1. The load of a training must be higher than the fitness level of the horse
In order to build muscle, whether this is for more stamina or strength, a specific exercise has to be performed intense enough. or in other words, the existing muscles must experience a slight overload to force the body to adapt and grow to become stronger in the future.
If the exercise load is within the normal reach, it is too low to cause adaptation and growth. You can’t expect adjustment. The training load is the most important factor to improve strength and thus performance, because if a horse is not strong enough to perform an exercise it will loose balance, make errors etc. A training must be well above 'normal' and become more and more heavy as the fitness level of the horse increases.
The correct increase in loading can be achieved by increasing the training frequency, intensity and duration, both within one training session and between training sessions. To prevent overtraining you do not change more than one factor every two weeks.
2. Schedule enough ‘active’ rest days
When a horse has been intensively trained, many waste products have been produced in the muscle, tendons and joints. Lactate, for example, is the substance that causes the muscle to feel sore.
It is important that these waste products leave the body as quickly as possible. Unlike humans, if the horse gets little or no movement the day after training, the lymph system will not work properly. This means that no waste materials are being removed and that they accumulate with the lymph fluid.
The amount of days of active rest depends on the intensity of the training. Training will cause micro damage in the muscles of the horse. If the horse gets enough time to recover in between training session, the muscles grow and the horse's body adjusts to the training stimulus. This is what we call super-compensation.
If during the recovery time before the muscle reaches supercompensation, you give an equally heavy training stimulus, you can get a reverse process, which is called overtraining. In that case, the horse deteriorates in strength, endurance and agility.
3. Horses learn even by training 3 days a week
Equestrians often follow their own ‘gut’ feelings when they have to decide how often they have to train their horse to teach them a new exercise. For this reason, research has been done to establish the optimal time interval between training a new exercise.
A group of horses was taught a completely new exercise. Half of the group trained the new exercise for 28 days in a row, every day. The other half trained the new exercise for 28 days, every three days. After the 28 days, half of the horses had practiced 28 times while the other half had practiced only 10 times. At the end of the study, all horses were scored on the execution of the learned assignment. When comparing the scores, it became clear that, despite the difference in the number of training sessions, there was no significant difference in the learning progression of the two groups of horses.
This research indicates that a horse does not "forget" what he has learned in a new exercise if they are only trained every third day, instead of daily. This means that less training time is needed to learn a new exercise and this time can be used more efficiently.
4. Provide enough variation in the type of training
It is impossible to train all types of muscles simultaneously. For that reason it is important that there is variation in the type of training. In general there are three types of training:
Cardio training: With this training you increase the stamina of the horse so he can keep on going longer at low intensity. For this a specific type of muscle fiber is needed; Type I muscle fibers. These muscles look typically slim and long, just like endurance horse do. Especially the heart and lung muscles need to grow to keep enough oxygen to go to the muscle.
Strength training: More strength for example to jump higher or to get more swung in the trot requires type II muscles. They provide more power but cannot last as long as type I muscles. You increase the muscle strength to activate very specific muscle groups
Gymnastic training: All of our modern horse nowadays are very agile and flexible. To keep them this way after a harsh training you want to stretch the muscle to keep them from going stiff and short. We training flexibility by banding the horses body in different direction, where always the outside muscles get long and stretched.
If you train the different muscles in different locations you give the other muscles extra time to recover. So do not plan 3 days of jumping (unless this is what you need to train). Rather alternate jumping, with dressage training or vary exercises from day to day within your dressage training to target different groups of muscles.
5. Vary in the surfaces on which you are riding
A good way to improve the athletic ability and fitness of your horse is to train on different surfaces. This not only improves its proprioception but also leads to a more complete muscle building and support of soft tissues. A body only adapts in a way it is being used and challenged in training. By riding on different surfaces the bone density increases and it stimulates the layers of cartilage with the joint to dampen different types of shocks.
Research shows that horses, whom always train on the same surface, are less good in their coordination, they are more likely to trip and injure themselves. This is because the nerve signals to limbs and stabilizing muscles are not triggered enough and are not trained in adapting to another surface. This means that the training is not optimally effective.
6. Training and nutrition go hand in hand
A horse’s feed must match with the training of the horse. There are 4 elements to check.
The amount of fiber. The horses gut needs fiber to function and be able to take up all the nutrients you provide.
The energy you give. This needs to balance with the activity of the horse and thus might vary from day to day. To much energy makes the horse fat. Main sources for energy is grass or the roughage and carbs in pallets.
The amount of protein is important if you want the horse to grow muscle. Muscles are built of protein. Feed rich in proteins are grass, good quality roughage (young cut grass) and pallets for nursing mares.
