Train­ing Prin­ci­ples for Sound­ness

Learn about com­mon equine in­jury risks and train­ing an­ti­dotes that em­pha­size the horse's fit­ness and phys­i­cal train­ing.

Practical Horseman - - News - By Dr. Ce­cilia Lšn­nell

Avoid com­mon in­jury risks by es­tab­lish­ing a tai­lored and var­ied fit­ness and train­ing pro­gram for your horse.

From ex­pe­ri­ence, many top rid­ers have a phi­los­o­phy on train­ing that fits very well with rec­om­men­da­tions from hu­man sport sci­en­tists to avoid six com­mon causes of in­jury: 1. Do­ing too much too soon 2. Lack of con­ti­nu­ity 3. Work that is too mo­not­o­nous

4. Lack of rest and re­cov­ery (which in­cludes com­bin­ing high-vol­ume and high­in­ten­sity work)

5. Sud­den changes in de­mands or an acute over­load in­ci­dent 6. In­di­vid­ual weak­nesses. Ger­man show-jump­ing cham­pion Franke Sloothaak has un­der­lined that you, as a rider, must have a plan for your work with the horse, an anal­y­sis of how he should be brought on and pre­pared for the de­mands of com­pe­ti­tion. Most rid­ers ride their horses only once daily, but it is nec­es­sary that the horses get to be ac­tive more than that and should cer­tainly be out­side.

“We must never for­get that it is in the horse’s na­ture to be ac­tive,” Franke said. “The horse is not born to stand still in

a sta­ble. You no­tice that the more fit a horse gets, the more he wants to do! It is the same with peo­ple: The more they get stuck in front of the tele­vi­sion, the less en­ergy they get and the other way around.”

As sug­gested by Dr. Jonas Tor­nell, the Swedish show-jump­ing team vet from 1977 to 2016, many top rid­ers of Swedish team horses have a phi­los­o­phy of ac­ti­vat­ing the horse in sev­eral ways daily. The train­ing plan is not only about a rid­ing ses­sion and then stand­ing still in­side or out in a small pad­dock. Their horses are led and grazed in-hand, go in a field or a pad­dock, are longed, go on a walker and/or for a light hack. At first glance, this can be dif­fi­cult to copy for some­one with a full-time job not with horses and who is look­ing af­ter the horse her­self. Also, a high ac­tiv­ity level is more of a fo­cus for top horses trained for max­i­mum per­for­mance, such as in­ter­na­tional cham­pi­onships. Still, you can let your­self be in­spired to of­fer the horse more va­ri­ety in his work, for ex­am­ple by get­ting as­sis­tance from some­one who likes to help out with the rid­ing and groom­ing, lead­ing the horse out for a walk and choos­ing a sta­ble that of­fers fa­cil­i­ties such as big­ger and bet­ter pad­docks, a me­chan­i­cal walker and ac­cess to good hack­ing.

Va­ri­ety is a train­ing an­ti­dote to repet­i­tive work that can cause sporthorse in­juries, which is dis­cussed on page 54. Ad­di­tional causes of sporthorse in­jury and their train­ing an­ti­dotes are de­scribed be­low as well.

In­creas­ing the Work­load Quickly

An­ti­dote: Train­ing Prin­ci­ple 1—Grad­ual, step­wise in­crease in de­mands

One com­mon in­jury risk for both horses and fit­ness en­thu­si­asts/ath­letes is do­ing too much too quickly. Rule Num­ber 1 for all train­ing plans is, in­stead, to in­crease de­mands grad­u­ally. Franke un­der­lines that a first step in train­ing must be to let the horse build mus­cles and get phys­i­cally stronger—called gen­eral train­ing or con­di­tion­ing by Pro­fes­sor Gerhard Fors­sell, the Swedish Team vet at the 1912 Olympics and a pi­o­neer­ing sur­geon, and Dr. Hi­lary Clay­ton, the Mary Anne McPhail Dres­sage Chair in Equine Sports Medicine at Michi­gan State Univer­sity from 1997 to 2014. This re­quires vari­a­tion in type, vol­ume and in­ten­sity of train­ing, in­clud­ing rest and re­cov­ery. Step by step the de­mands then need to in­crease, oth­er­wise there will be no train­ing ef­fect. When top rid­ers de­scribe how they have de­vel­oped dif­fer­ent top horses, they again and again point out that the horse first needed a build­ing-up pe­riod, when the body got the chance to build the strength needed for top per­for­mance in com­pe­ti­tion.

