The best way to start your new season training for soundness and performance by Dr David Marlin and Dr Gillian Tabor
Every year, many horses and ponies go lame during training or simply fail to reach a good fitness level. Early season training is a vital foundation that can help to reduce the risk of injury and result in optimal fitness. In this article, we look at some common mistakes and simple things to remember that can help you to achieve your goals. Most of these points are factors we see every year in many of our clients’ horses and ponies.
1. Strengthen the back
Before mounted work, back strengthening can be achieved through exercise and groundwork, including poles, stretching, lunging, aids, etc. If your horse has experienced a period of no work or a reduced amount of work this will have affected muscle strength and, commonly, the balance between different muscle groups. To prepare your horse for increasing work duration and intensity, it is useful to target specific muscle groups that will allow the horse to support the rider. Our responsibility is to prepare our horse’s back to carry the saddle and our weight. One way of achieving this is to do unridden work. This can include in-hand walking, where the muscle activity may be lower, but the spinal range of motion is greater than in trot, therefore mobilising the spinal joints. Walking can be a great preparatory method for horses that have been out of work. Using exercises in-hand to encourage a positive posture, straight lines and circles – with the poll level with the horse’s withers and their nose slightly in front of the vertical – will optimise thoracolumbar movement in both pure flexion and rotation/bending directions. This can be progressed to work in trot-in-hand or more advanced exercises using lateral exercises such as shoulder-in, travers and half-pass. In walk and trot, in-hand or on the lunge, poles can also be used to increase the range of motion and, therefore, create a training effect on the muscles. Using different heights and layout arrangements makes this early training phase interesting for both the horse and rider! Once confident with these exercises, they can be used before riding as a dynamic unmounted warm-up to mobilise the joints and activate the muscles needed for ridden work.
2. Check saddle fit
Horses can change shape dramatically under the saddle area following as little as 4-6 weeks of regular ridden training. This isn’t always a bad thing. Asymmetries can develop under the saddle due to rider asymmetry, more work on one rein than the other, horse injury, change in saddle shape, etc. With a period of reduced work, some of this asymmetry may be resolved. However, it does mean that how your saddle fitted at the end of the 2023 season is unlikely to be the same fit now. Back pain under the saddle is incredibly common. Also, remember that at the start of training, your horse’s back will be weaker and less able to cope with loading. To give your horse the best possible chance of retaining a healthy back, aim to have your saddle checked, ideally before you start the ridden exercise. At the same time, book in a check-up for 4-6 weeks’ time because your horse will undergo quite marked changes in back conformation during that time.
3. Limit roadwork
Traditionally, roadwork with lots of trotting has been seen as the cornerstone of early season fitness work. Many people continue to use a lot of roadwork, either due to a lack of other riding options and/or in the belief that it “hardens tendons” (strengthens tendons). To date, there is absolutely no evidence that roadwork has any positive effect on tendon strength or health. The peak impact forces with roadwork are around 5-10x higher than on a grass or all-weather arena surface. This can lead to the development or worsening of arthritic conditions, particularly in the feet, fetlock and knees. Whilst it is often believed that this is only an issue for shod horses, research has shown that this only affects the forces within the hoof. Once the forces have reached the fetlock and knee, there is no difference in potential for damage between shod and unshod. At this time there is limited information about the effect of hoof boots, which may reduce this “shock” or “vibration”. But the increased grip also has the potential to cause soft tissue damage with the lower limb. Finally, trotting on roads does increase bone strength, but only a few minutes exercise per day is required for this effect. The take-home message, therefore, is to limit trotting on hard surfaces, such as roads, to around 5 minutes a day, particularly for any horse or pony with a history of or current arthritis.
4. Avoid working hard on very cold days or mornings
In people, there is a condition known as “ski-asthma”. This is an inflammation of the airways caused by exercising in cold air. The mechanism is not actually directly due to the temperature but due to the fact that cold air is very dry and, therefore, dries out the airways, causing them to become inflamed and more sensitive. The same condition has been shown to occur in horses and ponies. The harder the exercise, the more air is moved in and out of the lungs and the greater the inflammation. This leads to the infiltration of white blood cells called neutrophils, the constriction (narrowing) of the airways and increased mucus production. As a result, horses may produce more mucus at the nostrils during and after exercise, cough more during and/or after exercise, and/or have reduced exercise tolerance. It is worth avoiding working harder than walking and trotting on days when the air temperature is below 5°C, especially if you have a horse with equine asthma/RAO/etc.
5. Align the diet
As you begin to train your horse harder, naturally, they will be using more energy. In addition to energy, for muscle growth and muscle repair, your horse will also require an appropriate amount of good-quality protein. There are no shortcuts to muscle building, but insufficient energy and quality protein could lead to slow muscle development. If your horse is sweating during exercise, and even if they’re not, there is no harm in adding in 1 x 25ml scoop of plain salt per day. With heavier sweating, it’s advisable to begin adding a balanced electrolyte supplement at this stage. Electrolyte imbalance and deficiencies can take several months to develop and a number of weeks to correct. When it occurs, the first thought is often a “virus” or “ulcers”, but the origins are often a result of the diet from months before.
6. Use a fitness/training app
An important aspect of early season work, and, in fact, at any time, is ensuring that you are working your horse for the same amount of time on both reins in all gaits in which you are riding. It’s very easy without monitoring to slip into riding 60-70% more on your horse’s “better” rein without even realising, which, over time, will accentuate asymmetry. There are brilliant bits of kit that you can buy to monitor the duration spent on each rein using motion sensors. There are also free apps that you can download to your phone to track the time spent in each gait, as well as the total distance.
