The biggest competition of the year is just around the corner, and you’ve been training … hard. Your horse is the most talented one you’ve ever owned and making it to this competition is on top of your bucket list. You can hardly wait, and when you get there your horse will be so fit and ready you know he’ll be unbeatable. That’s why you’ve scheduled some extra sessions with your trainer, and a couple of hard conditioning rides before you go.
Wait just a minute! It might be time to pump the brakes. In reality, overtraining at a time like this might do more harm than good. Not only are you setting your horse up for failure at the competition if you wear him down, you may be asking for an injury that could threaten his future—or even his life!
In this article, I’m going to explain how your horse’s bones and soft tissues get stronger over time, and why carefully scheduled periods of rest are essential for making him strong and protecting him from injury. You’ll learn how the important structures of his musculoskeletal system adapt to exercise over time, what conditions are most likely to set your horse up for an injury, and, perhaps most important, what steps you should take to keep him sound, strong, and injury free.
Stress, Rest, Remodel
Your horse’s bones, joints, and soft tissue structures (tendons and ligaments) are at the core of what he needs to perform. And if he gets injured you’re out of luck. Understanding how these tissues adapt to stress is the key to formulating a training program that will get him strong and keep him sound.
Let’s start with bones. While your horse’s skeleton may seem solid and unchanging, in reality, bones are a dynamic structure. Just like muscles that get bigger and stronger with exercise, bones can get bigger and stronger in response to stress. In general, bone metabolism involves two types of cells: osteoclasts that are responsible for cleaning up damaged bone tissue, and osteoblasts that produce and lay down new bone where it’s needed. These cells work together to help build strong bone.
When your horse exercises intensely, he’s likely to experience very small areas of trauma to his bones—which can be both good and bad. The good news is that this micro-trauma stimulates something called stress remodeling. Osteoclasts clean up the damage to make way for osteoblasts to lay down new bone. The bones gets stronger over time. The bad news is that if you don’t give your horse the time he needs to heal, that micro-trauma won’t repair itself, and is likely to worsen with repeated stresses. The result? Stress fractures that cause pain and lameness, or eventual catastrophic fractures that can threaten your horse’s life.
The dynamic nature of bone remodeling can also impact your horse’s joints. Bone that sits just beneath the cartilage surface—known as subcondral bone—has the same susceptibility to damage as other parts of his skeleton. And subcondral bone is essential for supporting the stability and health of the cartilage above it. When this bone experiences micro-traumas during intense bouts of exercise, it undergoes the same remodeling process seen in other bones. If given time to heal it can become stronger in response to stress. But if intense exercise continues on this damaged bone, the cartilage at the joint surface loses its support. Arthritis will develop over time, and your horse’s long-term soundness will suffer.
Finally, soft tissues including tendons and ligaments are just as susceptible to damage during intense exercise as bones and joints. These soft tissue structures are designed to stretch in response to stress, but when the amount of stretch exceeds the capacity of the structures, they’ll experience small tears in the tissues. Similar to bone, if given time to heal, these small tears can repair themselves without the risk of significant injury. But if they continue to be stressed, they are likely to fail.
Unlike bone, adaptive remodeling of soft tissues doesn’t necessarily make them stronger than they were before. Meaning it’s even more important to pay attention to how you train if you hope to keep your horse’s tendons and ligaments healthy. Studies show it takes as long as 72 hours for the superficial digital flexor tendon of a racehorse to return to baseline after it’s been stressed during an intense workout. While this may not hold true for every soft tissue structure, it’s a reasonable baseline to consider when formulating your horse’s training plan.
It’s easy to see how overtraining is one of the most common underlying causes of musculoskeletal injury. What can you do about it? There are three times in your horse’s life when he’s most susceptible to the damaging effects of overtraining. When he’s young and first starting into work, when he’s recovering from an injury and coming back to work after rehabilitation, and when he’s a mature, hard-working horse with an intense training and competition schedule. Paying especially close attention to your horse during these vulnerable periods is a good place to start.
How you condition and train your young horse is particularly important. The bones of a young horse can actually get bigger and change shape in response to stress. That means if you ask your young horse to do controlled, sport-specific work early in his life, his bones will develop in a way that actually protects them as he grows older. Because of this, we can’t overlook the importance of including sport-specific work into your horse’s training plan, especially when he’s young. Every maneuver you ask your horse to perform results in specific types of stress to specific structures. For example, your barrel horse experiences much different types of stress than your reiner. In order for his bones to adapt correctly, your barrel horse should run some barrels, and your reiner should be introduced to sliding stops and spins. But how much is too much?
