The idea that a horse can become fitter as he rests seems something of a paradox. Yet time off from the training schedule is vital to produce a happy, healthy athlete who enjoys his work.
Andy Bathe MRCVS, of Rossdales Veterinary Surgeons, explains that physical fitness is gained through incremental increases in training followed by periods of repair and recovery — a process known as adaptation.
“Adaptation to exercise occurs while the horse rests,” he says. “Fitness develops as the body responds to exercise, rather than during the exercise itself.”
These rest periods are where the real effects of training occur.
“The principle behind building fitness is progressive loading,” Andy explains. “The body reaches a plateau if the type and level of training stay the same, so the aim is to gradually step up the intensity, frequency and duration of exercise to challenge and develop different systems.
“Each increase in workload causes microscopic breakdown of bone and soft tissues — the muscles, ligaments and tendons,” Andy continues. “These adapt through repeated cycles of damage and repair, to produce stronger tissue. Muscles respond to the stress of exercise in various ways: fibres and enzymes undergo modification, capillaries multiply and aerobic and glycogen storage capacity increases. But this only happens if the body is given time to rest.”
Overtraining can even weaken a strong athlete.
“Too much training can be detrimental,” says Andy, explaining that the body cannot repair itself properly if recovery time is inadequate. “The horse’s fitness levels will not progress at the rate you would expect, and injury is more likely in an over-stressed system.”
Variety is key
So where’s the balance? How much rest is recommended during a sport horse’s working week?
“A human triathlete will work to a nicely planned schedule with structured rest periods,” says Andy.
“While scientific study and modern methods have been applied to equine fitness, we tend to return to the old ways that have proved most successful.
“The art of training is to get the horse as fit as possible with as little work as possible,” he adds, pointing out the risk of repetitive strain injury. “There are only so many ‘cycles’ of damage and repair in a bone or tendon. Progression should be gradual and varied. Intersperse hard exercise with lower intensity work, allowing sufficient time off throughout the week, season and year to recover.”
Incorporating recovery time into your horse’s schedule calls for a common-sense approach. A typical work-rest pattern may involve giving him a day off once a week or after a harder training cycle or session, or two to three days’ rest after a tough competition. However, horses vary in their attitude and response to training depending on type and temperament, so good management means judging how an individual is coping.
“There is generally a better response if the horse has at least one day to recover between high-intensity sessions, although this does not need to be complete rest,” says Andy. “Horses don’t seem to suffer from delayed-onset muscle soreness, which tends to peak in humans between two and four days after intense or novel exercise.
“We know from human sport that athletes should exercise hard or exercise light, with rest periods. The danger, or grey zone, is where an individual is working at a moderate intensity all the time. We appreciate that exercising a horse harder for short periods can have major benefits — this type of interval training allows you to decrease the overall quantity of work but not the quality.
“A horse can become stale or flat if recovery sessions are too short,” adds Andy, highlighting lack of energy and an unwillingness to work as classic signs of over-training. “He is more likely to sustain an injury if his leg structures are overloaded, or develop a cough if his immune system is depressed.”
According to Andy, horses recover from exercise more slowly than humans do.
“It takes longer for a horse to replenish his glycogen stores after a workout,” he explains. “A cyclist can take energy drinks after a ride, for example, or load up with carb-rich pasta that evening, but it’s harder to manipulate a horse’s recovery with diet. You can’t force him to re-energise more quickly without risking colic or laminitis.
“Horses are natural athletes, but they evolved to cover longer distances more slowly,” he adds. “It’s easy to over-ride a horse, perhaps at a championship where he may be working hard over consecutive days. He needs a chance to recover afterwards.”
Easy does it
A rest day should involve some kind of movement, to maintain a horse’s suppleness and reduce the risk of him “tying up” — where time off without a corresponding reduction in hard feed can trigger a condition called exertional rhabdomyolysis (also known as azoturia).
“Turnout is good, both physically and psychologically, so allow a horse as much time out in the field as possible,” says Andy. “Plan easy days alongside total rest — light hacking or walking in-hand. This is particularly beneficial if the horse is older or has orthopaedic niggles.”
The “active recovery period”, in which muscles respond to exercise stimulus, begins immediately after a workout. Does travelling back from a show count as rest?
“This area is not well studied,” Andy responds. “We normally consider flying to be less tiring than travelling in a lorry, although factors such as long loading and unloading periods and transfers in very hot environments can be stressful. Top sport horses are well acclimatised to their lifestyle, however, and can probably switch off more easily while on the move or in the unfamiliar environment of a busy showground.
“Again, it comes down to knowing an individual horse and judging whether he is receiving sufficient time to relax and recover,” he adds. “There may not be a one-size-fits-all formula, but getting the balance right will maximise performance, minimise injury risk and could well prolong a horse’s athletic career.”
The benefits of rest days
“Rest days are vital,” says showjumper William Whitaker. “Each of our horses has a tailor-made plan, taking into account factors such as his temperament, previous injuries, shows done that season and upcoming competitions.
“Take a horse who has jumped a grand prix on the Sunday and has no competition the week after — I would ride him lightly on the Monday, to check that he is looking and feeling himself, and do the same on the Tuesday before giving him a full day off in the field on the Wednesday,” adds William. “We try to give the horses as much time as possible out in the field or grazing in-hand.”
Eventer Harry Meade says: “I take the approach that as the intensity of a horse’s work goes up, the frequency goes down. A horse coming back into training after time off is better in continuous, low intensity work and does not benefit from rest days. Once he is fit and working hard, however, he needs that recovery time.
“I structure the week of an older competition horse around fast work, putting in days for flatwork or jumping and an easier day every fourth or fifth day,” Harry explains.
“An easy day might consist of a hack or a short lunge, rather than complete rest, depending on his needs. After a run, the horse has a day off in the field and will hack out the following day, returning to work on the third day.”
Ref Horse & Hound; 21 March 2019