Giving your horse a break from training can result in a healthier, happier horse--if you do it correctly.
"It's important to periodically back off from training, whether the athlete is a human or horse," says Trisha Dowling, DVM, MSc, Dipl. ACVIM, ACVCP, of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.
A marathon runner, Dowling competes in three full marathon races a year. After a marathon Dowling moves into a lighter training regimen to maintain her fitness base. "I never completely let down," she says, "so I can come back and peak again. This way, when I start to pick it back up, I can be ready for competition in about eight to 12 weeks."
Why the break? "It's important that athletes back off their training a little," Dowling says. "If I always tried to stay at peak fitness, I am more likely to become injured and get burned out. Overconditioning is as detrimental to performance as underconditioning.
"I don't think horses are any different," she adds.
Dowling, who is a professor in Veterinary Clinical Pharmacology at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, also rides in 100-mile endurance races. She's made the Canadian Equestrian Team's endurance team at three Pan American Championships. "If you keep hammering at your horses, they're at more risk for injury and getting burnt out, especially with the mentally intensive sports like high-level dressage and reining. It's actually easier to overtrain a horse. There's an old saying that with horses, 'sore' really should be spelled 'sour.' "
Michael Bednarek of Jamesville, N.Y., who is deeply involved in Western disciplines, shares similar thoughts. In addition to his post as adjunct instructor of Western Horsemanship at Cazenovia College, Bednarek has trained and shown in Western disciplines for more than 30 years. He is a carded judge for the American Quarter Horse Association, Palomino Horse Breeders of America, International Buckskin Horse Association, National Snaffle Bit Association, National Reined Cow Horse Association, and Pony of the Americas Club. He says, "Every horse needs some letdown time: A riding horse cannot stay in peak form nor a halter horse in peak condition all the time. Their bodies and minds need a rest."
Wendy A. Schofield, DVM, who has a special interest in sport horse medicine (including lameness, acupuncture, field medicine, and preventive health care) at Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington, Ky., makes a convincing argument for time off from work. In her opinion, "Horses that experience repeated strenuous exercise, perpetual stress or overwork, or a vigorous travel and show schedule are more likely to suffer from gastric ulcers, colic, injury, fatigue, behavioral problems, and poor performance," she says. "That's why every horse benefits physically and mentally from periodic training layoffs or at least significant reductions in their workload."
Obviously letting down a horse doesn't take strenuous effort. Nevertheless, it's not a one-size-fits-all program. There are choices to be made based upon a myriad of individual circumstances. Points to consider include 1) the length of the layoff, 2) complete let-down vs. a reduced program, and 3) easing into downtime vs. an immediate transition.
Layoff length "Any break is good, even a short one," explains Bednarek. "Just cutting back work to two days a week for a couple of weeks, or giving them two or three weeks off to completely let down, can do a lot for soundness of body and mind." Young horses in particular tend to need a longer break for mental development than older individuals.
Bednarek, Dowling, and Schofield prefer to let their horses down for two to three months. A longer break means it takes more time to return horses to form, but Schofield says that mental release makes it worth the effort.
"Some horses physically need more time to heal," explains Bednarek. "Injuries like sore backs, stifles, and hocks, for instance, can take longer to heal. As a trainer, I know that when the horse feels better, they ride better and train easier. When they're not hurting, they perform better."
Partial or complete letdown "If the show schedule and individual allow, some horses might mentally benefit from just being turned out and taken out of work entirely," Schofield says. That said, some people believe horses should still receive some sort of exercise. How much and whether exercise should relate to the horse's "job" or not is a decision based on the individual horse, discipline, and boarding/turnout situation.
Notes Schofield, "Most performance horses do best with a reduced workload in the off season that allows them to maintain a baseline level of fitness. For instance, working the horse twice weekly at a reduced duration and intensity means they don't have to start at square one again. Seasoned performers might require only minimal schooling to maintain their skills, as opposed to a young horse in training that might need to be worked more regularly in the off season."
For some horses, self-exercise during pasture turnout is enough. "I don't have to have a fitness program because I have eight horses turned out on 132 acres," says Dowling. "They get a lot of self-exercise, so they never completely let down. However, I do take advantage of the off season to cross-train with dressage at an indoor arena."
In management situations that afford little turnout or self-exercise, do some cross-training, Dowling suggests. "Use your time off to do something that's mentally different for the horse; something that is fun and gives some benefit. If he's a barrel horse, try some dressage. If he's a dressage horse, try some team penning."
