Last winter I took up playing squash. It didn’t take long for me to realize just how much my game began to suffer when I started getting tired (alas, I cant say I was actually very good to begin with).
But besides the comic relief provided, the experience gave me renewed appreciation for what our horses do for us – whether that be jumping a course, chasing cattle, or negotiating the changing terrain on a trail. Coordination counts!
Every time your horse takes a step, the sensory receptors in their muscles, joints and ligaments are working to figure out precisely how to place their foot down. As their hoof hits the ground these receptors are picking up important information – how fast the leg is moving, how hard or soft the ground is, whether the footing is slippery or uneven.
Within fractions of a second all this information is sent to centers in the spinal cord and brain and instructions are sent to the muscles and connective tissues on how to respond. And it all happens without us, or our horses even thinking about it. We wouldn’t have time.
But when our horses become fatigued this fine-tuned coordination starts to suffer. For me, playing squash, it may just mean I look a little ridiculous swinging my racket around without actually hitting the ball, but in the worst case, it makes us more prone to injury.
When we’re in better shape we fatigue less quickly and with proper conditioning and preparation we also give the tissues and structures in our body – or our horse’s body, as the case may be – time to adapt.
Different tissues in the body adapt at different rates (and some very little at all, no matter what we do). Here’s a brief run down of what we know about how the different structures in the horse’s body respond to exercise conditioning.
Bone is a dynamic tissue that continues to remodel and change throughout a horse’s life in response to the loads it is subjected to. Bone responds more readily to the magnitude of force, rather than how many times the force is applied. In other words, its not so much the distance, it’s the speed. However, until bone is adapted to new forces placed on it, taking too many strides at high speed could injure rather than strengthen the bone.
Muscles respond to increased exercise demands by increasing in strength and size, and improving in oxygen utilization – within a matter of weeks to months. Over a period of at least 3-4 months, blood supply to the muscles is also increased as new blood capillaries are formed, expanding the surface area where oxygen and nutrients can be exchanged from the blood to the muscles, and waste materials taken away.
Ligaments are strong, fibrous bands of connective tissue that connect bones together at joints. They play an essential role in maintaining joint stability and in proprioception – judging where the limbs are in space. Ligaments grow thicker and stronger in response to increased levels of exercise and training in a process that takes place gradually over a period of months.
The horse’s flexor tendons don’t respond to increased physical demands in the same way that bones or muscles do. Flexor tendons function much like a big elastic band, and if they became bigger and thicker they wouldn’t work as well. Recent research suggests that equine flexor tendons show little adaptive capacity after the horse reaches age of two. They should be closely monitored to catch early signs of overload or injury.
Like the flexor tendons in the horse, articular cartilage has also been found to have little adaptive response to increased exercise after the age of two. Regular movement and weight bearing are important in keeping joint cartilage nourished and healthy, and so long as the joint is healthy and stable, research has shown that exercise alone will not lead to cartilage deterioration.
Training causes adaptive changes within the nervous system that allow the horse to more fully activate primary muscles in movement and to better synchronize the action of appropriate muscles in the development of fine tuned coordination. By recruiting the most appropriate muscles for the task at hand, activating the pertinent muscles to stabilize the rest of the body, and improving the synchronization between different muscle groups, neural adaptations can improve the accuracy and efficiency of movement and athletic effort. Studies in people have shown that increases in muscle strength occur with weight training before there is an increase in muscle size, due to improved neural activation of the muscle fibers. More refined motor skills specific to a particular task or sport develop over a longer period of time with continued practice.
> Whatever your goals are this season, whether they include a full competition schedule or a few trail rides, taking the time to appropriately condition your horse beforehand will ensure they have the strength and stamina to do the job safely.