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Horse Fitness, by Jennifer Olivier, Veterinary Physiotherapist, MCSP

Horse Fitness:

We all know that a horse has to be fit to do his or her job but do we really know how to recognise the signs of fatigue, do we know if our training regime is enough and do we know if the horse is physically comfortable to perform the tasks we are asking?

If a horse is not fit enough, the heart, lungs and muscles will not cope with the level of exercise being demanded and problems can develop in these areas which are easily avoided by proper building up of the cardiovascular fitness.

A lot of people are deceived by the horse’s willingness to run and jump, horses are flight animals and prey animals. It is not in their best interests to advertise to the world of predators that they are in pain. Along with this their primal instinct to run with the herd means that generally they get excited and packed with Adrenaline which  overrides pain for a certain amount of time.

Muscles will become fatigued (this can actually also happen with fit horses if they are not warmed up properly prior to fast work) and then the strain is passed down onto the tendons which can cause rupture.

The muscles also will run out of energy (ATP) and can lock up, this is known as ‘Tying up/setfast/Monday morning sickness’ but the medical term is Azoturia and is an emergency condition which requires veterinary treatment immediately. See this article to find out more about what to look for and what to do: http://www.horseandhound.co.uk/horse-care/vet-advice/azoturia-symptoms-and-treatment-81938

Furthermore joints and bones can be damaged as a result of hard work on hard ground. It is always important to check the ground conditions and ask yourself ‘is this ride really worth it if I am going to damage my horse?’ All of my horses are on joint supplements to promote healthy cartilage and synovial fluid as well as a healthy joint capsule. I use Movefree and Movefree Plus for more details on Mobility products follow this link: https://www.globalherbs.co.uk/shop/equine/mobility

Unfortunately horses will keep running well beyond their capability before they show signs of fatigue and in competition riders can fail to recognise these until it is too late.

A tired horse (whether mentally or physically) cannot perform at his or her best; this can lead to behavioural problems like refusing, rearing, napping, bucking and decline in performance as well as more serious issues like falls and accidents.

An example of this was at Badminton 2017, where a rider pushed her horse well beyond his physical limits, he was so exhausted that he failed to clear the final jump cleanly, hit the fence, causing her to tip from the saddle and fall. The ground jury awarded a yellow card for cruelty and a huge amount of discussion was held regarding why the horse was not pulled up earlier.

So with this in mind, the rider’s own adrenaline, desire to win, complete a course or perhaps just not being able to recognise the signs of fatigue in their horse can be hugely detrimental. It is very important to know exactly what to look for and what to do. For more information on this you can go to this  article which explains it in more detail: http://www.horseandhound.co.uk/features/the-signs-of-equine-fatigue-294522

In conclusion on this matter, I have seen horses at shows that are unlevel, horses that are unfit, horses that have not been prepared properly for the event both mentally and physically, horses that are pushed beyond their limits and horses in pain that are just not able to do what is being asked of them.

Sadly riders who are either oblivious to this or just don’t care will push on and cause a horse huge amounts of distress and pain. It makes me very sad and I hope to raise awareness that despite their love to run and jump, horses aren’t machines and a proper exercise regime, ensuring your horse is physically and mentally prepared and comfortable and that being able to be sympathetic to his or her needs as well as your own is one of the kindest ‘treats’ you can give him or her. So when your horse refuses to jump a fence, ask yourself is it really because of ‘naughtiness’ or perhaps was it fatigue, rider error, under or improper training or perhaps mental exhaustion or a misunderstanding before you reprimand him or her.

Take care and check out my next blog coming soon on Rider Fitness