Reconditioning After Layup

Reconditioning After Layup

Photo: The Horse Staff

Whether your horse has downtime for an injury or just a much-needed vacation, how you bring him back can dictate his eventual competitive success.

After any layup an athletic horse needs to be brought back to peak condition gradually. If time off was simply a vacation over winter, you can start the horse back into work at a lower level and increase the length and intensity of workouts. At the same time you must adjust the horse's feed as needed to address present body condition (too thin or too fat) as well as nutrient requirements for the increased work. If, however, the layoff was due to illness or injury, the horse might need a more careful return to fitness.

In this article we'll address a variety of reasons your horse might have been away from activity, whether for a short time or longer period. We'll also offer you advice from experts on steps to take that will allow you to safely bring your horse back to peak condition.

Simple Layoff

A horse that's been in shape before can be brought back to fitness more quickly/easily than a green horse can be conditioned for the first time, but the process still requires a fine-tuned feel for each horse's abilities and how much and how soon to increase his work.

Barney Fleming, DVM, of Custer, S.D., has been involved with endurance horses for many years, and he says some of the important considerations when reconditioning a horse are proper warm-up and cool-down, gradual increase in work (which includes climbing hills for developing peak cardiovascular fitness and wind), and making sure the horse always has enough water during long workouts to prevent dehydration.

"Warm-up can be brisk walking, alternating with a trot, or moving in circles to limber muscles and tendons," he says. Five to 10 minutes of warm-up gets the heart rate elevated a little, increases circulation to muscles, and increases respiration rate in preparation for faster work. A warm-up increases oxygen intake for muscles, stretches the tendons, and stimulates natural lubrication of joints to prevent injuries.

Proper cool-down afterward can prevent muscle stiffness and other problems. "To me, cool-down is of lesser importance because most animals do this themselves (walk around and roll, go to feed and water) unless they're put into a stall or tied," he says. A horse can be adequately cooled down at the end of a conditioning workout, however, if you drop to a slower speed before you end the workout. Horses that have been doing fast work can benefit from several minutes of trotting before they walk--since trotting keeps the blood circulating more--to bring overheated blood to the body surface for cooling.

"Heart rate can tell you when he's dropping back to normal resting range, and a heart monitor is helpful for this," says Fleming. "The most important time to check heart rate is on the cool-down since you don't want to put him away if his heart rate is still in the 85 to 100 range." (Normal resting heart rate is 36-44 beats per minute.)

If a horse is put away before he's fully cooled out, he'll generally break out in a sweat again, even if he was dry when you put him away.

To get a horse back into shape, he needs regular workouts. But you must be careful to not overdo it. A horse kept in a stall needs more careful reconditioning than a horse at pasture that can self-exercise. The latter animal will not lose as much fitness.

"If you learn to recognize when the horse is getting a little tired, conditioning is fairly easy; you just take it one step at a time--doing short, easy rides at first, and gradually increasing length and intensity," Fleming says. "It will take a couple weeks of riding every day or every other day to make progress. The physiology of muscles changing, burning off fat and replacing it with muscle, will start to increase the time increment before the horse tires."

Getting the heart and lungs back in shape takes longer than the time required for muscles to adjust to a greater workload and more stress, and bones and joints take longest. "The time factor also depends on terrain," he says. "Stick with easy, gentle terrain at first, then add more hill work after the horse starts to build fitness." Going up and down hills is one of the best tools for fitness conditioning; this works the body harder than speed work on the flat.

Watch for any signs of trouble to know if the horse is becoming fatigued or dehydrated, or if he has muscles tying up. "Also make sure he is urinating, passing manure, eating, and drinking," says Fleming. "If any of these functions stop, he has a problem."

After Injury

Many horses in strenuous sports have a forced layup on occasion--recuperation time after a sprain, strain, or some other athletic injury. Tom Scherder of Pegasus Equine Performance Center, a rehabilitation facility in Union, Ky., works primarily with racehorses, but he says the important aspects of reconditioning are the same for any athletic horse. In a reconditioning program he uses swimming and an Equi-Ciser as well as an exercise rider.

