Guest Blog: Condition training & its effects on the horse’s body. Emma Green
When training our horses, it becomes extremely easy to stick to the elements of training you find easy or safe. For example, constantly working within the arena because you feel like it is a closed, safe environment or choosing to hack or put jumps up in the arena instead of schooling because you find schooling difficult or boring.
However, the importance behind varying the training you do with your horse is undeniable, due to the huge effects that condition training has on the horse’s biomechanical structures.
Years ago, condition training was carried out with horses without us even knowing we were doing it, and this was mostly down to many people not being focused on one specific discipline. Often, we condition our pony as a child without knowing, and this is simply because as a child we want to have a go at everything with our pony.
What is condition training?
Condition training is training in multiple gaits that are used to strengthen and condition the horse’s body. This is usually achieved by using several different training patterns, with different goals.
Condition training not only assists with strength, coordination, proprioception, and balance, but can be aimed at working specific muscle groups, to increase stability in joints, ligaments and tendons and hugely reduce risk of injury.
To understand how condition training helps the horse’s biomechanical structures, we must first understand the effects that exercise has on the body.
Energy that is used each day for exercise must be replaced by energy obtained from the diet. This energy is stored as fat or Glycogen (the animals form of starch). Energy cannot be created or destroyed, only converted from one form to another form. At rest, food is converted via digestion to glycogen that is stored in the liver and muscle, and fat that is stored in adipose tissue.
When looking at conditioning training we are interested in the glycogen, because during exercise it is the depletion of the glycogen in the muscle that results in muscle fatigue and subsequently results in increased risk of injury.
When individual muscle groups fatigue, the result for the horse is a lack of coordination and a lack of forelimb or hindlimb action (possibly both). This means that because the muscles are fatigued and not working as they should the other structures, including joints, ligaments and tendons have to work extra hard and because they are not used to the extra strain are therefore subject to injury.
By condition training individual muscle groups, we can increase their glycogen storage capacity, in turn increasing their stability and reduce the risk of fatigue and injury.
Condition training is done using a combination of various exercise regimes. These regimes can be carried out using a huge variety of exercises, providing the muscles are given time to recover.
It is also important to remember that if your horse has carried out intensive work, it will take up to seventy-two hours for the glycogen in the muscles to be restored. Therefore, it is not the best idea to intensively work a horse the day before a competition, because when attending the competition the day after the horse will be suffering from muscle fatigue, resulting in a weaker performance than he is capable of and possibly sustaining an injury.
Pole work is a great exercise to gain multiple gait strength and increase coordination. It is important to remember when hacking out to walk on as many different surfaces as possible. Varying your hacking surfaces can hugely improve muscle strength and reduce the risk of injury. Hacking surfaces could include trips to the beach and working on the sand, walking through knee high grass to increase knee and hock flexion, walking on pebbles or uneven surfaces to increase proprioception and even adding in low impact work on concrete surfaces to help strengthen ligament structures.
Do all horses need condition training?
Very often horses have weakness in specific muscles, and this can be a result of changing career, age, old injury or simply because of the way that horse is trained. For example if a horse has been bred to race and comes out of racing to then undergo a career as an event horse, it is likely that the back, abdominal’s, thoracic sling and hind quarters of this horse will be weak. Often in this situation there is lateral instability through the hocks and therefore the hind limb joints are unstable.
However, using the correct conditioning training will allow the owner/ rider to strengthen the muscle groups accordingly and the lateral weakness will be reduced, along with reducing the risk of injury to the horse’s hind limb structures.
Many of today’s warmblood have been bred for their looks and ability to perform extravagant leg movement, unfortunately this too comes with instability of the body, that require condition training.
Often with big moving horses, they suffer from diagonal advanced misplacement. This is when the horse trots the forelimb and opposite hind limb should touch the ground in the same moment. By breeding our warmblood’s to have such extravagant movement with the front legs, it means that the hind limb now touches the ground fractionally before the forelimb. This results in all the concussion and force from the movement then being taken by a single limb, resulting in a highly increased risk of hind limb injury.
Condition training with training aids.
As a physiotherapist I am repeatedly asked about the use of training aids when working a horse that has specific weaknesses. My advice would be not to use them. This is due to the horse’s biomechanical structures already suffering from fatigue due to their weakness. If we then add a further form of pressure, the instability becomes greater and the risk of injury is increased. Adding further pressure to the body that is already struggling with the requirements, could also result in compensatory issues in different areas of the body, which potentially become worse over time and in turn take a long time to recover.
Condition training should be carried with all horses, regardless of the discipline they participate in. It should be carried out responsibly and increased over time to assist the horse. Introducing condition training will not only improve your horse’s strength, balance, stability, proprioception and gait, it will improve their performance and drastically reduce their risk of injury.
E Green Animal Physiotherapy was set up by Emma Green after twenty five years working within the equine industry. Emma qualified with a BSc degree in Equine Science and Management in 2004 and went on to complete a Post Graduate Diploma in Veterinary Physiotherapy, specialising in equine and canine physiotherapy.
Emma furthered her education by studying equine chiropractory techniques allowing her to offer skeletal manipulation techniques and gaining her qualification in equine kinesiology taping.
Emma offers the highest standard of veterinary physiotherapy and is accredited by the Register of Animal Musculoskeletal Practitioners (RAMP), and the International Association of Animal Therapists (IAAT).
Further details can be found on my website www.egreenanimalphysio.co.uk
To find a physiotherapist within your area visit the register of musculoskeletal skeletal practitioners www.rampregister.org
RAMP ensure that every member is fully qualified, insured, works with veterinary referral and continues with professional development through their career.