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Sensible Recovery Strategies for Equine Athletes

Sensible Recovery Strategies for Equine Athletes

Don’t leave your horse hanging after a long ride or horse show

You’ve done your homework training and conditioning your horse. Months of progressively steady improvements in cardiovascular fitness have transformed him into a strapping specimen. He’s performing at his peak, the competitive season is now underway, and you have high hopes for his ­performance.

You’ve just exited the arena after an exceptional ride. Now what—do you let him eat and drink to his heart’s content? Does he need to be rinsed off? Do you throw him on the trailer and get him home to rest as soon as possible?

Read on to find out how you should care for your athlete in the minutes to days following a competition to keep him in good form.

Warmup and Cool-Down

One of the most important steps in a horse’s post-exercise recovery is removing heat and metabolic byproducts from his deep muscles. A horse’s ability to dissipate heat depends on his fitness level and how appropriately you’ve ridden him for the conditions of the day.

“Fitness plays a major role in the efficiency of cooling down,” says Erin Contino, MS, DVM, Dipl. ACVSMR, an eventer and assistant professor of equine sports medicine and rehabilitation at Colorado State University’s Equine Orthopaedic Research Center, in Fort Collins. “Conditioning leads to physiologic adaptations that help to dissipate heat. For example, circulating blood volume expands and capillaries increase (in size and quantity) at the skin surface to allow heat exchange from the skin to the air through sweating.”

Recovery starts as soon as you mount up. “A proper warmup primes the body and optimizes functions for the upcoming exercise by increasing oxygen to the tissue and releasing red blood cells from the spleen into the circulation,” says Contino. “Warmup also enables muscle tissues access to energy stores. A warmup literally increases temperature within soft tissues to improve elasticity of the tendons and ligaments, and may help to prevent injury.”

Warmup provides another benefit: It improves aerobic metabolism—muscle cells’ use of energy in the presence of oxygen—to delay fatigue. When muscles function through aerobic metabolism, less heat and fatigue-inducing lactic acid associated with anaerobic (without oxygen) metabolism accumulates.

Fitness also plays a role in the muscles’ oxidative capacity. The longer the horse’s muscles can work with aerobic metabolism, the less heat and metabolites such as lactic acid are produced.

And after you cross the finish line or speed through the timers, proper cool-down should begin. Contino recommends not pulling your horse to an immediate stop but, rather, continuing to walk.

“Slow movement increases the amount of heat and lactic acid that is removed from the muscles compared to standing still,” she says. This not only facilitates rapid cardiovascular recovery but also helps minimize muscle soreness in the days following.


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