"The first thing I want to know is why the horse was laid off," notes Scherder. "Did the owner just want to give the horse time off from work to avoid physical or mental burnout? In that instance I don't have to worry about recovery from an injury.

"Whatever reason the horse was turned out, it may arrive at the rehab center overweight or underweight," he adds. "The nutritional issue must be addressed along with the exercise program. The horse may need feet or teeth taken care of if he's been at pasture for a while."

It's important that the owner have a veterinarian examine the horse prior to reconditioning, especially if the horse is to come back from an injury. "If the owner goes along with it, I like to have a chiropractor check/work on the horse at the beginning of a reconditioning program to make sure there are no underlying problems," he adds.

He also wants to know the level of fitness the owner expects the horse to achieve. Sometimes an owner wants the horse back in 30 to 45 days, and whether or not the level of fitness the owner wants is possible depends on the horse.

Often Scherder swims a horse to build up the cardiovascular system slowly. "We add another lap each day, if the horse can move up another lap," he notes. "If he hits a plateau, we may stay on 10 laps for three or four days until he shows me he can handle 10, and then he'll do 11. We gradually increase the laps so we don't overexert him, but we want a good cardiovascular workout. We take each horse at his own speed. If he's struggling, you don't push him; you do the same amount of laps the next day, and the next, and then all of a sudden he's able to do more.

"While we're doing this, we begin some ground work to start putting legs back under the horse, using an Equi-Ciser (a round pen with moving electronic gates) to let him jog," he says.

A racehorse might start out doing 10 minutes at a slow jog and by the time he's ready to go back to the track, Scherder says he should be swimming 20 laps, jogging for 30 minutes, and possibly carrying a weighted surcingle while jogging.

"A couple weeks before the horse goes back, we start putting someone on his back, doing an easy workout on our gallop track," he continues. "I have people riding these horses who can tell me if the horse is pushing off properly or not pushing off his hind legs or not using himself properly in the front end. Sometimes the horse is 'choppy,' and this (short, uneven gait) is important for us to know because we might have to step backward a little and try to solve these problems. This may have been a problem that caused the horse to be laid off in the first place."

He feels the pool and the Equi-Ciser are his two best tools for rehab reconditioning. Swimming allows the horse to maintain or regain fitness without the concussion of feet hitting the ground, especially if he has any kind of joint problem.

"The horse will keep his muscle tone until he's ready to go back to work on the ground," he notes. "When he's able to do that, the Equi-Ciser allows me to adjust the intensity and duration of the workout, since it's variable on time and speed. It also has a drag we can hook onto it to smooth the footing, and waters itself so the sand is always soft and uniform. This is especially important for knees. If I have a horse coming back from knee surgery, I try to make sure he never takes a bad step. When he comes out of stall rest following surgery, I hook a drag right in front of his slot on the Equi-Ciser so he never steps on anything but a perfect, uniform surface.

"We've had good success bringing horses back to condition after surgery," says Scherder. "We find out how soon the owner wants the horse back, how much the horse can take, how bad the injury was, and any other considerations."

Sometimes there are other issues, as when a horse is overweight at the start of the program. If a horse is 200 pounds overweight (after prolonged turnout, for instance), you can't just starve him to take the weight off. The horse needs energy for the work he's doing, and you have to slowly take his weight down as you gradually increase his workload. It might take 60 to 70 days to get the weight off and have the horse in peak condition. Make sure you work through this process under the supervision of a veterinarian.

Take-Home Message

Whether you gave your horse a short break during the "off" season, he got the whole winter at pasture, or he is recovering from an injury or surgery, the way he is reconditioned can be crucial to his progress in recovering to full athletic performance. Work closely with your veterinarian to ensure the horse is not encountering any physical problems, and that he is maintaining his weight appropriately during the reconditioning process.

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history from University of Puget Sound (1966). She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Some of her books include Understanding Equine Hoof Care, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Care and Management of Horses, Storey's Guide to Raising Horses and Storey's Guide to Training Horses. Besides having her own blog, www.heathersmiththomas.blogspot.com, she writes a biweekly blog at http://insidestorey.blogspot.com that comes out on Tuesdays.

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