Why work on multiple surfaces?
When it comes to choosing surfaces for your horse to train on, the underpinning principle of planning an exercise routine is to prepare him optimally for his job. For example, an eventer will be prepared differently to a dressage horse, but there are benefits for all horses to be exercised on a variety of different surfaces. A moderate and evenly balanced programme that incorporates work sessions on grass, sand or fibre; road or track surfaces; and undulating ground and hills will help to prepare the horse’s body for its ultimate purpose.
Diverse surfaces offer different forms of tissue accommodation and conditioning, as the horse’s skeleton, ligaments, tendons, muscles and bones adapt to the ‘stress’ that working on these surfaces induces. Stress in this context is not negative; it needs to be viewed as a way to prepare the tissue for coping with a greater load. A sensible and consistent approach is fundamental.
Firm and softer surfaces
Firmer, more concussive surfaces add value by stimulating bone density and the thickening of the cortical bone, adding strength and durability to the skeleton and limb bones in particular. Concussive exercise also stimulates the growth of hoof tissue. More forgiving surfaces like grass (provided it’s not hard and dry) and sand require increased muscular effort from the horse and a greater range of motion of the joints of the limbs than working on a firm surface. Used appropriately, these surfaces result in muscle development and help to prepare and accommodate ligaments, tendons and joints for greater flexibility, helping to condition the more flexible tissue for repetitive strain and loading.
Fibre arenas seem to be offering the middle ground in terms of footing for work and competition. They are firmer than loose river sand, but more forgiving and shock-absorbing than a dirt road. They offer more grip and less slide than sand alone, and perhaps facilitate the horse being able to push off the ground more efficiently. However, it is still important to expose your horse to a variety of surfaces, even if only to make sure he is well adjusted to anything that he may be exposed to.
Undulating and uneven ground plays a role in requiring the horse to use his proprioceptive skills, thus helping to develop a better sense of position in space and awareness of footing, and how to automatically accommodate to these changes. This is particularly important for horses who compete in eventing and hunting, but all horses can benefit from this input.
These surfaces must be incorporated with care though, because the likelihood of tripping or misstepping is greater, and this could lead to injury. Ideally, you should inspect the area first and then walk your horse over it before trotting and cantering. Avoid muddy and slippery terrain, as these present an unpredictable environment, which could be detrimental.
Hill work is one of my favourite forms of training, as it really recruits the horse’s powerful hindquarter and lower back musculature. While ascending, purely by virtue of the slope, the forehand is lightened and the horse has to engage his hindquarters, thereby specifically training these propulsive muscles. As a strengthening and cardio fitness exercise, hill work is hard to beat.
On descending, the horse has to apply deceleration tactics to control his motion against gravity, and by doing this, some eccentric principles are applied. Eccentric muscle work refers to the muscle being in a contractile state while needing to lengthen to control movement.
The other advantage of working down hills is that the horse once again has to heighten his sense of balance and motor control, thus sharpening his sensory skills and preparing his foot placement to develop better proprioception.
It takes four to six weeks for a horse’s tissue to accommodate the effect of working on a new surface, so introduce it gradually, in order to avoid injury related to your horse suddenly having to give 100% on an unfamiliar surface. This is worth bearing in mind when you know that you will be competing on a grass surface, or have hills and banks if these are not part of your normal routine. Fitter horses may adapt more quickly, because their muscles won’t tire as easily. Muscle fatigue results in the horse having to rely more on his ligaments and tendons, predisposing him to injury.
Text: Jan Tucker