

Here are 5 tips to avoid injuries:

1. Incorporate a thorough warm-up and cool-down into your normal routine. The warm-up can include several different stages:
a. Passive warm-up using the horse’s own body temperature to heat the muscles, using rugs or external heat, eg a solarium; this can be particularly useful in horses with back and muscle soreness because it will increase the extensibility of collagen and flexibility of the soft tissues prior to beginning exercise;
b. general active warm-up using non-specific movements to increase overall body temperature, improve circulation to muscles and begin to increase heart rate prior to the demands of competition, eg active walking, slow trot, slow canter and gentle turns/flexion exercises;
c. specific warm-up exercises incorporating more advanced movements that will be part of the training session or competition, eg jumping or more extended/collected gaits.

Thorough warm-up is important to stimulate the horse’s physiology or ‘energy delivery system’, to prepare muscles and joints for exercise and to help the horse tune-in psychologically to the rider at a competition. It’s important to keep a balance between warm-up and excessive muscular fatigue before the competition starts. The exact duration of the warm up will also depend on weather conditions and the environment.

Cooling-down is the first vital step to recovery following any exercise session. It means getting the horse’s core temperature back down to normal (this is of major importance in really hot, humid weather when horses will struggle to lose the heat generated by their muscles during strenuous exercise by sweating alone). It is also key to getting the waste products from exercise, eg lactate, out of the muscles and into the general circulation to minimise stiffness after hard exercise.

2. Use a variety of surfaces. Most horses will work on a variety of surfaces, eg grass, arena surfaces and road work, in the course of their training but maintaining this variation can be beneficial in avoiding concentrating stresses on single structures. For example, studies have shown higher stresses in the superficial digital flexor tendon (SDFT) in horses working on soft sand compared to tarmac; higher stresses can be measured through joints and the hoof associated with landing on hard packed surfaces and the impact forces through the front legs were shown to be doubled on landing after a jump onto a fibresand surface after the surface was compacted (rolled) compared to the same surface after it was harrowed.

3. Find the balance between practising a new movement or skill and over-doing the same movement by endless repetition that can concentrate stress in certain areas of the horse’s (and human) body and make them vulnerable to injury.

4. Improve muscle strength and conditioning to support all the joints of the body. All joints rely (to a variable degree) on the muscles and tendons that act across them for support and stability through the joint’s normal range of motion. That means that there is an increased risk of overstretching and injury when those supporting muscles are weak or fatigued. Including simple exercises, like using ground poles in your regular routine, will target the important muscles of the horse’s core and upper limbs which can be harder to activate during normal flat work.

5. Incorporate routine suppling exercises and stretches into each training session, eg lateral work, circles and voltes to develop balance and stability through the horse’s core; which in turn will help prevent excessive stress and overload on the horse’s lower limb and joints. Alternatively, use raised cavaletti or gymnastic jumping to target specific muscle groups. Passive suppling exercises such as carrot stretches provide a great way to restore normal range of motion and flexibility at the end of an exercise session. These can aid muscle recovery and develop improved muscular support to the small muscles which stabilise the horse’s neck and spine.
Other steps to support optimum performance on the day of competition include:

• hydration : temperatures in the UK aren’t usually high enough through much of the summer to cause significant heat stress but horses can lose 3 kg of body weight (roughly 3 litres of water) for every hour travelled in a horsebox on a warm day. Allowing enough time and access to water to correct these deficits without starting the competition with a stomach full of water can be vital in supporting overall performance;
• replacing electrolyte losses from sweat: horses can lose significant amounts of salts through sweat. Offering an electrolyte solution as well as plain water allows the horse to balance its own needs during heavy exercise and competition;
• recognising the signs of fatigue and heat stress: in really hot and humid conditions, horses struggle to get rid of body heat by normal sweating (about 70-80% of the body’s energy stores are lost as heat whilst only 20-30% actually gets used up in muscle contraction and work). If your horse’s heart rate or breathing rate (or core body temperature) take longer to come back to normal at the end of exercise this can be a sign of mild heat exhaustion. Steps to help reduce core body temperature, eg pouring cold water over the horse at the end of hard exercise. helps to return the body systems to normal more quickly on hot days. In addition fitness will help reduce the risks of heat stress On hot summer days, pushing a horse whose baseline cardiovascular fitness is an issue is more likely to lead to heat stress and problems in recovery than in a horse that’s reached optimal fitness already.

Fran James is a European- and American-Recognised Specialist in Equine Surgery and a Diplomate of the American College of Equine Sports Medicine. She has worked as a Consultant at Newmarket Equine Hospital since 2016.

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