Train­ing Tip: De­pend­ing on the dis­ci­pline and the level you com­pete at, the horse needs dif­fer­ent de­grees of lung ca­pac­ity, mus­cle strength, en­durance, co­or­di­na­tion and nerve-mus­cle skills, sup­ple­ness and men­tal prepa­ra­tion.

Lack of Con­ti­nu­ity

An­ti­dote: Train­ing Prin­ci­ple 2—Be dis­ci­plined and make the train­ing planned and reg­u­lar Train­ing must be reg­u­lar and have con­ti­nu­ity to have an ef­fect on the body and keep that ef­fect. Oc­ca­sional ses­sions at the gym make lit­tle dif­fer­ence in hu­man fit­ness but they can in­crease in­jury risk. The same thing holds for horses. With­out con­ti­nu­ity, fit­ness and train­ing ef­fect will re­main low.

One ex­am­ple of a reg­u­lar train­ing plan (plus va­ri­ety, which we will look at later) is from an in­ter­view with Alan Davies, groom

of Olympic gold medal­ist Vale­gro, at the yard of Carl Hester, the horse’s owner and trainer. When Vale­gro was com­pet­ing in dres­sage, he worked in the arena four days a week: Mon­day, Tues­day, Thurs­day and Friday. He was hacked and did other out­door work two days and rested one day.

From vis­its, in­ter­views and train­ing diaries with elite show jump­ing rid­ers it was clear that these pro­fes­sion­als had a sys­tem and a plan for their horses. Even if the sys­tems var­ied, al­most all had a com­mon thread in what they did dur­ing a week, a month or a sea­son. They had a plan for each horse in­stead of be­ing gov­erned by the weather, lack of time or other de­mands. To achieve that, you need to set up a plan for the horse for the com­ing week and for the com­ing months. The ex­cep­tion to when changes should be made in that plan is if the horse seems off.

Repet­i­tive Work

An­ti­dote: Train­ing Prin­ci­ple 3—Va­ri­ety

To un­der­stand repet­i­tive work, think overuse in­juries in the work­place. This can be pre­vented by vari­a­tion in train­ing both in the type of work and the de­mands made (in­ten­sity and vol­ume). This is also called pe­ri­odiza­tion. I will come back to that in the next point about rest and re­cov­ery.

Va­ri­ety is nec­es­sary to get a com­plete train­ing plan. De­pend­ing on the dis­ci­pline and the level you com­pete at, the horse needs dif­fer­ent de­grees of lung ca­pac­ity, mus­cle strength, en­durance, co­or­di­na­tion and nerve-mus­cle skills, sup­ple­ness and men­tal prepa­ra­tion. This can­not be achieved by only one or two types of ac­tiv­i­ties. Greek philoso­pher and horse­man Xenophon rec­om­mended 2,400 years ago that the rider should vary the rid­ing ses­sions based on length and lo­ca­tion.

Olympic show jumper Jos Lansink and his Bel­gian col­league Ludo Philip­paerts both bought land to build their eques­trian cen­ters close to a for­est to al­low hack­ing and can­ter­work. Brit John Whi­taker, on the other hand, was brought up in York­shire coun­try­side that is ideal for var­ied rid­ing. “When my broth­ers and I grew up, we did not have any­thing ex­cept the hilly coun­try around us for rid­ing. We had only a small out­door arena and it was on a slope, so we mainly hacked out and used the hills and re­al­ized that it worked,” Whi­taker said. The Swiss Olympic and World Cup Cham­pion Steve Guer­dat said in an in­ter­view that he found a way to vary his train­ing. In the same way as some peo­ple load their horses on a lorry to get to an in­door, he took a few of his horses to an area with ex­cel­lent rid­ing ter­rain on a weekly ba­sis.

