Keeping Weekend Warrior Horses Fit

Horses that are mainly ridden on weekends require special care and training to avoid injury.

Some humans do it all the time: Pack a week's worth of activity into a weekend with pickup basketball games, long hikes, or marathon sessions at the gym. And while most people expect to pay for their exercise spurt with achy muscles, stiff joints, and risk of injury, many horse owners don't realize that their equine partners experience the same risks and discomforts after a long weekend on the trail or in the show ring.

According to Jose M. Garcia-Lopez, VMD, Dipl. ACVS, assistant professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, equine weekend warriors run the same risks for injury as humans, such as bone bruising, inflammation, and tendon and ligament damage. And just like humans, horses whose most strenuous activities take place on weekends require regular body conditioning in order to avoid injury and long-term damage.

"You wouldn't think of running a marathon without conditioning," says Garcia-Lopez, who focuses on equine sports medicine, orthopedic surgery, and respiratory issues at Tufts. "Even if you have a 'backyard horse,' you're asking him to be an athlete."

That's because so-called backyard horses are often asked to perform in a variety of disciplines, from dressage to jumping to three-day eventing to daylong trail rides. Each one of those endeavors puts stress on a horse's joints and soft tissues.

Problem Areas

Foot soreness A horse's feet can become sore with excessive exercise or with exercise over terrain that the horse is normally not conditioned on (i.e., hard or rocky ground). This is a common condition in the weekend warrior, and it occurs because the soft tissues of the foot are essentially encased in a hard shell that is composed of the hoof capsule and the sole plate.

Duncan Peters, DVM, MS, Certified ISELP (International Society of Equine Locomotor Pathology), heads the Sport Horse division at Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington, Ky. He notes, "If these soft tissues tissues of the foot (laminae, sensitive sole, blood vessels ) become inflamed from excessive pounding of the foot from the ground surface, these tissues swell within the rigid confines of the hoof and cause pain. There can be bruising or shearing effects that leads to soreness and lameness that can be difficult to control."

Muscles Peters describes muscle soreness as one of the most common issues seen in weekend warriors. "Sore muscles develop from overexertion and the buildup of metabolic byproducts that, then, lead to inflammation within the tissues," he explains. "Unfit horses are especially prone to this occurrence.

"Severe muscle inflammation, or 'tying-up' (exertional rhabdomyolysis), in the weekend warrior can lead to muscle tissue damage and the release of myoglobin (the oxygen-transporting pigment of muscle tissue), which is then taken into the bloodstream and filtered through the kidneys," he continues. "Unfortunately, myoglobin in large amounts can be toxic to the kidneys and cause potentially fatal consequences."

Joints Horses that work hard infrequently commonly develop sore joints. "The front leg fetlock and coffin joints, as well as the hind leg hock joints can become sore in the unfit horse with overdone exercise," notes Peters. "The supporting soft tissues of the joint (ligaments, joint capsule, and synovium) become inflamed due to the repetitive nature of the exercise and the tissues not conditioned enough for the load. This leads to pain, heat, and swelling of these joints and resulting stiffness or lameness of gait.

Located at the end of a horse's thigh, the stifle corresponds most closely to a human's knee. And like human knees, stifles carry significant weight when a horse moves--even at a walk. Garcia-Lopez explains, "You have a 1,000-pound animal, but the amount of weight coming down on the joint is really 3,000 pounds. That joint is not supposed to do the job by itself. The tendons, ligaments, and lower back (lumbar area) and gluteal (butt) muscles are there to support the joint."

Tendons and Ligaments When a horse's gluteal, lower back muscles, and other muscles are weak, the horse runs the risk of lameness due to bone inflammation and bruising. Likewise, when the ropelike soft tissue structures that connect muscles to bone (tendons) and bone to bone (ligaments) are overstressed, a horse is at risk for tendon and ligament tears. Tendons and ligaments tend to weaken and become prone to injury with repetitive overloading exercise. Over time, tiny tears can worsen to cause serious lameness issues in unfit horses.

