Top tips to a healthier horse

Whatever your discipline, riding level or ambition, every horse owner needs a great team of people around them, to keep their horse in good health and condition and help you stay on the road to achieving your goals.

Have lessons with a great instructor regularly, even if you only want to hack. An extra pair of experienced eyes on the ground can bring brilliantly positive changes to the quality of life for you and your horse.

Keep all appointments regular and up-to-date including vet, farrier, dentist, saddler, other therapists and practitioners.

Most horses spend adequate time in the arena (moving on a circle / bend / turn) and stable (standing fairly still) but often lack time turned out and hacking (walking in straight lines). Horses are flight animals, with skeletons that have evolved to move at speed, over short distances, in straight lines, to avoid being eaten by prey. When not running from prey they would naturally have their head down eating and walking forward in relatively straight lines for around 18 hours a day, travelling in excess of 15 - 20 miles a day.

Although we breed specific attributes for sport and competition, the horses skeletal system has not evolved dramatically enough to catch up with our exacting demands. This is partly why so many horses break down with the stress we place upon them. With this in mind a lifestyle which provides your horse with adequate hacking and turn out will maintain a more physically and mentally sound horse. It gives muscles the opportunity to lengthen, un-wind, heal and strengthen whilst placing less stress on joints. The trick is to provide your horse with a varied and balanced exercise program and lifestyle.

To produce a healthy, strong, athletic horse that is resilient to the physical and mental stresses of work and competition and has a long and successful career. It is essential to implement a progressive exercise program tailored to the individual horse and discipline. Aim for a balance of stretching and loosening work mixed with strengthening and fittening work.

Strengthening - fittening work stresses and overloads the musculoskeletal system causing microscopic tissue damage. This leads to desired physical adaptations and increased fitness, providing you also incorporate adequate stretching - loosening work. Stretching - loosening work acts as rest and recovery time enabling the damaged tissue to heal functionally, avoiding over-use and injury, and ensuring all soft tissues are capable of producing full range of movement. These two types of work balance and compliment each other to increase fitness, reduce susceptibility to injury, assist mental relaxation and readiness, and achieve optimum performance.

To achieve balance, just mix it up:

  • hack on grass / tracks / road, lunge, long rein, loose school, work in hand, school on surface / grass, jumping, grids, poles, fast / medium / slow work, grass / all-weather gallops, etc.
  • If you use any training aids / gadgets mix these up too by using them on different settings / in different positions and have days where you take them off completely, this will allow you to re-assess your horses requirements and measure his true progress.

From my experience this is one of the most widely neglected components of a healthy exercise and management plan but it is definitely one of the most important. You will never regret a minute you spend on your warm up or cool down as they always make a noticeably positive difference. Cutting corners here can cost you your horses soundness and success.

The warm up prepares your horses' mind and body for work, while the cool down prepares his mind and body for rest, relaxation and tissue recovery. Your horses' cool down is the preparation for his next warm up. A good cool down will set him up for a good warm up and successful piece of work the next day.

Unless you have a horse with very specific needs, aim to walk your horse for at least 10 minutes at the start of work and another 10 minutes at the end of work. Tailor the type of walk to your horses health and fitness requirements.

Increase or decrease physical and mental demands gradually over each training session. For many horses this may mean working from walk to trot to canter at the beginning of your session. Then canter to trot to walk at the end of your session. Consider the effort required by the muscles, bones, joints, heart, lungs, and the mind.

Generally when rehabilitating a horse with musculoskeletal injury or dysfunction the default outline and way of working should be long, low and slow. A few minutes of quality work regularly will help restore your horses' body much faster than hours of poor quality work.

The priority is to encourage active hindquarters that push and swing evenly and rhythmically. Muscles over the back should be relaxed, loose and wobbling. Abdominal muscles should be gently activated. The forelimbs should swing effortlessly. The head and neck should be allowed to relax softly, forward and down into your chosen outline. To restore musculoskeletal function effectively, it is essential to promote mental and physical relaxation while exercising your horse.

I know this is often easier said than done, especially in Winter if you're lacking adequate facilities to use at home. But use your common sense to avoid exercising your horse on bad ground, especially while schooling, on circles, at speed or jumping. Hard, rutty, uneven, deep, boggy, sticky or slippy surfaces lead to muscle over-use, strains, tears, spasm and joints locking up. It can also be frustrating and demoralising for a horse trying to offer you correct work when the ground is working against him.

Limit the amount of concussion your horse receives through his musculoskeletal system by avoiding excessive trotting on roads. Road surfaces are not forgiving and jar the horses' bones, joints and soft tissues leaving your horse feeling stiff, restricted and wooden to ride. Some horses may seem to tolerate it for longer or more easily than others. But it can be a major contributing factor to break-down of the musculoskeletal system.

If in doubt, lunging is often not good for horses with sore muscles, tight backs and joint problems. For a horse to move on a circle the soft tissues and joints should be in good health and function.

Turning places excessive stress on joints, especially the more weight bearing joints on the inside of the circle. At the same time, the outside of the horses body is asked to stretch. If muscle damage, tension or joint restriction is present, stretching will not be achievable, resulting in further injury and compensation.

Understandably riders often look to lunging in situations where the horse is not ready to take the weight of a rider, in this case lunge on the largest size circle possible, include straight lines and ovals. Change the rein frequently to avoid muscle fatigue and over-use. Aim for long, low and slow work.

Long reining is a useful variation of training which can be used anywhere. It's a good tool to use if you cannot get on board or if you want to avoid circles and tight turns. If you don't know how to long rein find someone experienced to teach you.

The addition of pole work to your horses weekly exercise program is a smart choice for all disciplines. Pole work creates exaggerated movement in the horse, used correctly even simple pole exercises develop key athletic attributes essential for producing a strong horse resilient to injury, or for any horse overcoming injury.

