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Cross training for horses – does it work?

jumpingExtrapolating from human athlete research – can cross training have the same beneficial effects to our equine athletes? Dr Brianne Henderson asks the question.

As our expectations for our equine partners increase, so should our knowledge of injury prevention and our understanding of the psychology of the equine athlete. Equine sports medicine and training concepts found their beginnings in the pillars of human athlete science. Moving forward we now have the benefits of dedicated research labs and the experience of icons in the industry. 

Injury prevention

Cross training allows us to spread the cumulative level of orthopedic stress over an increased number of muscles and joints. By “sharing the load” we are able to train longer at greater intensity without overloading vulnerable areas.

For example: A dressage horse (or a show jumper) requires a high level of hindquarter strength and endurance to maintain the engagement and power of collection. An alternative to the typical “strength training” exercises within the arena, the same horse would benefit from regular, controlled hill work to:

  • strengthen the muscles of the hindquarter without putting a focal stress on common areas of injuries (hock joints, suspensory ligaments);
  • move the sacro-iliac joint in a different pattern reducing the chance of repetitive strain associated with inflammation; amd
  • give the rider and the horse a mental break from the intense training within the ring.

 

“It is critical for the mental and proper musculoskeletal development of the athlete to have for every three training days a day off or even better provide cross training like trail riding or swimming on these days.” – Dr Judith Koenig DVSc ACVS, Ontario Veterinary College

 

Improved fitness

One of the primary purposes of cross training in human athletes is to build strength and aerobic fitness to a greater level. Do you find your jumper lacks the “umph” in the jump off round? Is your “schwung” a little lackluster after a multi-day dressage show? Aerobic fitness (or endurance) is a key element for any athlete being asked to perform over many hours or days.

“Whether it be a football player studying ballet or a dressage horse learning to work cows – cross-training is a central pillar to athletic success and longevity.” – Dr Brianne Henderson BVMS MRCVS, Ferguson Equine Veterinary Services & Toronto Equine Hospital

For example, an endurance horse or hunter/jumper that is cross-trained with dressage will experience the following benefits: increased coordination, suppleness and reduced risk of injury as muscles tire during an event. Suddenly mile 40 isn’t as much of a push and that “tight turn” on a jump off is more fluid!

Conversely, a show horse who is hacked out (or does the occasional 12-25 mile limited distance ride!) builds a greater aerobic capacity and endurance for long show weekends. In addition, in order to collect/shorten a muscle, we must first lengthen it and stretch it. The combination of collected “heavy lifting” work alongside “long and low” hacking works the muscles in a different capacity, and reduces the risk of over loading on a specific structure (ie, suspensory ligament).  

crosstie-buckskinThe science behind the art

Cross training can provide the many benefits of increased cardiovascular fitness and musculoskeletal strength; add to this enhanced motivation by diminishing the potential for boredom; and it can also rejuvenate mind and body during breaks from formal training.

All result in a prolonged career by avoiding injury and preventing ring-sour behaviour – but why?

Let’s look at the science behind these claims.

The basic law of bone is that it is dynamic – always changing and responding to stress. This bone re-modeling is determined not only by growth but also by mechanical loading on the bone.

Microdamage occurs (within the bone) as a consequence of repetitive strain. When this microdamage occurs, damaged cells send signals to remove the damaged bone and replace it with healthy bone.

Overtraining causes this “microdamage” to occur at a faster rate than the body can fix and so the repair is never as strong as the original bone. This creates a weak point in the bone and sets the horse up for future injury.

A similar ‘micro-damage-repair’ cycle occurs within the tendons and ligaments, however, their relatively poor blood supply limits their ability to self-repair quickly. In addition to the repetitive strain injuries seen in tendons and ligaments, Dr Hilary Clayton of Michigan State University highlighted an important difference between tendons and bone. Elastic tendons accumulate microscopic damage over the lifetime of the horse, this puts older horses at risk of exercise related damage.

The benefits of cross training (and the impact of over training) are most easily depicted in the thoroughbred racehorse.

“Repetitive Cyclic Stress to the skeleton is the primary cause of lameness in the race horse.” – Dr Larry Bramlage DVM MSc ACVS, Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital

It follows that the key to a strong musculoskeletal system is gradual and varied loading. Training at different gaits, on varied terrain, enables the bone and soft tissue to be stressed in different directions and reduces the effect of repetitive strain. This is as true for the dressage horse as it is for the racehorse.

Ring-sour horses, stereotypies

I have read articles discussing cross-training horses that highlighted the use of hot walkers, treadmills or aquacizers as optimum alternatives. From a purely physical perspective, all of these modalities provide excellent physical training, however, we must remember that in addition to the physical benefits of cross training, we are also looking to keep our equine counterparts happy in their work.

We should not gloss over the impact of the social relationship on the horses’ psyche. Instead, we should make it an important part of the horses’ weekly schedule. Hacking or jump schooling in groups, cattle sorting or beach swimming are all options that can provide both physical and mental benefits when implemented correctly and safely.

It also allows us, as riders, to remember the joy of spending an afternoon in the saddle without the stress of competition!

 

Equine Guelph’s online courses include exercise physiology. Find out more 

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