Train smarter, not harder

Carolien at work inspecting a horse at a competition in the Netherlands

We all know that a horse must be in good condition if you want to perform well at competitions. But what is considered good condition? How can we define this, and what does it mean for your daily training practice?

Mostly, we evaluate the intensity of a horse’s training on how we, as a rider or trainer, felt about the training session. Often, this means that we analyse the riding technique of the rider and the response and riding abilities of the horse. These are crucial elements of horse riding, but what about the true physiological response of the horse’s body?

If we want to improve a horse’s balance and work towards collection, we ride various exercises during our training. The question is: do these exercises really improve the strength and power output of the neuromuscular system? Maybe some exercises do, but maybe some are not improving muscle strength, and so are not contributing to shifting the horse’s balance towards collection. Therefore, there is a need for riders and trainers to understand more about the physiological effects of the training of a horse, and when and how the body responds to certain types of training.

What is equine exercise physiology?

Exercise physiology is about analysing and understanding how different body systems, like the cardiovascular, respiratory and neuromuscular systems, react to exercise and how they adapt to different types of exercise. Depending on the discipline and your training goal, you can get different reactions and adaptations of the body.

Achievement of high performance in human sports is only possible through systematic training. Discipline-specific training programmes are based on periodisation of training volume (how much), training intensity (how hard) and recovery (adaptations). This is not different for our sport horses. Treating your horse as a real athlete is crucial, and understanding the basic training principles helps you to improve your horse’s training. However, it is vital to understand that horses and humans differ greatly physiologically and therefore also in their physiological response to training. So, never copy human training systems or principles directly onto your horse.

Appling physiology to your horse’s training

Carolien Munsters

In highly physically demanding disciplines like racing, eventing and endurance, the application of equine exercise physiology is more logical than in more submaximal disciplines like dressage and showjumping. This is the reason why for many years now, Dutch international and Olympic eventing riders have been guided by Carolien Munsters to improve their horses’ stamina or speed during competitions. However, more and more Grand Prix dressage riders and showjumpers are discovering the benefits of a more efficient and optimal training strategy.

A physiological system responds to exercise (in physiological terms we call this stress), and the body adapts in such a way that it can handle these stressors more easily in the future. Therefore, physical adaptations (or training effects) will occur when the body homeostasis is disturbed several times over a certain period through successive bouts of exercise. This is called the principle of overload. Crucial to this principle is that training brings the body out of balance, and for a certain amount of time (depending on the training load) the fitness of the horse decreases. So, theoretically speaking, a horse does not improve from training. At first, he decreases in fitness. Then a recovery phase is necessary where the body is allowed to make training adaptations, and the homeostasis is rebalanced. After that, super compensation occurs, meaning that at that point the body is ‘better’ than before the training session.

So, actually a horse’s fitness improves through the combination of training and sufficient recovery afterwards. Often, this is where it goes wrong. A lot of riders and trainers still believe that when a horse is not performing well, or when he had an intense training session which maybe didn’t go well enough, more training will solve the problem. The opposite is true. More training without sufficient recovery time will never improve your horse’s fitness and can even lead to overtraining and injuries.

Training tips

  1. Plan your training sessions in advance, and train with varying intensity during sessions.
  2. Start with your competition date and work your way back in time.
  3. For dressage and showjumping: three to seven days of light training work is needed before a competition to have your horse optimally refuelled and recovered to perform maximally.
  4. For eventing: seven to 10 days of light training work is needed before the competition, meaning no conditional training sessions during these days.
  5. One intense training session should be followed by one to two days of recovery training (light training) for dressage and showjumping horses. Three days of recovery are needed for eventing horses.
  6. If a horse is trained too intensely or does not have enough recovery time, he doesn’t get fitter or stronger

The full article appears in the March issue (120) of HQ > Shop now