Peters says, "The flexor tendons and the suspensory ligaments are the major tissues that can be damaged with overwork in the unfit horse. These are major supporting structures and frequently they will just develop some local soreness or heat if they are overstressed. This usually subsides in a few days with supportive care. If they are damaged significantly with fiber 'tearing,' then lameness and swelling are predominant signs. This can become a long-term problem, which may take months for healing and return to adequate function. A veterinarian can certainly help you assess the extent of the condition and the proper treatments."

Garcia-Lopez uses radiography and MRI to diagnose bone inflammation and bruising and other injuries. Conditions such as a slightly bowed tendon can be so subtle the horse's owner might not notice visible signs other than an obvious lameness. Still, horses have ways of letting their owners know when their joints, muscles, tendons, and ligaments are overstressed.

What Your Horse is Telling You

In additional to local soreness and heat, affected animals might adjust their gaits to compensate for bone bruising, such as avoiding a canter lead or consistently cross-cantering. "If you're cantering (on your usually calm, straightforward, obedient horse) and it feels like you're on a bucking bronco, or you need Velcro to stay in the saddle, your horse is telling you something is wrong," Garcia-Lopez notes.

If a horse hesitates to respond to a rider's call for a transition to another gait, pins his ears, or seems crabby, it could be the horse is telling the owner something is wrong physically. Don't just chalk it up to laziness or moodiness, even though these can sometimes be the cause.

"People who know their horses know their moods and characteristics," Garcia-Lopez explains. "They should notice these signals."

If inflammation occurs, veterinarians might prescribe cold therapy, support bandages (for inflamed joints), medications (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as phenylbutazone, or Bute) in limited doses that might reduce inflammation and discomfort, and rest. "A conversation with your veterinarian may benefit to determine more specific approaches to decrease the the soreness in the joints," notes Peters. "Treatment with cold ice baths, bandages, and medications can help to reduce the inflammation and soreness within the hoof."

Garcia-Lopez advises horse owners to consider their horses' body conditions relative to physical exercise in the same way they do their own. That means adopting and sticking to a consistent schedule of exercise.

Get Moving!

Even though pastured horses move an average of four miles a day, they are probably not challenging their muscles, ligaments, and tendons enough to gain the strength and flexibility necessary to prepare for strenuous weekend activities. Horses that spend the majority of their time in stalls are even more in need of conditioning.

"Even if stalled horses get regular turnout, they aren't going to move enough outdoors to build the muscles in their backs and glutes or condition their tendons and ligaments," Garcia-Lopez says. "Even though it's a matter of (finding) time for most people, owners should regularly exercise their horses three or four times a week for 30 to 45 minutes each time."

Flatwork--riding at the walk, trot, and canter--helps build muscle, especially in horse's hindquarters. Meanwhile, ask your horse to climb small hills or move over ground poles or cavallettis to strengthen tendons and ligaments. Garcia-Lopez recommends that owners ride their horses during exercise sessions whenever possible. "Longeing is useful, but it's better to work your horse with the pressure of the saddle and rider," he says.

Don't Overdo

Peters notes, "It is important to not overdo the exercise on an unfit horse if it is only exercised intermittently." However owners exercise their horses, it's important they are mindful that they are in charge of regulating workout duration and intensity. Pushing horses too far or too fast during exercise sessions can cause the very injuries owners are working to prevent.

"If you or I were walking to exercise, we could regulate how long and how far we would walk," Garcia-Lopez says. However, he reminds us, we are in charge of the workout duration and difficulty. "Don't go all out the first time you work out your horse."

While regular workouts are crucial, there's more to a weekend warrior's body conditioning than exercise, according to Carey Williams, PhD, equine management specialist and associate director of the Equine Science Center at Rutgers University. Horses require a sensible diet to perform safely and well.

