Horse Massage Blog

Bringing a horse back into work

When you are bringing your horse back into work after a rest, it is very important to consider their muscle strength as well as their their cardiovascular fitness. 

In general, people are pretty good at this (there will always be exceptions to the rule).  They start with one to two weeks of mainly walking, building up from 10mins-30mins and then they introduce trot and canter quite slowly, followed by maybe some jumping work.  But people often don’t understand why?  Well it’s about this thing called conditioning.

Conditioning eases the muscles into work as well as starts slowly building the cardiovascular fitness and bone density up.  

I mean, think about it yourself, how would you feel if you came back from a four week holiday in Bali where all you did was lie by the pool, drink a number of cocktails and gorge yourself on the amazing food, and then two days back your personal trainer has you doing 20minutes of squats followed by 20minutes on the treadmill?  I think you would be complaining... loudly!!  I know I would.  So why should we expect our horses to do the same?  We need to condition them for what we expect them to do.

But what conditioning also does is prepare the brain…prepare the brain you say?  Most certainly!

Muscles in the body contract when they receive signals from motor neurons, which are triggered from a part of the cell called the 'sarcoplasmic reticulum'. Motor neurons tell your muscles to contract and the better you become at having those signals tell your muscles to contract, the stronger you can get.  Conditioning helps these motor neurons function in the way you want them to.  For instance, do you want to condition your horse for endurance work or showjumping?  Both of these require very different muscle strengths. 

It also helps to explain why, after practice, certain movements become easier to perform.

I regularly see people turn their horses out for a spell and then within a week of them being back in work they have them out in the arena daily working on flying changes or gridwork etc… and they think nothing of it because the horse puts up with it (most of the time).  But really what you are doing without noticing is creating micro damage to the tissues.  They are starting to undergo strain and tearing at a microscopic level. 

“But my instructor told me that muscles grow by tearing and then laying down new stronger fibres” you say.  This is true in a sense, but what you are doing is over damage.  This process where your body repairs or replaces damaged muscle fibres by fusing them together to form new myofibrils actually happens in the rest phase.  So when you are conditioning your horse the rest phase is just as important even more so then the exercise phase.  And this doesn’t just include rest days, but rest periods during your workout, and is one of the reason why a good warm up and cool down are so vitally important.


So how do muscles actually grow?  Muscle growth occurs whenever the rate of muscle protein synthesis is greater than the rate of muscle protein breakdown.  (Which means you actually need to feed for muscle growth).  And there are three main ways in which we can help this to happen.

  1. Muscle tension – This is achieved by applying a stress greater then the horse has done previously in it’s conditioning program.  This might be a longer ride, a higher jump, a more concentrated bout of lateral work.  But in order to reduce damage it needs to be introduced incrementally.
  2. Muscle damage – This is what we talked about previously.  Have you ever felt sore after a workout?  This is because of the muscle damage that has occurred from putting your body under stress.  The same thing happens to the horse.  But they can’t go and have a nice relaxing bath, so we as riders need to manage it with liniments, massage, rest days etc… We also need to condition them for it by building them up slowly, otherwise the rate of damage will far exceed the rate of repair.
  3. Metabolic Stress – This is what is affected by our cardiovascular work.  Metabolic stress causes cell swelling around the muscle, which helps to contribute to muscle growth without necessarily increasing the size of the muscle cells. This is from the addition of muscle glycogen released through anaerobic respiration (glycolysis), which helps to swell the muscle along with connective tissue growth.  We achieve this by doing aerobic activities such as interval training like canter sets, and cross training such as taking the dressage horse galloping, or over a grid of cavaletti’s. 

 The other aspect that you need to consider with your horses, that is different to people (and why you need to be careful about taking advice on exercise programs for horses written by human pt’s) is that we sit on their back.  This adds a whole new dimension to a conditioning program, because not only do we need to condition the muscles to perform the tasks we desire, and condition the cardiovascular system, but we need to condition the locomotive back muscles to handle carrying the weight of the saddle and rider, and this is the most forgotten aspect of the horse!

Often I have people tell me that they are slowly building their horse’s fitness up after time off by doing lots of walking under saddle;  20, 30, 40 minutes.  This is great for their conditioning, only they haven’t had the weight of a rider for a while, so whilst other muscles may be building, the back muscles are probably struggling seriously.  We need to condition the back muscles first and foremost and this can be done via hand walking, long reining and short periods under saddle.

Then the last thing you need to think about is bone density.  It has long been recognized that bone density is related to the amount of strain to which it's subjected.  The greater the load, the larger the bone mass, but the reverse is also true.  A decreased strain will result in a reduction in bone mass, and this happens when your horse has time off.  An incremental return to work program will help increase the bone density of the horse as well.

So if you take nothing else away from this, please take the fact that any return to work program should always start with hand walking first and build gradually.

posted by Jessica Blackwell | 0 Comments

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