Cross training important for the mind and body of sport horses

Getting out of the arena and into the open spaces can do wonders for a horses's attitude.
Getting out of the arena and into the open spaces can do wonders for a horses’s attitude. © Sophie Scemama

Horse owners should not gloss over the importance of mental stimulation in the training of horses, suggests Dr Brianne Henderson, of Ferguson Equine Veterinary Services and Toronto Equine Hospital. In the first part of a series exploring developing the sport horse, she discusses the important benefits of cross training.

Cross training, a strategy commonly used by humans athletes, can deliver the same crucial advantages to sport horses.

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.

It is clear, whether it be a football player studying ballet or a dressage horse learning to work cows, that cross-training is a central pillar to athletic success and longevity.

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 showjumper 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 carried out within the arena, the same horse would benefit from regular, controlled hill work. It would:

  • 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;
  • Give the rider and the horse a mental break from the intense training within the ring.
Hill work can help strengthen muscles
Hill work can help strengthen muscles without additional stress on other areas – and give a mental break.

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.

Let’s look at a few more examples.

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 endurance or trail 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 overloading on a specific structure, such as the suspensory ligament.

The science behind the art

Cross training can provide many benefits:

  • Increased cardiovascular fitness and musculoskeletal strength;
  • Enhanced motivation by diminishing the potential for boredom;
  • Rejuvenate mind and body during breaks from formal training.

All will result in a prolonged career by avoiding injury and preventing sour behaviour in the ring.

But why?

Let’s look at the science behind these claims.

Taking a show horse on 15 to 20km endurance or trail ride can help build greater aerobic capacity and endurance for long show weekends.  © Sophie Scemama
Taking a show horse on 15 to 20km endurance or trail ride can help build greater aerobic capacity and endurance for long show weekends. © Sophie Scemama

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 bones 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, which puts older horses at risk of exercise-related damage, such as arthritis.

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

Dr Larry Bramlage, of Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital, is on record as saying: “Repetitive Cyclic Stress to the skeleton is the primary cause of lameness in the racehorse.”

It follows that the key to a strong musculoskeletal system is gradual and varied loading.

noseband-stockTraining 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 and 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 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!

Want to learn more about exercise physiology? Equine Guelph, at the University of Guelph in Ontario, offers a range of  online courses, including Equine Exercise Physiology.

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