Optimizing Dressage Horses' Bodies for Peak Performance

Plan to give horses ample time between skill sessions that require muscle strength training (i.e., practicing piaffe or pirouette, seen here) for their muscles to recover—at least two days.

Photo: FEI/Arnd Bronkhorst/Pool Pic/Livepic

When your dancing partner has four legs and a mind of his own, it's not easy to perform at your best every time you enter the dressage arena. But riders can take steps to ensure their mounts' bodies are ready to perform at their peaks when their turn in the spotlight comes.

At the 2014 British Equine Veterinary Association Congress, held Sept. 10-13 in Birmingham, U.K., Rachel Murray, MA, VetMB, MS, PhD, Dipl. ACVS, ECVS, MRCVS, reviewed factors that can cause poor performance in dressage horses and how riders can help keep their mounts performing at their peaks. Murray is the senior orthopedic advisor at the Animal Health Trust, in Newmarket, England; has served as a veterinary surgeon for the British dressage and show jumping teams; and is an upper-level dressage rider.

What are we Dealing With?

High-level dressage horses generally range in age from 8 to 16 years and are the result of substantial time and effort on the part of the rider, trainer, owner, and health care teams, Murray said. Thus, it's no surprise that owners, riders, and trainers want to keep these horses competing as long as possible.

That said, dressage is a sport that requires the horse to have both skill and power and places substantial impact on the horse's muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Fatigue of any of these structures—often brought on by the repetitive movements that are commonplace in the dressage arena—can lead to reduced performance, incoordination, and injury.

She cautioned that "elite athletes are incredibly able to cope with subtle injury," so it's important for veterinarians to educate owners, trainers, riders, and grooms on what to watch for.

Maintaining Performance

"There are three reasons for a dressage horse not to win," Murray said. "They're not good enough, they're not well-enough prepared, or they're injured."

She said that in a review of dressage horses, 33% of injuries were lameness-related, while about 20% were related to back pain.

So how can we keep dressage horses performing at peak level? Murray shared some steps to take to maintain performance.

Veterinary problems "Repetitive overload injury is a major problem in dressage horses and is one of the frequent limitations for performance," Murray said. Therefore, she said, it's important for owners, riders, and trainers to detect subclinical problems as early as possible so they can provide the appropriate veterinary care.

She also noted that respiratory problems have been shown to increase dressage horses' lameness risk, so monitor dressage horses for signs of respiratory disease carefully and provide these animals with an environment designed to promote respiratory health.

Training Don't base your training schedule solely on perfecting your dressage test. Although dressage horses' heart rates generally remain low compared to horses competing in some other disciplines, these animals are still athletes that require a careful balance of strength, endurance, fitness, flexibility, and skill training to prepare their bodies for competition.

"Core muscle development is vital to perform the required skills and provide a stable support platform for the rider and (their own) limbs, which is increasingly important with greater extravagance of movement," she said.

Murray recommends including hacking and working on varying surfaces in a dressage horse's training regimen.

Photo: Thinkstock

Murray recommends including both stable exercises (such as carrot stretches and dynamic mobility exercises) and groundwork in dressage horses' training regimen, as well as cross-training, jumping, hacking, and working on varying surfaces. Additionally, she said, plan to give horses ample time between skill sessions that require muscle strength training (i.e., practicing piaffe or pirouette) for their muscles to recover—at least two days. Skill training builds neural pathways, coordination, and muscle memory so it is important the muscles are not too tired or stiff to be able to perform a movement correctly without incoordination or injury. Additionally, she said, results from one study showed that turnout was not a risk factor for injury; rather, this provides another exercise option.

During the competition season it's important to create a training schedule that helps the horse peak at the time of each event without overtraining and, thus, increasing injury risk, Murray said. Vary the training routine as described, and be sure not to overwork the horse in the days preceding the competition. This could leave him fatigued when he's meant to be performing at his best.

Tack While it might seem obvious to ensure your horse's tack fits properly, Murray stressed that the horse/rider/tack interaction is crucial for both the horse's and rider's posture and movement. She encouraged veterinarians to reassess the saddle frequently to ensure its fit has not changed because of changes in the horse’s muscle development or posture.

Shoeing Base a horse's shoeing protocol on his gaits, the surface he'll be competing on, and the level that he's performing at, Murray said, and aim to compete in the middle of the shoeing cycle.

Nutrition The adage says, "you are what you eat," but a dressage horse will only perform as well as his diet allows him to. Murray said it's important to consider muscle development, energy release, travel, and nutrition-related health issues—such as gastric ulcers and metabolic problems—when designing a dressage horse's diet. Aim to strike a balance between starch, fat, and fiber tailored to the individual horse to optimize performance and behavior; ensure you're feeding good-quality forage; and ensure your horse's nutrient intake is balanced. She also stressed the importance of feeding the same forage and concentrates when traveling as you do at home, so as not to disrupt the horse's hindgut bacterial balance.

Plan your warm-up carefully to optimize your horse's performance and avoid muscle fatigue from repetition

Photo: Erica Larson, News Editor

Warm-Up Careful management doesn't stop once you've arrived at the competition. Murray said it's important to plan your warm-up carefully to optimize your horse's performance and avoid muscle fatigue from repetition. For example, it might make a rider to feel better to practice the pirouette or one-tempi lead changes repeatedly in the warm-up, but this could cause muscle fatigue and ultimately decrease a horse's performance once he enters the arena, she said.

The warm-up's duration and intensity will depend largely on the individual horse, the stage of the competition, the weather, and the type of venue, among other factors, she said.

Take-Home Message

Keeping a dressage horse performing at his peak requires a multifaceted approach that includes factors such as management techniques, training plans, shoeing, nutrition, tack, travel, arena surfaces, warm-up and cool-down, and veterinarian and physiotherapist interaction, Murray said. Owners, trainers, and grooms must be committed to maintaining a dressage horse for the long-term and able to rapidly detect and report any problems to their veterinarian or farrier.

About the Author

Erica Larson, News Editor

Erica Larson, news editor, holds a degree in journalism with an external specialty in equine science from Michigan State University in East Lansing. A Massachusetts native, she grew up in the saddle and has dabbled in a variety of disciplines including foxhunting, saddle seat, and mounted games. Currently, Erica competes in eventing with her OTTB, Dorado.

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