The Art of R&R

It has taken months of preparation for this moment. You've done the roadwork, marched your horse up and down hills, put in miles on the training track, added the speed and agility sessions, plugged in that heart rate monitor, and assessed your horse's growing fitness by the numbers and by feel. And the hard work and dedication you've put into it have paid off--your horse just successfully completed the big event you'd been aiming him for all those months, and he has come out of it with four good legs and nary a scratch elsewhere.

Now what?

Most people who train for high-performance events--be they eventing, endurance, polo, reining, combined driving, racing, etc.--agree that horses benefit from some quality down time after a maximum effort. The British call it "roughing off," and they schedule it for the end of the foxhunting season when their mounts get turned out on grass and aren't touched with an item of tack for at least a month or two. Most upper-level event horses receive similar treatment after the completion of a three-day event. Racehorses generally get briefer reprieves, unless an injury forces an extended rest--a week or two on pasture and they're back in training before they start to lose fitness and focus.

What's the real benefit of "letting down" a performance horse, and what's the best way to go about it? Do you just go from hours of daily training directly to pasture potato? Or is there a smarter, safer way to schedule recovery time? We talked to trainers in three different disciplines to get their perspectives.

Backing Off, Not Shutting Down

Canadian Equestrian Team member Chelan Kozak of Abbotsford, British Columbia, has competed at the international level of three-day eventing since her early 20s. Now 34, she recently moved up to the advanced level of eventing competition with her latest prospect, the Thoroughbred gelding Rhodes Scholar.

Like most eventers, Kozak believes in the value of R&R for her upper-level horses, especially after the stresses of a three-day event (as opposed to a one-day or weekend horse trials competition, which is less demanding). Once an event horse reaches the intermediate level, his routine might consist of a number of horse trials leading up to a three-day competition in the spring, and a similar routine in the fall. This leaves a period in the summer months--and again as winter descends--for some mental and physical downtime.

"There's definite benefit for both body and brain in having to do less for a while," Kozak says. "My usual routine, though, is not to give them a lot of time off--especially with the Thoroughbreds, who like to be kept busy. They get bored easily and often that leads to them damaging themselves in the paddock! So, I don't just come home from a three-day and toss them out in the field, unless there's a soundness problem post-competition that needs time to address. Instead, I find that light activity is better than none for these horses. I take the pressure off and just hack them along trails, or do some light dressage--whatever they find relaxing, which varies a little from horse to horse."

For an older campaigner, keeping busy might be especially important, both because the routine is familiar and comforting to them, and because an older horse might struggle to regain his former fitness level if let down completely. Kozak's former international partner Soweto, who competed at the advanced level until a bowed tendon ended his career at age 16, thrived on steady work through his teenage years.

Kozak adjusts her downtime expectations depending on the level at which the horse is competing. "A young horse who's competing at the preliminary level might only get one or two weeks on a reduced schedule after completing a three-day, or one-star, then get cruising again. If you're dealing with a horse (competing) at the lower levels, there's not the scenario of the peak fitness of an upper-level three-day horse, but he still may need a mental break. A lot of riders use December for this--there's a lot of family stuff going on then, typically, so it's a convenient time to let the horse chill out."

With her upper-level horses, however, Kozak prefers to keep them in light work throughout the winter months. "I don't have time to take two months off, and honestly, I don't know too many people whose dressage is so good they can afford not to keep working on it!" she says with a laugh. But she doesn't start in on the fitness work, the galloping, and the serious jumping until February or March, depending on when the first event is.

"I give horses at the intermediate and advanced levels a good two weeks off after a three-day event, because what they're doing is more strenuous," says Kozak. "After a big (advanced level) three-star, I might schedule up to a month of light activity, of which maybe only the first week is turnout with no work at all.

"After that I take them hacking, do flat work, and assess where they are mentally," she continues. "For me, that's a big thing. Cross-country at the three- and four-star levels is really tough on them, so it's important to keep an ear to the ground regarding their attitudes. I want to make sure they still want to play the game, that they haven't been put off by the big course they've just done, that they're mentally fresh and confident."

Assessing the physical condition of an event horse after competition is also a major factor. "Just because you passed the jog (the final veterinary inspection at a three-day event) on Sunday doesn't mean there are no physical problems to address," she says. "Even if my horse appears to be fine after a three-day, I still make a point of jogging him on pavement every week or two at home, to highlight any soundness issues that might be brewing."

Kozak points out that adjusting the diet is also a key factor in letting down a competition horse. "Event horses at the upper levels are super fit, and you're just pounding feed into them to fuel that performance," Kozak says. "You have to be careful to adjust that diet after the competition, increasing the amount of fiber and fat, and reducing the carbohydrates. Otherwise, it can be hard to keep flesh on the Thoroughbreds, and the non-Thoroughbreds get too fat!

"I feed beet pulp, corn oil, and as much hay or pasture as they'll eat (after competition)," she adds. "In fact, my horses all get tons of turnout time year-round; it's an important part of their quiet time. If I'm in a place where I can't turn them out as much as I'd like, I keep them hacking on a regular basis as a stress-reliever."

One thing Kozak has found she doesn't have to worry about is bringing her horses back to their previous fitness level in preparation for the next three-day. "Once they've gotten really fit, they come back so fast it astonishes me--especially the Thoroughbreds," she says. "Even if they've got some soundness issues after a three-day and they need some time off, don't panic. They're really only two weeks away from horse trials fitness, I find!"

