The horse is inherently a creature of the wild, built in a way that makes it a remarkable athlete. To harness this athletic potential, it is crucial for riders to understand the needs of a horse’s body. We have sought insights from veterinarian and equine chiropractor Ulla Vestergaard Andersen, who is well-versed in the athletic potential of horses and knows how to train them to be enduring and strong. She emphasizes three key aspects: foundational conditioning, recovery, and discipline-specific training.
When training a horse, a distinction is made between aerobic and anaerobic training. Aerobic training occurs at relatively low intensity, where the horse has a low pulse, and the muscles are not subjected to strenuous stress. This happens, for example, when we walk the horse or ride at a light trot for warming up. In contrast, anaerobic training is characterized by high intensity and a high pulse, occurring when the horse jumps a course or runs a race.
It is crucial to train the horse aerobically before anything else, ensuring good foundational conditioning, which enhances the horse’s ability to utilize fat metabolism and extract oxygen from the blood. This improves blood supply to the muscles and increases the content of mitochondria, which convert energy from fat and sugar into fuel that all body cells can use. Additionally, the muscles become more efficient at removing and converting lactic acid, and their structure becomes stronger, ready to work under increased stress. A horse that is rapidly subjected to intense training can quickly get injured if the muscles’ strength is not developed first. Hence, good foundational conditioning is essential before progressing in training when aiming for a durable horse.
The next crucial point is to allow the horse to recover. Indeed, it is at least as important as the training itself. The reason is that training induces minor damages in the muscles, which can only be rebuilt if the horse is allowed sufficient recovery. If not, the muscles are broken down instead of being built up, eventually leading to an injured horse.
According to Ulla, training is not just training; it must be discipline-specific. A dressage horse should not be trained the same way as a jumping horse due to the significant difference in the proportion of aerobic and anaerobic movement within the two disciplines. Therefore, there are differences in how to ensure a durable horse in different disciplines.
“I firmly and wholly believe that we can minimize the number of injuries if riders would more often take their time.”Michael Sinding
“In relation to dressage horses, the actual dressage program is performed in the aerobic and low-intensity zone with short sequences of higher speed, such as an increase diagonally through. Therefore, I recommend that for dressage horses at a low level, one should have a conditioning training program that includes five minutes of aerobic training with short ten-second sequences of trot and canter increases,” explains Ulla and continues: “While the high-level dressage horse should be trained to handle eight minutes of aerobic training and ten-second sequences of free trot and canter increases. In both situations, emphasis should also be placed on transitions up and down, as this trains the horse's ability to accelerate and decelerate.”
When it comes to training a jumping horse, Ulla explains something entirely different: “For jumping horses, a much higher degree of explosive power is required, and therefore the initial, slow training of jumping horses should be followed by interval training, where the anaerobic system is trained for 30-100 seconds.” Ulla also emphasizes here that the performance of jumping horses improves significantly by including interval training.
Therefore, it is important to be attentive to how one best achieves a durable horse.
Mentally relaxed horses have more surplus to respond to the rider's aids. A study has shown that horses, which are partly trained from the ground, are more relaxed and have a lower heart rate. In a tense horse, the natural flight instincts are sharpened over the learned behavior. This causes it to take longer for the horse to perceive and understand the rider's signals. Therefore, mentally relaxed horses are usually the best athletes.
Effect of shortened reins on rein tension, stress and discomfort behaviour in dressage horses Ludewig, A.K., Gauly, M. and König V. Borstel. 7th International Equitation Science Conference, 2011.
Serum muscle-derived enzymes response during show jumping competition in horse. Assenza, A; Marafioti, S.; Congiu, F., Giannetto,C.; Fazio,F.; Bruschetta, D.; Piccione,G. Veterinary World, 2016.
Improved Ability to Maintain Fitness in Horses During Large Pasture Turnout, Graham-Thiers & Bowen, equine vet. science, 2013.