How to Train Your Equine Athlete for Longevity

Blog Post

How to Train Your Equine Athlete for Longevity

Are you training your equine athlete for soundness and longevity? Click here for our best nutrition and horse training tips!

There’s no doubt that every competitive horse person would like to keep their equine partner healthy and performing for the long term. We’ve all seen horses in their upper teens and even early to mid- twenties still competing at the top of their game and have probably wondered how this type of longevity is possible. 

Though it may seem more like luck or simply good genes (both of which can certainly play a part), there is also a science to creating long term soundness in equine athletes. To help horse owners better understand the science of longevity, we’ve pulled together some information!

It’s no surprise that injuries are a common cause of early retirement for performance horses. In fact, one study determined that musculoskeletal injuries are the greatest cause of racehorse turnover. However, this same study also concluded that horses exercised at high speeds over short distances had lower injury incidence when compared to horses that performed single, long-distance high-speed exercises. Interestingly enough, the researchers determined that a lack of exercise also increased a horse’s likelihood for injury (1).

So we know that one key to creating longevity is to maintain a balance between appropriate, healthy exercise while avoiding overexertion and a lack of exercise altogether. This is where training and conditioning come into play. 

Training Horses vs. Conditioning Horses

First of all, it’s important to understand the difference between training and conditioning, but also keep in mind that both are important components of a long and successful career in any equine discipline. The biggest difference to understand between the two is that conditioning involves the horse’s physiological systems, while training primarily takes place in the horse’s brain

Training involves both the conscious and unconscious learning process that helps a horse improve their skill set over time. It’s based on performing specific tasks repeatedly in order to do them in a smooth and precise manner. As training takes place, the brain sends signals through the central nervous system to the corresponding muscles. 

The goal with training is to change the horse’s movements from a conscious thought into an automatic response or reflex that no longer requires conscious thought. This essentially builds a better connection between the muscles and brain, which leads to improved muscular coordination. 

Though we often think of training as occurring with mainly young horses, the truth is that horses of all ages can be trained to do new and varied tasks.

Conditioning, on the other hand, is based on increasing a horse’s physical limits in order to help their body adapt to exercise and better perform certain tasks. It involves improving the function of all bodily systems, but especially the cardiovascular, muscular, respiratory, and skeletal systems. 

Done correctly, conditioning leads to improved energy levels, reduced recovery time, as well as efficient removal of by-products from exercise (i.e. lactic acid) through increased blood flow. Conditioning is a critical component for reducing the likelihood of injury, as well as many other health problems. 

How to Build Equine Fitness

When striving for longevity, building fitness appropriately is a must. This is a case where time and patience are needed, as there are no shortcuts to getting your horse fit and physically ready to compete. 

In fact, rushing or skipping ahead to get your horse where you want them to be only increases the likelihood of injury. 

Every horse is different, and a fitness program should take into consideration their age, breed, temperament, as well as the discipline you are participating in. The overall performance goal is also important to factor in. 

Are you wanting your horse to be ready for big weekend trail rides? To participate in local horse shows or playnights? Or is the goal to be a serious competitor in your chosen discipline? All of these goals will require different fitness programs. 

With that said, there are two main stages of fitness: 1) Long, slow work, and 2) Building strength and stamina. 

Begin with long, slow work in order to build a foundation for endurance. With an unfit horse, always start out by walking and gradually increase the amount of time spent in work over a period of weeks. 

After that, move up to a trot and then a canter. Long, slow work can be done with trail rides, slow arena work, or by working the horse on a lunge line. 

When you’re ready to move into building strength and stamina, you’ll want to add in varied exercises to build muscle and increase flexibility. Some examples might include:

  • Hill work
  • Raised pole work
  • Riding through water or in sand
  • Transitions
  • Collection exercises
  • Pulling objects such as tires or logs

Limit strength training sessions to 2-3 times per week, however, to give your horse’s muscles time to recover. This is the same strategy that people should use with weight lifting. Again, it’s important to add variety to your horse’s strength and stamina routine, which can include riding or working your horse over varied terrain. 