7. Boost your fitness
Whilst you are working on your horse’s unridden preparation to be ridden, this is a good time to start working on your own fitness. As little as 10-15 min a day for a few weeks, particularly on core strength and balance, can have a dramatic positive effect on your balance and stability within the saddle, leading to decreased stress on your horse’s back.
8. Plan 3-4 fitness sessions per week
A general rule for increasing fitness is 3-4 sessions per 6-7 days. There is no need to ride every day. In fact, riding 2-3 days with a day off often results in fitter and healthier horses than those ridden daily.
9. Increase the workload slowly
The difficulty level of your horse’s training is a combination of speed/intensity, distance/time and frequency. So, for example, trotting for 20 mins, 3x per week, would be equivalent in training load to trotting for 10 mins, six times per week. A simple rule to follow is only to change ONE at a time! That means increasing the number of sessions per week OR the speed OR the time. This should be done every 14 days.
10. Allow recovery weeks
In human sport, it’s not unusual to use “recovery weeks” in training. Every time your horse (or you) train, there is microdamage to muscle, tendon, ligament, bone, etc. Over time, this can gradually increase to the point of an obvious injury. In a recovery week, the workload is reduced to around half the previous period. So if you were, say, cantering for 15 mins, six times a week, a recovery week would equate to either 7.5 mins of cantering six times a week or 15 mins, three times a week. The recovery week can allow the majority of low-grade injuries to heal or improve, reducing the risk of a more serious injury.
11. Consider different surfaces
A major risk factor for orthopaedic injury identified from research is the use of a single surface, whilst, at the same time, a major factor for reducing orthopaedic injury is the use of a variety of surfaces. Therefore, arena, roadwork, and hacking can all contribute to a more robust and resilient musculoskeletal system. At the same time, it’s important to realise the risks of extremes. The pros and cons of roadwork have been discussed above. Very soft ground, with a decreased risk for arthritis and fractures, is likely to increase the risk of ligament, tendon and muscle injury.
12. Know your horse’s limits
Every ridden session carries a risk of injury. No risk, however, means no reward. It’s vital, therefore, that you work your horse hard enough but not too hard. A heart rate monitor is the only real practical way to know if you are working your horse hard enough and when to end a session. It can also serve as an early warning for injury or illness as heart rate is elevated by both.
Before increasing the level of work during a session it is very important that your horse is prepared, so planning an adequate warm-up is important to avoid discomfort and to reduce the risk of injury. It is also part of improving performance. The stages of warm-up are broken down into an initial phase of general movement to raise the heart rate. This would involve a period of walking and trotting, usually in a longer frame than a competition outline. Once the ‘blood is pumping’ because the heart and respiratory rate have increased, you can start dynamic movements through range. This is akin to seeing a footballer swing their legs, skip or side-stepping. Equivalent movements for a horse would be circles and turns, transitions between different gaits and within the gaits, as well as lateral movements and poles. The aim of this phase is to move the joints and the soft tissues progressively to ensure full mobility and flexibility. The final phase of warm-up is the skills practice, which may require repeating dressage movements or going over jumps. Remember that it is good to return to walking, keep moving and have a short break in between training bouts or before higher effort, but any long periods of recovery will need a new warm-up before doing harder work again. Thinking back to the footballers – they have to re-warm up before the second half.
14. Make surface transitions
Whilst we have underlined the importance of using different surfaces, it’s also important to avoid sudden transitions from normal to hard, normal to soft, or soft to hard ground. This can easily happen out on hacks or even in the arena, for example, on frosty mornings with areas of thawed and frozen surfaces. The best approach is to make the transitions between different surface conditions at walk, possibly at trot if the horse is well-balanced and on a straight line, but avoid high-speed transitions at canter or gallop as these carry an increased risk.
15. Use Rising Trot v Half-Seat (2-point) Trot
Recent research has shown that mean saddle pressure is ~30% lower and peak saddle pressure is around 50% lower when riders are in rising trot compared with a half-seat/2-point position in trot. However, the peak loading rate on the stirrups in half-seat/2-point trot is around ¼ of that in rising trot. Furthermore, rider symmetry is greater in a half-seat/2-point trot. It may well, therefore, be advantageous to consider using a combination of rising trot and half-seat/2-point trot, particularly during early season training to reduce equine back mechanical stress.
16. Mount comfortably
Get into the habit of mounting from a block, ideally with someone holding your other stirrup. Research has shown that mounting can place considerable stress on your horse’s back and lead to asymmetry and injury.
17. Warm down
After work, it is a good idea to warm down both physically and mentally. Regressing to slower work, using a ‘stretchy’ frame to release from a more collected outline is good. You could use this phase, when everything is pliable from being warm, to go through larger ranges of motion in a low speed – four track shoulder in or travers, or pirouettes with wider opening and then closing off the legs. Remember to watch for tiredness and reduced movement quality if your horse is fatigued. Also check the air temperature and put on an exercise sheet so you don’t cool down too quickly, if needed. There is no foolproof way to avoid post-exercise muscle soreness if you have done more work than the horse is accustomed to, but warming down well is a sensible option to reduce this risk.
18. Treat legs post-exercise
As discussed above, exercise, even for a normal, healthy horse, results in micro-damage to soft tissues, in particular, muscles, tendons and ligaments. This can lead to prolonged inflammation with further damage to tissue strength and, eventually, an injury resulting in clinical signs > lameness. It is now recognised that by far the majority of tendon injuries, perhaps more than 90%, are the result of repeated cumulative small bouts of inflammation from regular exercise, as opposed to a single isolated catastrophic “freak” event. Icing after exercise is an effective way to reduce soft-tissue inflammation and limit the structural weakening of the tendons and ligaments. Cold-hosing, ice from the freezer or commercial ice boots (not evaporative cooling boots, clay or cooling gels, as these are ineffective) are all effective ways to reduce lower limb inflammation following exercise.