An Enduring Routine

Gayle Ecker, B.Ed., MSc, education coordinator at the Equine Research Centre in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, and a noted exercise physiology researcher, has both a personal and professional passion for the sport of endurance riding. Ecker has observed horses competing at the highest levels of endurance sport, and she notes that while little or no research has been done to explore optimal post-competition routines for these athletes, the riders seem to know what works.

"There's virtually no research out there, but the consensus is that the best approach is to do something similar to what a human athlete does," says Ecker. "That is, after the competition, you gradually decrease the amount of work the horse is doing over a three- to four-week period, depending on the level of fitness you started with. By week four, you might have cut back to just riding three days a week, gradually decreasing the demands. I want to emphasize that none of this is based on research--it's just what riders I've talked to have found works."

Ecker says most endurance riders don't let their horses down completely. "They'll schedule three to four 100-mile competitions a year for their best horses, and use a 'staircase' model to bring their horses to peak fitness and then to bring them back down again," she says. By staircase, Ecker means a program that alternates light-, medium-, and high-intensity workouts in the course of a week. After a major competition (and the inevitably stressful trailer ride home), she likes to give her horses a couple of days of complete rest and turnout, followed by a light workout--in some cases, just a gentle trail ride at a walk. The day after this might include what would be a moderate workout for that horse, followed by another light day, and so on.

She says letting a horse down gradually seems to be much safer than just putting them out in the pasture. "A horse like this is used to energy expenditure and needs time--mentally and physically--to adjust to a slower lifestyle," Ecker adds. "If you just throw a horse like this out in the field, it can lead to all sorts of anxious behaviors--running the fenceline, cribbing, and so forth."

It's critically important to monitor your horse through this letting-down period, she emphasizes. Like Kozak, Ecker believes that soundness problems can sometimes manifest themselves only after the fact--and they might be easy to miss if you've just pulled your horse's shoes and chucked him out in a field.

"You need to know your horse's legs so well you could recognize them blindfolded," she says.

Also essential is a change in feed, which for an endurance horse might mean backing off on the feeding of supplemental levels of fat, which fuels long-distance performance but can leave a recuperating animal "ballooning," in Ecker's words. She has found that a sudden change in routine and feed can lead to colic, so both work level and diet should be altered gradually.

Endurance horses are fortunate, Ecker says, in terms of the way they're managed with the understanding that time off is pivotal for long-term soundness and performance. She compares her sport with the harness racing industry, noting that, "Standardbreds are just expected to perform all year at 100% fitness. A lot of them race once a week, every single week, which explains in part the high incidence of breakdowns. It's important to understand that no horse can maintain peak fitness 100% of the time. They can't maintain it forever and stay sound--the longer you try to keep that peak, the more you risk injury. They need recovery time, and then you can bring them back up to that peak again."

A Polo Perspective

High-energy polo ponies benefit from some time off just as much as other kinds of performance horses, says David Wayne, who cares for a string of 42 in his capacity as general manager of Foxden Farm in Gormley, Ontario. "Our tournament season is about four months long, so we start legging them up about eight weeks ahead. Then the play tends to start off gently, gets very intense by the middle of the summer, and then winds down somewhat toward September, when it's starting to get cool again. Most of the ponies are so wound up by the end of the season, they really need some pasture time."

Wayne says that most polo people just cut the horses' grain off and kick them out on pasture, "but we've found it's better to bring them down gradually. Post-season, we take them for walks. I might ride one and pony five or six others--when you have 42 to deal with, you find ways to be efficient! When a pony has been playing hard for months, he's less likely to get stiff if you keep him moving."

A couple of weeks of the walking routine then leads to the pasture gate at Foxden. Hind shoes are pulled and grain is cut back or eliminated. "They may run around like hell with their buddies for the first hour, but then they put their heads down and graze and hardly come up for air after that," says Wayne. "When they're playing, they don't see grass much, so it's very relaxing for them--and the grass is less rich in September, so it's an ideal time to put them out there. I don't see any digestive problems as a rule; horses are pretty tough and adaptable. Ours are out 24 hours a day when they're resting."

R&R can last for up to six months for the Foxden polo ponies, or it might be cut short after only two months for the horses scheduled to play in Florida during the winter months. Wayne feels strongly, however, that some degree of downtime is essential. "Managing the horses is an art, not a science, and everyone's got their own theories," says Wayne. "But I know you can't just keep them at it all the time. They have to have time to be horses."

Lessons Learned

Regardless of the discipline in which your horse gives his all, he'll experience fitness as a cycle, not a plateau. Just as conditioning needs to be built upon gradually--adding layers of strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular capacity over time--he'll need time for the accumulated stresses that go with increasing work to resolve themselves. And as all three of our trainers have noted, downtime is as important for mental recovery as it is for physical healing.

So when you're plotting your horse's show or race season, remember he's not a machine. Along with those competitive goals, you need to budget in some vacation time. Not every person finds the same sort of vacation relaxing--some prefer just to lie on a beach, while others are happier when they keep busy. The same can be said of horses. You'll figure out what works best for your horse over time. The payoff will be a healthier, more enthusiastic equine athlete whose competitive lifespan has been extended by your care and consideration.

About the Author

Karen Briggs

Karen Briggs is the author of six books, including the recently updated Understanding Equine Nutrition as well as Understanding The Pony, both published by Eclipse Press. She's written a few thousand articles on subjects ranging from guttural pouch infections to how to compost your manure. She is also a Canadian certified riding coach, an equine nutritionist, and works in media relations for the harness racing industry. She lives with her band of off-the-track Thoroughbreds on a farm near Guelph, Ontario, and dabbles in eventing.

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