Studies tell us that a horse is skeletally mature when he reaches 2 years of age, although his bones don’t reach their maximum density until he’s 6. That means his training program between the ages of 2 and 6
is critically important.
When to Stop
Another important key to successful adaptive conditioning is knowing when to train, and when to stop. Unfortunately, no one has the exact answer about optimal training schedules for youngsters. But we can try to apply what we do know to determine what’s best. Research with thoroughbred racehorses shows that most catastrophic fractures happen six to eight weeks after a horse first enters training. With this information in hand, how you manage your young horse’s schedule boils down to common sense. While it’s beneficial to start some high-intensity training with your two-year-old, make sure you allow him time to rest between hard work sessions. Consider a schedule with one or two high-intensity exercise sessions a week. With each one followed by a couple of days of rest or lower-intensity work to allow time for recovery.
Further data tells us that a young horse is also at higher risk if he’s coming back to work after longer than 10 days of rest. If your youngster is laid up for longer than 10 days, be especially careful about how you bring him back to work. Long, slow distance conditioning is the place to start, but don’t forget the importance of carefully reintroducing high-intensity sports-specific exercise.
Return from Layup
What happens when a horse is laid up for an extended period of time? His bones will actually lose bone density, putting him at higher risk for injury. In fact, the most common time for stress fracture related catastrophic fractures to occur is within 10 to 21 days following a layup. A mature horse’s bones can demineralize by 15% after just two weeks of stall rest. If your horse experiences an illness or injury that requires complete stall rest, his return to work can be especially risky.
Most of the time when your horse is laid up with an injury, his rehabilitation plan will involve a carefully controlled exercise program that slowly progresses over time. This can help minimize some of the risk, but it’s important to remember that how you reintroduce high intensity work is still important. Once you get the green light from your veterinarian to go “back to work,” take it slow. Reintroduce hard training sessions gradually, and don’t forget to schedule days off in between.
If you’re lucky, you’ll get your youngster to work successfully. And keep him going without an illness or injury that requires any significant layup time. But now, what should you do to protect your mature, hard-working campaigner? Just when you think you’ve got it made, your horse is entering a time of life where he may be especially susceptible to repeated micro-traumas of his bones, joints, and soft tissues.
Rigorous competition schedules are one of the biggest threats to your horse’s long-term soundness. While it may be tempting to get out there in the show pen week after week, chances are it isn’t worth the potential price. Choose your competitions carefully, especially if you have a trained and talented horse. Skip the small events and save your horse for the ones that really matter. And remember to give him a day or two off after he’s been asked to perform at a high intensity.
Many high-level competition horses that compete regularly never train between competitions. Instead, they maintain their strength through carefully controlled conditioning work. But remember—it does require sport-specific training to keep tissues adapted to the work that’s required in their discipline. If you’re maintaining a very light competition schedule, be sure to incorporate some high-intensity sports-specific training into your conditioning plan. And never forget, after you train hard, a day or two off work today can save you from a much longer layup later.
3 Rules to Remember
What’s the bottom line? Most injuries occur when bones, joints, and ligaments have been slowly damaged over time. These tissues frequently experience small traumas that require time to heal. If healing happens before more stress is applied, your horse’s body will adapt and get even stronger. If stress exceeds his ability to adapt, he’ll get injured. Here are the most important rules to remember:
Take a break. When the structures of your horse’s musculoskeletal system are stressed, they need time to repair. Schedule days off after high-intensity training days.
Be specific. For your horse’s body to adapt to the demands of his sport, it needs to be stressed accordingly. It’s essential to include sport-specific activities as a part of your carefully scheduled conditioning program.
Listen to your horse. If you have a carefully planned out training and conditioning program that includes days of rest on top of high-intensity, sport-specific training, you’re doing great. But don’t get caught up in your calendar. On a day when your schedule says “go” but your horse says “no,” you’d be wise to listen. Small injuries can cause low-grade pain that might impact your horse’s way of going or his attitude toward work. Always be willing to add in a previously unscheduled day of rest. This will allow his body to heal if he seems or even just a little “off.”
Everybody worries about a catastrophic injury. While it’s true that the occasional horse will break his leg from being kicked in the pasture or tear a ligament from stepping in a hole, the vast majority of injuries actually happen in structures that have been previously damaged from chronic over-stress. The good news is that your horse’s ability to adapt to stress means hard work, scheduled carefully, can actually help keep him sound. But for your horse to benefit from that hard work, his body needs time to heal.