Pole work, especially raised poles, are great for strengthening your horse in a long and low outline. They cause:

  • The hindquarters to push and strengthen
  • Increased flexion of the knees, hocks and stifles
  • The muscles of the stifle area to strengthen (quadriceps)
  • Activation of the horses' back, abdomen and sides (obliques) for greater core stability
  • Lengthening and strengthening of the topline; neck and back

Pole work promotes balance, co-ordination, proprioception (awareness of a body part in space), agility, rhythm, straightness and teaches your horse how to adjust his stride.

Use pole work when riding, lunging, long-reining or in-hand. For rehabilitating a horse, 5 minutes 3 or 4 times a week is more effective than 20 minutes once a week. Be imaginative, include poles after a hack, schooling session or when leading your horse to the field.

Start with 4 simple straight poles on the ground, progress the complexity of the exercise slowly over weeks or months. Move on to one end of each pole raised, both ends raised, poles round a corner, a greater number of poles etc.

Some people seem to love gadgets, others seem to hate them. Maybe that's because in the right hands they can do wonders for your horse but in the wrong hands they can cause more problems than you started with.

I think the answer is to only use gadgets and complicated tack if you understand why you're using them, how they work and how to measure their success over a period of time. Have a start, middle and end goal, as they are not to be used indefinitely.

It's easy to cause considerable physical, mental and emotional damage to a horse with incorrect use of gadgets or tack, so if you're not completely sure ask an experienced instructor to help you.

You can actually help keep your horses' muscles soft, loose and warm with correct rugging. Rugging your horse to a comfortable temperature allows his body to relax, promoting a nice relaxed posture, taking excess stress off his musculoskeletal system and maintaining optimal circulation throughout the soft tissues.

In colder months, it's especially important to avoid letting your horse get cold due to underrugging, or overheated due to over- rugging, resulting in sweating and then becoming cold whilst wet.

If it's a cold day, ride your horse in an exercise sheet for the warm up and cool down or perhaps the whole ride if your horse is at risk of becoming cold. Straight after exercise, I always suggest putting a fleece or Thermatex on your horse, whether he is dry, sweaty or wet from a shower. Let him cool down or dry off without the risk of getting cold. Layer up with two or more fleeces if necessary.

There are easy steps you can take to minimise the symptoms of a cold-backed horse. Before you get in the saddle, you need to increase the blood flow into the muscles of the back, warming and activating them, so they are prepared to function and take your weight.

Warm up your horse before you get on by: walking in hand, lunging, long-reining or putting on the walker first. Just a few minutes walking in-hand works well; allow a few minutes of walk with some trot just before you mount. Mount straight away and walk off as soon as possible. You need to keep your horse moving, standing around for any period of time can make it worse.

The more severe the symptoms or the colder the horse, i.e, if he's been stabled or standing still, the more time or effort you will have to apply to warm his muscles up, before you get on. Take off extra rugs at the last minute before mounting and use an exercise sheet over his back until he feels strong and comfortable in his body.

Unless your vet recommends otherwise feed ad-lib hay, haylage and grass to ensure your horse maintains a healthy digestive system, mind and body. Feed from the ground whenever possible for optimal digestion whilst avoiding digestive stress. This will also ensure your horse remains free from the musculoskeletal problems associated with repeatedly tugging hay from a net.

Electrolytes help to maintain the correct balance of fluids in the body's cells assisting optimum muscle and organ function and the removal of waste during work and recovery.

Electrolytes are lost daily through sweat, urine and faeces, during long or intense periods of exercise such as training, competition and during warmer weather. This means fluid and electrolyte losses need to be replaced daily too. Prolonged sweating can result in complete electrolyte replenishment taking several days.

Deficiencies cause dehydration, poor performance, inability to concentrate, reduced coordination and may trigger clinical problems such as rhabdomyolysis 'tying up'. These are symptoms that you'll need to avoid if you require your horse to perform at his best. Especially when training or competing in more dangerous situations for you and your horse such as cross country.

The horse's body cannot recover from exercise without the presence of electrolytes, simply offering water, salt and feed will not rehydrate your horse. The main minerals that need to be replaced at the correct ratios are: Sodium (Na), Chloride (Cl), Potassium (K), Magnesium (Mg) and Calcium (Ca).

Carrot stretches done correctly and regularly after work when the horse is still slightly warm can accomplish big gains in suppleness, elasticity, range of movement, muscle health and function. Greater health and function also means more strength, power, stamina, speed and better execution of movements, all whilst avoiding injury.

Consistency with stretches is key, a few minutes 3 - 4 times a week is better than 10 minutes once a week. Never stretch a cold horse. Always stretch after exercise.

Applying an anti-inflammatory such as witch hazel, regularly to your horses' skin after strenuous exercise, improves post exercise muscle recovery. It's natural properties work by reducing inflammation of muscles, tendons and ligaments caused by a progressive fitness regime. Witch hazel contributes to a faster and more comfortable recovery with less stiffness, soreness and muscle fatigue.

Use witch hazel liquid straight onto the skin covering the muscles you are treating after strenuous work and more frequently if needed. Soak the skin, leave on, do not wash off, rug up as normal even while skin is still wet. Use after medium to hard work, over-use, slips, falls, knocks, getting cast etc. Do not use on broken skin. Heat gently in microwave or warm water bath to avoid using cold in cold weather.

Tips

I want to share with you my most essential top tips to a healthier horse. It's my firm belief that as a horse owner you have the power to make the biggest difference to your horses' wellbeing. It's the basic and routine everyday choices you make on behalf of your horse that will determine if he enjoys a truly happy, healthy and fulfilling life.

Affectionate horses