Competition season in the Northeast is well on its way, and it’s important to ensure you and your horse are properly prepared. Establishing a routine to build fitness and completing integral health checks can help prevent injury and pave the way for a successful season.
Safety of both horse and rider tops the list of reasons that proper preparation and readiness for your level of competition is important. When your horse is in appropriate physical condition, “it should help reduce injury and prevent poor behavior caused by fatigue and overcompensation,” says Dr. Kate Chope, who is boarded in Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation and specializes in ultrasound at Tufts Hospital for Large Animals at Cummings Veterinary Medical Center. “From a performance perspective, a horse that is fit enough to do the job has the muscle memory and will get less sore, and you will get the most out of the money that you’re spending to go out and compete.”
During a physical exam, your veterinarian will check for lung and heart health.
Your veterinarian will help ensure your horse is in good health for your level of competition. The first step is to have basic physical and lameness exams when it’s time to start going back to work. A number of important aspects will be examined, including listening to the heart to check for new murmurs that might have developed over the winter; checking the lungs, especially after winter when horses tend to spend additional time in a more confined environment; body scoring; and looking at the overall musculature for areas of improvement. If signs of arthritis are present during the exam, specified injections for those joints may be an option to consider,” says Dr. Chope. “As an alternative to joint injections, you could also elect to put the horse back into to work and see how he responds.”
Regardless of whether you ride year-round or take a winter break, there are ways you can help keep your horse on track for a smooth transition into show season. “Muscles will generally tone up and become fit faster than tendons and ligaments,” Dr. Chope explains. “On the other hand, a horse loses muscle faster. So, in general, if he was at a good fitness level at the end of the season the year before, you want to focus more on muscle tone.”
It is essential that your horse’s workload is increased at an appropriate pace. If muscles become over-fatigued, it can cause overuse and overstrain of tendons and ligaments. This, in turn, can predispose your horse to injury. How do you know you’re training at a suitable level? Determine your horse’s resting heart and respiratory rate, and, after normal exercise, it should return to that resting rate quickly. “If, after a few minutes it stays elevated,” explains Dr. Chope, “that generally indicates that he’s less fit” and that the length and intensity of exercise should be adjusted to build greater fitness.
Additionally, if the horse has been exercising less and has some arthritic joints, it’s important to allow for a couple of weeks get those joints loosened up and increase his range of motion and flexibility before asking him to perform like he did at the end of the prior year.
Unmounted exercises like stretches and lunging can help keep your horse fit in the off-season.
Year-round efforts like unmounted exercises can also help maintain muscle tone and flexibility for your horse, even during the off-season. “The winter can be a great time to do a variety of unmounted stretches through the poll and top line, including bringing their head between their front legs, reaching back toward their hip on each side, and belly lifts.”
“Doing a certain number of these stretches has been shown to improve the cross-sectional area of the spinal support muscles in the horse, so you can actually make a true difference for the horse,” says Dr. Chope.
With a proper training regimen and assistance from your veterinarian, you will be well-prepared for the upcoming competition season. Now, it’s time to go out and have some fun.