How to improve performance without increasing your horse’s risk of injury

Riding is, first of all, a recreational activity. If we didn’t enjoy it as a child we wouldn’t have got back on. But as we get older, we fall in love with the sport, the movements and the finesse of techniques.

This, unfortunately, can lead to many over-use problems in the horse as we do what repeatedly enjoy, rather than what is best for the horse’s longevity. In the very simplest of examples, this is why many show jumpers just like to jump and many dressage people refuse to go over poles.

Strength & Conditioning in the human sports field is a complex mix of programming (what you do day to day, week to week, on season and off season), exercise selection (strength vs conditioning vs skill work) and tapering (reducing volume – not intensity - prior to an event). It is through careful selection of all these elements, at the most appropriate point in the year, specific to each individual athlete, which has progressed sport over the past decade.

The following graph identifies how performance, injury risk and training load are related.

As we can see, the optimal training load occurs where performance is high but risk of injury remains moderate to low. The key recommendation often stated to S&C coaches, particularly in endurance sports, it to do as little as you can get away with. If your horse can maintain condition and technical skill by training ‘sport specifically’ twice a week, then limit it to that. That does not mean that you cannot still train other useful capacities on the other days.

For example, a weekly training cycle for a GP dressage horse:

Day 1 - High Intensity Work - Repeated high intensity work followed by lots of rest. E.g. 20 seconds of work, 40 seconds of walk 10-20 times, variety of exercises.

Day 2 - Sport Specific Skill work (Canter) - Usual dressage training focused on canter (pirouette/changes)

Day 3 - Active Recovery/Conditioning - Hack/Lunge/ 2-3x 30 minutes on walker, walk + working trot paced.

Day 4 - Day off - Rest and ideally turn out or 2x30 mins on walker moderate paced walk.

Day 5 - Gymnastic pole work - Cavaletti, Canter poles, poles on circle, small jumps. Shorter, intense session working on horse responding quickly, elastically and engaging.

Day 6 - Sport Specific Skill (Trot) - Usual training focusing on trot work (piaffe, passage, extensions)

Day 7 - Day Off - Rest and turn out.

It is important to remember that a horse will take time to develop his strength and endurance in these skills. Frequently repeating pole work, e.g. for increasing limb flexion, is necessary for it to have a positive training effect. If it is done sporadically it is more likely to confuse the horse or cause it to feel unsettled – we all know what dressage horses can be like!

Similarly, bear in mind that doing miles and miles around an arena will not improve your horse’s way of going. You need to think smart and train smart. Does your horse do everything you want in walk? If not, then don’t expect him to be able to do it at a faster pace. We need to train our horses to be light and elastic, like ballet dancers, not over developed and “artificially” muscled like body builder.

Programming is a series of waves which are added together to produce peak performance at a given time. For example, if you were bringing your horse back into work, you would spend much more time in a ‘conditioning wave’ and building his tendon and muscle strength than you would doing high intensity or high school movements. Equally (possibly after a week or two off), you want to build strength and fitness in the off-season and refine your technical skills in the months coming up to competition. During the season, you would want to reduce the overall work load so that he is has maximal energy in order to travel and compete frequently. This is called tapering.

Tapering is about reducing your horse’s workload in terms of volume rather than intensity. You need to work at high levels of collection during a dressage test so it is important to practice this during the competition season, but you may only need to practice it once a week (as an example) rather than every day. Similarly, the high intensity work which you previously had once or twice a week will be replaced by the competition day and so may only be a feature every other week during the competition training cycle.

Injury prevention is so important. The “working life” of bones and tendons can be surprisingly short due to the forces which are placed through the limbs at different gaits. For example, the minimum expected vertical load placed through the legs, relative to the horse’s bodyweight (BW) is

  • Walk <1BW
  • Trot 1.5BW
  • Canter 2BW
  • Gallop 2.5BW
  • Jump 3-4BW

A galloping horse will take 220 loading cycles per mile (= 500kg horse x 2.5 x number of miles) on each occasion. Thus, it is not surprising, given the fragile nature of the horse’s legs and low ‘safety factor’ of the deep and superficial digital flexor tendons, that 50% of racehorses go lame. Repetitive overload is such an importance, but often missed factor is equine injury and thus prevention.

Equine strength and conditioning and smarter programming should be a more apparent part of horse ownership and training. We should avoid just doing what we enjoy and take the time to develop all aspects of the horse, not just technical skill but also cardiovascular, muscular and tendon robustness. This will increase the success and longevity of your horse and optimise his performance in the long run.

If you have any questions regarding this, please do contact me. Please understand that the examples given in this blog should be tailored to each individual horse, with careful consideration of their explicit demands and requirements.