TOP TIPS for looking after your horse and for improving your performance

Reducing injury to the lower legs

As any rider or horse owner knows, lameness is the most common reason for a vet being called to see a horse. Its also the number one reason why horses cannot compete or are withdrawn from competition. This summer the ground in many areas is already very hard due to the lack of rainfall. Hard, uneven ground is a significant risk factor for inflammed joints and tendons which can lead to filled legs and lame horses. Lameness is very common in the lower leg and especially in the forelegs. These areas are easily accesible and lend themselves to a very simple treatment - icing. During exercise the legs become hot. Exercise also causes damage even to healthy joints and tendons. Injury and heat do not go well together and the inflammatory response of the body makes things worse. Inflammation can perhaps surprisingly cause further damage. Its as if the body "over-reacts". One way to damp down this inflammatory response in the lower legs after exercise is by cooling down the legs. I'm not talking fancy gels or sprays or spas. I'm talking boots that you put in the freezer. These are convenient and not over-expensive. They need to be on for at least 20 min and maybe up to 30 min to cool the deeper parts of the tendons and joints, although care must be taken not to burn the skin.  In the winter cold hosing is fine and very effective although it will mean standing doing each leg for around 15 min each, so an hour in total. You can use machines that pump coolant through the boots. These can be controlled and some also compress. Its a big increase in cost but worth it in a professional environment. The cold needs to go on as soon as the horse finishes exercising. Hence, I am not a big fan of cold spas or cold water treadmills, especially if you have more than one horse to do. The first horse is ok but by the time the second horse gets on the inflammatory response is already well underway. Cood water walkers offer the potential to "treat" more than one horse at at time so are acceptable. The important thing is to get the cold on as soon as possible after exercise and do this after every training session or competition. I have managed to keep many horses sound with this approach. In contrast to heat, its hard to make things worse with cold, other than buring if the pack is too cold.


Tapering for improved performance

What should we be doing with our horses in the 7-10 days before a competition? Most riders keep the work the same and many even up the work a little in the hope that this will give the horse a little extra fitness. Unfortunately, both these approaches are more likely to decrease performance and even increase the risk of injury. Believe it or not daily training even for a fit horse causes some damage to muscles which reduces muscle strength and endurance. Muscle energy stores are also reduced by training and can take up to 3 days to fully restore. By easing back on training (tapering), even if only for 2-3 days before competition is an easy way to improve performance and is a technique used widely by human athletes. Tapering involves doing the same type of training (speeds, jumps, etc) but LESS of them. So you do the same things but start cutting back the time you do the. For example, keep the warm up the same but then if you do 45 min of schooling, cut back to 30, then 20, then 15 and then maybe 5-10 min. Many riders want to do more, whether its schooling, fitness work, jumping, etc because of their own anxiety about competing. Remember the horse does not have the same anxiety! If you taper over a week or more remember that you may need to cut the feed back slightly to allow for the lower activity, especially if you have a horse prone to tying-up. Tapering is effective. Just try it.


How to train more effectively for less injury and better performance

Some of the training principles for getting ourselves fit that we may have learned from fitness instructors at the gym apply to horses. But there are also some important differences. We train horses for two main reasons. Firstly, fit horses should perform better. Secondly, fit horses should be less likely to get injured. Another reason can be that regular training reduces boredom and may promote better behaviour. One of the major priciples of training is specificity. Don't train a showjumper which has to perform at high intensity for short periods of time by doing lots of long slow distance work. Don't try to train an endurance horse with lots fo shorts sprints. This is obviously very generalised but is a good place to start. A second principle to keep in mind is that in order for a horse to get fit, the training sessions must be repeated frequently enough. Aim for 3-4 training sessions a week. These should ideally be spaced out rather than all in a row. In fact, depending on the horse and the discpline, I will often use 2 days training, one day off, 2 days training, one day off, etc. Or 3 day training, 1 off, 3 training, 1 off, etc. This allows the body a chance to recover and potentially get over small injuries. In order for a horse to increase in fitness the intensity of the training needs to be gradually increased. Normally this should be a small increase every 1-2 weeks. Quantity (i.e. distance) does not usually equal quality. In fact, most horses could be fitter with less distance. This may mean shorter sessions at higher heart rates. Increasing distance is usually much less effective than increasing intensity. And to really know how hard your horse or pony is working then look at buying a heart rate monitor!


Common feeding mistakes

A typical common mistake in feeding, especially when it comes to performance horses, is to feed too little forage or what seems to be an appropriate amount of poor quality forage. Typically the absolute minimum amount of forage a horse should receive is 1% of bodyweight, which equates to 5kg for a 500kg horse. Going below this level greatly increases the risk of colic or disturbance of  gastro-intestinal function, including an increased risk of colic. Poor quality forage can have a number of adverse effects. If it is high in moulds or yeasts, horses and ponies may simply refuse to eat it. High mould content may also cause or worsen pre-existing respiratory disease, e.g. RAO (COPD, heaves, broken wind). Some contaminants of hays, such as mycotoxins, may cause low grade damage to the liver resulting in loss of condition, poor performance and other health problems. If feeding haylage, then the minimum intake should be around 1.5% bodyweight or 7.5kg for a 500kg horse. This is because haylage has a higher moisture content so for the same amount fo energy a greater weight should be fed. Many people mistakenly do the opposite i.e. feed more hay than haylage. Forage is the basis for any horse diet so for a healthy horse or pony make sure you feed as good a quality as you can afford and in sufficient amounts.


How can I tell if my horse has a breathing problem?

General signs of respiratory disease in horses and ponies can include cough, nasal discharge, increased respiratory rate and increased effort when breathing. However, many horses and ponies with low to moderate levels of respiratory disease may not show any signs at all at rest. Mild to moderate respiratory disease can even be difficult for a vet to detect when listening to the breahtign through a stehoscope. Respiratory disease can be easier to detect during or after exercise because exercise places a greater strain on the respiratory system. After exercise, horses, that cough, swallow frequently or have a signficant amount of nasal discharge (of any colour and from one or both sides) are likely to have respiratory disease. Even more of an indication can be how the horse or pony breathes during exercise. Normal, healthy horses and ponies take one breath perfectly in time with each stride during fast canter and gallop. The sound of the hooves and breathing go together to produce that characteristic sound we all recognise. Horses and ponies with respiratory problems, affecting either the upper (larynx) or lower (lungs) airways can often lose this rhythm or their breathing becomes more "laboured"  or "obvious". And they may also swallow more frequently. A normal horse or pony will swallow around 1-2 times per minute of exercise at fast canter or gallop. Any more frequent swallow or abnormal nosies that do not seem to be in time with the stride (e.g. "gurgling") are a sign to call your vet.


What and when to feed for competition

There is a belief amongst quite a large number of riders that when they are taking their horse to a competition it helps to give extra feed either in the days before or on the morning of the competition. This should not be done. Firstly, it will have no beneficial effect on performance. Secondly, it may actually decrease performance. And finally, a larger than normal feed before competition is a serious risk for colic or tying-up. On the day of competition aim to give normal feed and hay (fed together) ideally at around 4 hours before the start of competition. Four hours will reduce the volume of feed in the stomach at the start of exercise and will also ensure that changes in blood sugar levels have stabilised before the satrt of exercise. Starting exercise with a high blood sugar level can lead to early fatigue. Make sure there is adequate clean and fresh water and do not remove the water. Horses can and should be allowed to drink right up until you begin to tack-up and get ready to ride.