As your horse’s fitness level increases, you should find that recovery times are improving and that his heart and breathing rate stay lower during exercise. He will also likely become leaner or show increased muscle mass, all signs that fitness levels are improving! 

The Art of Cross-Training 

Cross-training can be a beneficial tactic for improving a horse’s fitness level and longevity. It provides great exercise, which can improve muscle and bone strength and build stamina. It also provides great mental stimulation for the horse. 

Because bones can remodel and change throughout a horse’s lifetime, repeated stress from repetitive activities can weaken and damage them. However, changing a horse’s activities can shift the stress on bones, helping to keep them healthier and stronger. For example, due to its focus on flexibility and coordination, dressage is a popular cross-training sport, especially for horses that compete in jumping. 

For speed events or roping horses, cross-training with trail/obstacle courses or introducing reining patterns might be more common. But no matter which new training you focus on, adding variety to your horse’s fitness routine will be beneficial for both his mind and body. 

Keep in mind that all horses can benefit from adding some trail riding as well. If you add in some hill work, this will introduce new physical stressors that can improve fitness levels as well. 

The more well-rounded your horse’s training is, the sounder he will likely be. No horse enjoys doing the same thing over and over again, so cross-training is a great way to give your horse both a mental and physical break. 

Tips for a Sound Horse 

Again, when it comes to maintaining soundness and creating longevity in performance horses, it’s wise to take a look at what research has to say on the subject. For example, we know that appropriate levels of training and conditioning are beneficial for horses; we also know that lack of exercise and confinement are not. 

Research also says that even young horses can benefit from exercise, whether that’s being able to move around in a pasture with other horses, or starting training as soon as they’re ready.

Though many people believe that a horse’s skeletal structure should be fully mature before training begins, research suggests that this is not necessarily true. 

In fact, short-term, dynamic exercise in young horses can lead to beneficial changes in bone remodeling, increased fracture force, and reduced fracture risk when they reach maturity. When bones undergo a load above their threshold, bone cells will increase bone matrix by synthesizing new bone through formation modeling. On other hand, if bones experience a reduction in loading below their threshold, resorption modeling and bone removal begins (1,2).

Therefore, researchers have determined that exercise during growth can provide lifelong benefits for horses. Regular movement of joints and dynamic loads are needed, in fact, to maintain normal articular cartilage structure and function. Inactivity of joints, on the other hand, leads to cartilage degradation. As with bone, cartilage is modified by high strain from vigorous exercise (1).

However, over-training has also been found to be detrimental to bones and joints. For example, researchers found that young horses sprinted more than 12-32 sprints of 40 meters 6 days a week for 5 months had negative effects on their joint health. According to this study, pasture access was found to be optimal for joint development over both confinement and sprint exercise (1). 

In other words, allowing the horse to ‘be a horse’ in their natural environment and setting is best. 

Another thing that horse owners should be aware of is that corticosteroid injections appear to increase risk of musculoskeletal injury when compared to untreated horses. Though corticosteroids have strong anti-inflammatory effects, repetitive use during racing and training can alter articular cartilage integrity. Instead of using corticosteroids and returning horses to work shortly after injury, allowing for time off and recuperation may be much more effective and lead to better soundness, overall (1). 

Nutrition for Healthy Joints

Finally, nutrition plays a critical role in soundness and longevity, especially when it comes to joint health. Feeding a diet centered around plenty of good quality forage and avoiding things like sweet feeds and oils high in inflammatory omega-6 fats (such as corn or vegetable oil) is key. There are also a number of supplements that can be fed to both prevent joint deterioration and promote healing of arthritic joints

For example, 6666 Joint Health provides the building blocks to support healthy cartilage, synovial fluid, and connective tissue. Containing glucosamine, chondroitin, hyaluronic acid, boswellia, and cetyl myristoleate, this supplement was designed to provide comprehensive joint support for all horses.

→6666 Joint Health was formulated by the world’s leading equine veterinarians and nutritionists, and used on the 6666 Ranch. Try yours risk-free today!← 

Read More:

  1. Training Young Horses
  2. The Response of Bone, Articular Cartilage and Tendon to Exercise in the Horse

Photo by Matthew Lancaster on Unsplash

Back to blog