"Most weekend warrior horses are light-working horses. Some actually need to lose weight in order to tolerate increased exercise," Williams says. "But many people think their horses are being exercised more than they are and need more calories than they really do."

Williams advises owners against adding calories and protein to a horse's diet during show, eventing, and trail riding seasons. Horses consuming high-quality hay and good pasture are already getting the 8% to 10% protein they require to maintain body weight even when activity levels rise.

"I advise that owners know the content of their hay and understand the Henneke body condition system (download a free chart by going to before adding protein or calories to their horses' diets," Williams says.

Peters summarizes how to avoid common weekend warrior injuries: "First, have your horse conditioned adequately for the task at hand. Secondly, rest frequently if you start to recognize your horse is getting tired from the work. Get off and walk beside your horse for the remainder of a trail ride or stop the activity if at a competitive event. Thirdly, try to encourage your horse to drink in order to rehydrate and aid in kidney function for the removal of metabolic byproducts. Fourthly, eating will help replenish essential electrolytes and nutrients for muscle tissue repair and, ultimately, decreased soreness."

After the Workout

Well-fed, well-conditioned weekend warriors typically step into the trail riding and show seasons with ease. But their special care shouldn't end at the trailer or after the last competition class. Like their human counterparts, horses' heart rates and muscles need to return to resting levels after strenuous exercise. Walking horses for 15 to 30 minutes after a long ride, a strenuous class, or a day of showing helps return body temperatures and heart rates to normal levels and prevents stiffness by maintaining blood flow to muscles.

"The heart rate will come down within five minutes, but you still don't want to put a horse in a stall where he's going to do nothing and probably become stiff," says Garcia-Lopez.

After a cool-down, owners can also use grooming or massage techniques to help horses relax, keep muscles supple, and prevent post-activity stiffness. Post- activity massage encourages horses' muscles to release lactic acid, the enzyme compound that causes the "burn" that horses and humans feel during strenuous exercise.

Deep equine massage is best left to professional practitioners, but owners can easily learn and perform basic massage, says certified massage therapist Jill Deming, MA, of Integrated Animal Therapies in Spotsylvania, Va.

Massage is no substitute for appropriate veterinary care for a horse whose owner suspects has sustained performance-related or other injuries. But performed regularly, massage can help maintain soft tissue conditioning levels achieved during regular workouts and mitigate post-activity stress on muscles, ligaments, and tendons.

"Horses really tighten up once you take the saddle off," Deming says. "Massaging their lower back and in the rump area loosens up those muscles."

Owners can massage their horses' backs and hindquarters by applying gentle pressure as they move their index, middle, and ring fingers together in clockwise small circles to relax muscle surfaces. Scratching back and forth along both sides of the spine also promotes relaxation and invites horses to stretch their backs.

To encourage horses to stretch their legs after a strenuous workout, lift the horse's leg about three inches off the ground while applying light resistance against the leg. "You're not pulling on the leg, you're setting a resistance limit. Eventually, the horse will push beyond the limit and stretch his leg," Deming says.

The technique can be applied to all four legs, but Deming warns the degree of leg elevation is key to avoiding injury.

"Lifting the leg more than three inches will push the front leg, for example, right into the horse's shoulder," Deming says. "So, you have to be in a squatting--not standing--position to perform this technique."

Take-Home Message

Garcia-Lopez cautions owners to use common sense whenever they ask their horses to perform, even after a short period of inactivity. Avoid marathon trail rides, multiday events, and long days at horse shows early in the season. Stay consistent with training and fitness regimens even after horses become accustomed to regular weekend activity schedules. Maintain weekly body conditioning workouts during the off-season.

"Horses are magnificent, beautiful creatures," Garcia-Lopez says, "and they're not fragile. But they do need care if they're going to be able to accomplish all the things we ask them to do."

About the Author

Pat Raia

Pat Raia is a veteran journalist who enjoys covering equine welfare, industry, and news. In her spare time, she enjoys riding her Tennessee Walking Horse, Sonny.

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