Q: What is the best way to help my horse recover after a challenging training session or competition?
A: There are steps a rider can take both before and after exercise to help his or her horse recover from an intense training session. For example, consistent training in the lead up to competition and the approach to the warm-up will positively influence recovery. Dietary strategies like choice of feed and supplements can have a big effect on recovery. And, supportive therapies can be implemented after training to optimize a horse’s recovery.
Proper Conditioning. The steps to optimal recovery for a horse actually begin well before the training session itself. For example, make sure that your horse has been properly conditioned for the level at which he is training and competing. Physical training at a level that is about 80 percent of the intensity of the targeted event helps to not only promote fitness in the typical ways we think (muscle strength, ligament and tendon integrity and cardiovascular tolerance) but it also works on a cellular level to fine-tune the way a horse generates and consumes the very important fuel glucose—what we think of as sugar—that is needed for exercise. By maintaining a consistent training program your horse will not only perform better in competition, but his recovery will be smoother and there is reduced likelihood of illness or injury.
Nutrition. How you feed your horse can influence his ability to successfully train at intense levels. While glucose is typically the primary energy source, muscle tissue can also learn to use other resources such as fat metabolites for energy at maximal intensity. For this to occur, it requires feeding a diet higher in fat and lower in starch. Over time the muscle cells develop pathways to break down the added fat, especially in times of maximal exertion. Timing of meals, as well as choice of feed prior to exercise, can influence performance and recovery. Because of complex interrelationships between the muscle cells and hormones such as insulin, a horse will be better able to provide energy to his muscles if he is fed a lower-sugar-content meal more than three hours prior to exercise. On the other hand, large meals prior to exercise cause a shift of fluids within the horse’s body that can make it harder to maintain adequate hydration during exercise and create increased weight and possibly interfere with lung expansion. A forage-based meal that is under three pounds fed 2-3 hours prior to exercise is a better strategy to provide the necessary energy for training without any negative side effects.
Supplements. There are byproducts of intense exercise that accumulate inside the muscles of a hard-working horse. One important category is free radicals, which are naturally generated as muscle breaks down energy for contraction. Excess free radicals create inflammation and cause damage to the muscles. One very effective way to counter excess free radicals is supplementation with antioxidants such as Vitamin E, C and Selenium or phenols like resveratrol and pterostilbene. The compounds resveratrol and pterostilbene are the beneficial ingredients in blueberries and the skin of red grapes that can helps cells protect against the damage caused by free radicals. Antioxidants can help restore balance inside muscle tissue.
Hydration. A horse experiences significant water and electrolyte losses as a result of strenuous exercise, specifically sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium. This is especially true in hotter and more humid climates. Fresh plain water should always be available before and after exercise. Adding loose salt or electrolyte supplements to the diet prior to transport can help ensure your horse drinks well on the road and arrives to the competition well hydrated. In hotter conditions or after particularly hard exercise when your horse has produced large volumes of sweat, supplementation with electrolytes after exercise is recommended to help your horse replenish those that were lost. There are also supplements that contain branched-chain amino acids, the building blocks of protein that can be readily absorbed by muscle to immediately replenish its energy stores. These can be fed directly in a paste or powder formula to provide essential nutrition to depleted muscle tissue without the work of digesting a meal.
Warm-up. Recovery after exercise is also heavily influenced by the warm-up before intense exercise. An optimal warm-up gradually conditions the muscles, joints and soft tissues. Steadily increasing intensity in a warm-up can slowly stimulate the heart and lungs to prepare for the pending high demand. This slow rise in blood flow to the large muscle groups maintains higher delivery of oxygen throughout the horse’s body during peak training exercises to reduce build-up of byproducts such as lactic acid or excessive heat.
Cool Out. A proper cool out after training is very important, especially during the hotter summer months. Keeping your horse’s coat clipped during competition season can help to maximize cooling. Learn to measure parameters such as heart rate, respiratory rate and rectal temperature. This step should be put into practice at home both before and after exercise. This will familiarize your horse with the process and help you develop a sense of what is normal for your horse. Slow, steady walking until the horse’s respiratory rate and body temperature has come down to normal helps maintain the necessary blood flow to the larger hindquarter and topline musculature to dissipate the accumulated break down of products from sustained muscular contraction. Monitor breathing and temperature for up to 10 minutes after exercise. Aim to walk your horse until his rectal temperature has reduced at least 2 degrees from what it was at the completion of the ride. When your horse’s breathing has properly recovered, he will no longer flare his nostrils and will not use his belly to breathe.
Additional Care and Therapy. Rapid cooling with buckets of chilled water is essential for the overheated horse. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not necessary to scrape the water off. Time is of the essence here and is best spent continuously pouring chilled water over the horse, ideally while he is still walking. As your horse recovers, you will notice the water coming off your horse is no longer hot. Additional cooling measures include access to shade and misting fans, if available. Ice and cold therapy are very effective at reducing inflammation in joints and soft tissues after strenuous activity and are commonly used to promote recovery. There are myriad choices of ice boots for purchase—some even offer compression—but homemade options can be equally effective.
This column has not been approved or endorsed by U.S. Equestrian.
Christina “Cricket” Russillo, DVM, graduated from the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in 2001. After completing a large animal medicine and surgery internship at Texas A&M, she realized her desire was to work on elite sporthorses. Following 13 years of practice at Fairfield Equine Associates in Newtown, Connecticut, focused on high-level show-jumping and dressage horses, she joined Virginia Equine Imaging in 2015. Russillo relocates to Florida every winter to support her clients and patients. She has competed through Third Level in dressage and in February 2017 she was appointed the U.S. Dressage Team veterinarian. She is also a certified member of the International Society of Equine Locomotor Pathology.