The ad­vice of Great Bri­tain’s Olympic gold medal­ist Carl Hester in­cludes not al­ways rid­ing in an arena: “Don’t prac­tice dres­sage ex­er­cises the whole time be­cause that will mean wear and tear on the horse. In­cor­po­rat­ing va­ri­ety to their work is also good for their men­tal­ity. Fit­ness work is im­por­tant. We have hills at home where we work them to de­velop mus­cles and car­dio­vas­cu­lar fit­ness.”

U.S. Olympic gold medal­ist Beezie Mad­den’s ad­vice on train­ing vari­a­tion is very sim­i­lar to Carl’s, John’s and other col­leagues: Hack out in var­ied ter­rain, let the horse go in the field, do flat­work and have him on a walker.

Lack of Rest and Re­cov­ery

An­ti­dote: Train­ing Prin­ci­ple 4— Pe­ri­odiza­tion


Train­ing Tip: Lack of re­cov­ery and too much hard train­ing will, in the end, lead to over­train­ing or what in the hu­man work­place is called burnout.

Lack of re­cov­ery time—com­bin­ing in­ten­sity and vol­ume—is also on the list of com­mon in­jury risks. One an­ti­dote to a lack of re­cov­ery time is called pe­ri­odiza­tion in sports sci­ence. It means vary­ing be­tween harder and lighter work and in­clud­ing breaks for rest and re­cov­ery. Lack of re­cov­ery and too much hard train­ing will, in the end, lead to over­train­ing or burnout.

“Do not be afraid of in­clud­ing rest days in the train­ing,” Dr. Clay­ton said. Rest days should be in­cluded in all train­ing plans, as they are nec­es­sary to help the body re­spond and adapt to train­ing. Dr. Clay­ton has also ad­vised against do­ing stren­u­ous work two days in a row.

Re­mem­ber: It is very im­por­tant to dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween planned rest days as part of a train­ing plan and the horse los­ing a train­ing day when he was meant to be in work be­cause you were tired or short of time.

Rest is not just stand­ing still in a sta­ble or small pad­dock, but also be­ing led out in-hand or light hack­ing.

To fo­cus fur­ther on the prin­ci­ple of pe­ri­odiza­tion, it means that you must vary the de­mands in train­ing over the year and ra­tion your com­pe­ti­tions.

One im­por­tant ex­am­ple is not to com­bine lots of work and a high difficulty at the same time (so bal­ance vol­ume and in­ten­sity of work). This is im­por­tant to re­mem­ber when plan­ning fit­ness work: It should be planned in prepa­ra­tion for im­por­tant com­pe­ti­tion pe­ri­ods and not dur­ing them. Both Dr. Tor­nell and Franke sug­gest win­ter as a time to start build­ing fit­ness:

“In the sum­mer, there will be com­pe­ti­tions. Then you do not have time to de­velop the horse phys­i­cally. In­stead, use win­ter for that and also to get the horse stronger and more sup­ple through gym­nas­tics. The bet­ter pre­pared the horse is be­fore the sea­son starts in earnest, the bet­ter he can per­form,” Franke said.

One ex­am­ple of pe­ri­odiza­tion is in­ter­val train­ing, known from hu­man sports train­ing but also for race­horses. It can be ap­plied in most types of in­ten­sive train­ing. For ex­am­ple, in­stead of do­ing a 1,000-me­ter can­ter you let the horse do two, 500-me­ter can­ters with a short rest in be­tween. Grid­work jump­ing can also be a type of in­ter­val train­ing—for ex­am­ple jump­ing one grid, a rest and then jump­ing the grid again or do­ing eight jumps in one go and then eight again rather than 16 with­out in­ter­rup­tion. In­ter­val train­ing has the ad­van­tage that the ath­lete or horse does in­ten­sive work but with re­cov­ery pe­ri­ods, which pre­vents the fa­tigue that ac­cu­mu­lates in a non­stop ses­sion.