Slow or quick transition "Horses are creatures of habit, and those that have been on a strict schedule or are very fit might take time mentally to 'come down,' " says Schofield. For this type of horse, reduce work slowly rather than just going cold turkey on the training.
As your horse makes the transition from the demands and stresses of the competition season to a more laid-back routine, you'll likely need to readjust his feeding protocol and possibly make shoeing changes. It's also a good time to implement wellness and prevention programs, if appropriate.
Changing nutrition "Horses should be fed to meet their immediate needs," states Carey A. Williams, PhD (equine nutrition), equine extension specialist at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey's Equine Science Center. "If horses aren't exercising, they shouldn't be fed like they are."
In most cases, horses on high-fat or other high-energy concentrate rations could probably decrease down to only a pound or two daily, Williams suggests. "Some horses might even be able to maintain their body weight on a good-quality hay alone," she says. (Hay should always be the largest portion of the diet and should never be what is compromised in the diet.) "The number or types of supplements your horse receives might need to be decreased or eliminated as well."
Decreasing the feed during a detraining period should always be done slowly. Says Williams, "If going from a diet of six to seven pounds of grain a day down to only one or two pounds, do this gradually over a period of two to three weeks. That way, it will not be as much of a shock to the horse's digestive system."
Because nutritional needs vary, monitor your horse's body condition as you decrease his rations; monitor his weight each week with a body weight tape and check his body conditioning score, adjusting portions or overall diet as needed.
Keep in mind that weather conditions can also influence what/how much you feed your horse. In Saskatchewan where the winters are very cold, Dowling actually has to increase her horses' roughage during the off season: "Digesting roughage is (one of the many body processes that) produces body heat," she notes. A high-roughage diet increases body heat load because of a higher heat output during digestion. On the flip side, if inclement weather leads to a week or more of stall confinement for a horse that's usually turned out, you'll need to temporarily decrease grain amounts to avoid excess energy.
At season's end when it's time to pick up the training, slowly increase rations as you increase your horse's training intensity.
Shoeing changes "If the horse can tolerate having his shoes pulled for a period during the year, this is the time to do it," says Schofield. "If horses are managed in an environment that is suitable for a barefoot lifestyle in the off season, pulling shoes may help the hoof walls and tissues expand and strengthen. Certain types of conditioning may be done with the horse barefoot, but this will depend on footing and the horse's discipline. When the horse is to be reshod, it should be done prior to resuming heavy training, unless the horse is managed barefoot for competition. There are some upper-level horses successfully competing barefoot, but this will depend on the traction and hoof support needed for a particular discipline.
"If shoeing changes are to be made, this may be a good time as well, in case the horse does not respond as predicted to the changes," she adds.
Prevention and wellness The beginning of the off season is a good time to pay attention to prevention and routine health care, as well as treat minor health or soundness problems put on hold until season's end.
If a horse needs medical attention such as hock injections, minor surgery, dental work, etc., do this as early in the season as possible. This provides the practitioner with more time to resolve refractory problems and allows the horse more time to recover before returning to training. Additionally, there is more time for a drug to clear the horse's system, thereby avoiding running afoul of a show organization's drug regulations.
Depending upon what you are protecting against, vaccinations and dewormers are often best administered during the off season rather than in the midst of competition or heavy training. Explains Schofield, "Muscle soreness or reactions to a vaccine can sometimes occur; obviously that would be undesirable before an event."
However, some diseases and parasites become more active prior to or during the competition season; for those situations, it's wise to time your preventive measures so they provide the greatest protection during the periods of the greatest transmission risk, regardless of your training or competition schedule.
Returning to the Ranks
Riders and trainers should allow time for reconditioning to avoid bringing horses back too quickly after an extended layoff, says Schofield. Rushing retraining can undo the benefits of a layoff by physically or mentally demanding more than the horse is prepped to give.
Again, how much conditioning and reschooling is needed and how far in advance of the show season retraining begins are individual considerations based on how much fitness, conditioning, and training was lost. Prior to the seven-month show season, Bednarek allows two or three months to bring his horses back. Dowling begins reconditioning for 100-mile endurance rides three months in advance of her first competition.
When planning for your horse's downtime and retraining, put the same amount of thought into your horse's individual circumstances during this season of rest as you do for planning his training and competition season. Making thoughtful decisions for your horse's off season will mean that his downtime is time spent well.
About the Author
Marcia King is an award-winning freelance writer based in Ohio who specializes in equine, canine, and feline veterinary topics. She's schooled in hunt seat, dressage, and Western pleasure.
POLL: University Equine Hospitals