Finally vitamins and spore elements require your attention. Vitamin E and Selenium help to remove waste materials from the muscles and Magnesium influences the nerve signal transmission and thus the reflexes and coordination of the horse.
The only way to determine a good ration for your horse is to have your roughage examined. Research has shown that roughage varies a lot and this effect the whole feed intake requirements. It is recommended to adjust the ration at least twice a year to the developments of a horse. Due to a change in training it is possible that the ration is no longer attuned to this.
7. Always keep the same structure for training
Horses like to know what is coming. This reduces stress and increases there coordination and learning abilities. Therefor try to keep everything within the same routine. Boring for you but great for the horse. This routine already start with brushing and saddling up, do every day the same things, in the same order, the same way.
Riding starts with a warming up in walk to increase the blood and lymph circulation, this improves the supply of nutrients to the muscles and the removal of waste products. Walking the horse may be done by hand, under the saddle or in the step mill. In the second part of the warmup you might ride in a calm trot or canter. The goal of the warming up is to stretch the muscles.
Hereafter come 2-4 peak intervals. All types of training have peak moments, except the recovery training. Typically a peak interval lasts around 4- 8 minutes and is followed by a short period in walk. During the walk, the oxygen pool in the muscles is restored and lactate is prevented from building up.
Finally we end a training by cooling down. You stretch the body again in trot and finish the training with at least 10 minutes of walk. This, either riding or walking in hand.
Your training ends when your horse is unsaddled and you checked the horse for injuries, strange items thick legs etc. Finally also notice the time it took your horse to recover. After ten minutes of walk the breathing and heart rate should have gone under 14 and 60 respectively.
8. A quick health check with your horse
It is important that you always do a quick health check before and after the training. That way you can easily keep an eye on the development of the horse’s body and notice quickly if your horse isn’t in good shape. There are five checkpoints that a veterinarian looks at when doing a quick check, always in the same order.
First, you check the breathing. You can record this on the flank. With a healthy horse, this can be seen subtly: the belly goes up and down a little bit. In rest this should be between 8 and 14 times per minute.
After the breathing you check it’s pulse. One of the easiest sensible arteries is under the jaw. Here you can feel softly with your middle three fingers. The heart rate should be around 20 to 30 beats per minute.
Third, you check the temperature of the horse. For this a special veterinary thermometer is best, because it is ready within 10 seconds. Because horses generally thinks the thermometer is a little bit scary, you have to announce yourself. Glide your hand from the withers, over the buttocks to the tail and push it aside. The sphincter has a small hole in the middle. Here you can gently insert the thermometer with some lubricant or saliva. The temperature of the horse should be around 37.5 and 38 degrees Celsius.
Fourth, you check the skin. You can feel the temperature at the body ends. See if the ears, nose, legs and hooves feel warm or cold. You also check the fluid balance. Take a small pleat, when you release it, the pleat must be gone quickly again. If it remains visible, it may mean that your horse is dehydrated. Look in the mouth whether the mucous membranes are slippery and pink.
Finally check the lymph nodes. Among other things, just behind the jaw and in the throat are lymph nodes. These should be about the size of a grape. Feel if that is the case and if it is painful when you touch it.
Your check is done after checking the lymph nodes. If there are things that you are concerned about or that are not how they should be, it is wise to ask your vet for advice or even let him drop by for a checkup.
9. Set challenging goals for yourself
Research has shown that setting specific and challenging goals leads to higher performance than setting a simple goal or no goal. A goal might be to be able to reach a high level in competition, but it can also be to make stress less rides outside. Whatever your goal is, it provides motivation and increases perseverance. Split your goal into smaller steps so that it becomes clear what you can do today to achieve the big goal. With every effort you make you will feel good about getting one step closer to your dream.
Try to make your goals very specific and provide sufficient challenge, because then you gets a sense of reward and / or self-esteem when you reach a goal, this will motivate to achieve the next goal.
10. Make sure that a horse gets movement several times a day
It is important that a horse is taken out of its box several times a day for exercise. Firstly, movement ensures a good blood circulation. Which ensures energy levels are restored in the muscle. This means that the horse will sustain a workout longer. If there is too little movement, there is a chance the horse gets stable legs or muscle/ tendon trauma.
In addition, enough exercise stimulates the lymph system. The lymphatic system ensures that the resistance of the body rises, healing and renewal improves and all harmful waste in the body is safely discharged. After an intensive training, many waste products grow in the muscles of the horse. The lymphatic system must get the chance to dispose these waste materials. Because of the fact that the lymph system is stimulated by movement, it is important that the horse moves enough daily.
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