Even though it would not count as in­ter­val train­ing as such, you can also use the idea in a flat­work or dres­sage ses­sion by giv­ing the horse plenty of mini-breaks at walk. Do not tire the horse with long un­in­ter­rupted trot­ting or can­ter­ing work.

Sud­den Change in De­mands

An­ti­dote: Train­ing Prin­ci­ple 5—Spe­cific train­ing or prac­tice com­pe­ti­tion de­mands

A sud­den change in de­mands on the body is closely re­lated to the dan­gers of a fast in­crease in train­ing. This point in­cludes sud­den over­load, which may re­sult in an ac­ci­den­tal sprain.

One ex­am­ple of a sud­den change in de­mands is if the horse has not per­formed in train­ing what he is ex­pected to do in com­pe­ti­tion. While a train­ing pro­gram should be var­ied, it must also in­clude the spe­cific de­mands in com­pe­ti­tion (af­ter first hav­ing the build­ing-up pe­riod dis­cussed in Train­ing Prin­ci­ple 1). Spe­cific train­ing does not, how­ever, mean that the show-jump­ing horse should jump cour­ses at com­pe­ti­tion height day af­ter day or that a Grand Prix dres­sage horse should be do­ing pi­affe and pas­sage day af­ter day at home. The UK race­horses who do so-called fast work at home (to prac­tice race speeds) do it at shorter dis­tances than in the ac­tual race and a max­i­mum of twice a week.

In­di­vid­ual Weak­nesses

An­ti­dote: Train­ing Prin­ci­ple 6—Pay at­ten­tion to the horse’s in­di­vid­ual re­sponse

In all train­ing, it is im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that ev­ery horse will re­spond dif­fer­ently to the same train­ing reg­i­men. This means that it is im­por­tant to ob­serve how the horse re­sponds to the train­ing—what sig­nals he gives—and adapt your plan to that.

There are many fac­tors that in­flu­ence the train­ing re­sponse, such as genes (breed­ing), pre­vi­ous train­ing, tem­per­a­ment and mo­ti­va­tion. Do re­mem­ber that pre­vi­ous in­juries are an im­por­tant risk fac­tor for new in­juries. Ev­ery horse ben­e­fits from hav­ing his own plan: Not all in­di­vid­u­als can be worked in the same way.

Some 90 years ago Pro­fes­sor Fors­sell said it was im­por­tant to pay at­ten­tion to the horse’s sig­nals in train­ing and re­spond if the horse, for ex­am­ple, showed re­sis­tance.

Train­ing Tip: In all train­ing, it is im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that ev­ery horse will re­spond dif­fer­ently to the same train­ing reg­i­men.

Ce­cilia Lön­nell is a ve­teri­nar­ian who pre­sented her PhD at the Swedish Univer­sity of Agri­cul­tural Sciences at Upp­sala, Swe­den. From 1998–2001 she was a re­search as­sis­tant at the Royal Ve­teri­nary Col­lege in London, con­duct­ing a field study of train­ing and skele­tal adap­ta­tion in Thor­ough­bred race­horses. Ce­cilia is also an eques­trian jour­nal­ist who has cov­ered six eques­trian Olympics.

In Sport Horse Soundess and Per­for­mance, she re­lied on her ve­teri­nary back­ground, in-depth re­search and con­ducted sev­eral in­ter­views with top rid­ers and train­ers.

Ra­tion how much you jump at com­pe­ti­tion height at home and in­stead prac­tice tech­ni­cal skills with smaller fences and poles on the ground. Work­ing with poles and cav­al­letti is also rec­om­mended for dres­sage horses.

Bri­tish Olympian John Whi­taker be­lieves in giv­ing the horses a var­ied train­ing reg­i­men. Here he is on top show jumper Mil­ton at his farm in York­shire.

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