Tapering training for improved equestrian performance



If you are a competitive runner, cyclist, swimmer or are involved in any semi-professional sport then you are very likely to know all about tapering. If you are a rider then chances are you may not know about tapering. 


Tapering is the technique of reducing the amount of daily training as you approach a competition. This is usually over 7-14 days and involves reducing the amount (time) you train but keeping the training intensity the same. Less commonly, tapering can also consist of reducing both duration and intensity of training in the run up to a competition. 


Tapering has been shown in human studies to increase strength, speed, power and/or endurance and ultimately, performance. This is because daily training leads to low level muscle damage and partial depletion of muscle glycogen (the glucose store within the muscles that limits performance in almost all sports). Tapering allows the muscle to recover to a greater extent and also maximises the muscle glycogen stores. Tapering can also benefit horses with orthopaedic issues (e.g. tendonitis, arthritis, bruised feet, etc) as it provides an opportunity for short term recovery. Whilst most human athletes would “back off” their training as a competition approaches, many riders or trainers increase the intensity of training. This is usually due to anxiety about the horse’s “readiness” to compete and is usually counter-productive. If the horse is not considered fit enough a hard week of training leading into a competition will not increase fitness. If it’s a skill issue, hours of extra work may sometimes address the issue but at the expense of the horse’s physical condition i.e. the horse will be in a poorer physical state due to sore muscles and low muscle energy (glycogen) stores.  


To the best of my knowledge there is still only one study of tapering in horses: a study on Standardbreds by Shearman et al. published in 2002 in the Equine Veterinary Journal which showed a significant increase in both peak and average speed in the tapered group compared with the controls. Practical experience from 25 years of applying this with clients has convinced me this is a beneficial practice. 


Tapering is more likely to benefit horses competing in moderate to intense sports at moderate to high level. This would include sports such as racing, polo, jumping, dressage, driving, endurance and eventing. In most of these sports muscular fatigue is a common limiting factor e.g. in the second half of a dressage test or jumping round and in the latter stages of cross-country or a flat or NH race or endurance race. Any horse competing at a moderate to high level or in an intense sport and any horse that starts to struggle as the competition progresses will almost certainly benefit from tapering. 


Imagine at the peak of your training you are walking for 30 min, trotting for 15 min and cantering for 10 min. Over 7 days you would gradually decrease the daily exercise such that two days before competition you may only do 20 min walk, 5 min trot and 1 min canter. The day before you may only do a 15 min walk and 5 min trot. If you were jumping 25 obstacles a day, you would reduce this by 3-4 obstacles a day until the day before you may not jump at all.  


Tapering may not suit all temperaments of horses. Yes, some horses can become very strong with tapering. Some horses may need a small reduction in hard feed. It’s also something that needs to be managed carefully with horses that are prone to tying-up and in these horses a reduction in hard feed (energy) is essential.  


If you are competing at a moderate to high level and/or if you feel your horse starts to fade during competition, especially say over the course of multi-day competitions, or you are looking for a competitive advantage, have a think about trying tapering.  


About Author

Dr David Marlin is a physiologist and biochemist who has worked in academia, research and professional sport. He has worked in the equestrian and veterinary world and in human sport, healthcare, medicine and exercise science. In 1989 David obtained his PhD from the UK’s leading sports university, Loughborough University following a four-year study on the responses of Thoroughbred racehorses to exercise and training, undertaken at the renowned Animal Health Trust in Newmarket. You can read David's full biography in the Our Website section.