Top conditioning tips from equine biomechanics expert

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Many horses around the world have had a layoff during the covid-19 lockdown. Equine biomechanics researcher Dr Hilary Clayton shares some tips and insights into the best ways of bringing our equine athletes back into work.

Clayton is a veterinarian, researcher and horsewoman. For the past 40 years she has been researching in the areas of equine biomechanics and conditioning programs for equine athletes.

Here are seven main points:

  1. What are the differences between conditioning and training?
    • training is the technical preparation of the athlete
    • (learning the skills and movements they will need to perform in competition)
    • conditioning strengthens the horse, progressively making them fit and able
    • the goal of conditioning is to maintain soundness while maximizing performance
  1. Considerations for horses that go from full work to just pasture turn-out?
    • a gradual decrease from full work to fewer days a week, lessening intensity is ideal.
    • also, ideal that they stay in light work a day or 2 a week, however, horses are resilient.
    • when workload decreases, diet decreases
    • do not change things suddenly
  1. How long before a horse begins to lose muscle mass and fitness? What about bones/connective tissues?
    • horses maintain their muscle and cardiovascular ability longer than humans; it is a month before horses start to lose cardiovascular capacity and muscular strength
    • bone and tissue adapt in accordance with the work they are doing
    • with no work bones become weaker, muscles smaller and endurance decreases
    • good news is the strength of bone and muscle will increase again when work resumes
    • ligaments, tendons, and cartilage of horse mature by 2yrs and are a bit more of an unknown
    • resilience is the ability to stand up to the performance
  1. When getting back to work, where do you start and how do you know how to move forward?
    • First, address the condition of feet, saddle fit, and plan for increasing nutrition requirements.
    • start very gradually with walking for the first 2 to 4 weeks.
    • start with 10 min under saddle, working just 3 to 4 days in the first week
    • increase amount of walking by 10 min/week
    • by 3 weeks = 30 min walk/day, start introducing 20 seconds of trot then slowly introduce short canters
    • performing lots of transitions between gaits is great for improving fitness
  1. What are the signs of “too fast, too long and too soon!” and how do we avoid this?
    • back pain, limb pain, inflammation
    • monitor any changes carefully
    • horses will fool you with their cardiovascular fitness improving before their strength.
    • to avoid injury, don’t let an energetic horse dictate how much work you will do.
  1. What are some of the similarities and differences in training programs for different disciplines?
    • the initial phase of conditioning is similar, building aerobic capacity and strengthening muscles
    • first 2 to 3 months can be dedicated to general conditioning
    • then start specializing depending on the intensity and endurance required for your sport.
  1. What advice do you have for horse owners that are worried that leaving the horse alone is detrimental to its well-being?
    • Plenty of horses live outside 24/7 with little exercise and are doing just fine.
    • Horses are far from their natural lifestyle
    • Maximizing turnout and forage are ways to benefit our horse’s welfare.

Clayton says horses need water, food, shelter and an attentive caretaker.

A lifelong rider, Clayton has written seven books and more than 250 scientific articles on equine biomechanics, conditioning programs for equine athletes and the effects of tack and equipment on the horse and rider.

She is a charter diplomate and past president of the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, an Honorary Fellow of the International Society for Equitation Science and has been inducted into the International Equine Veterinarians Hall of Fame, the Midwest Dressage Association Hall of Fame and the Saskatoon Sports Hall of Fame.

Clayton has also been a guest speaker for Equine Guelph’s online course offerings.

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