In 2017, The Journal of Equine Veterinary Science published a review article titled Objectives, Principles and Methods of Strength Training for Horses. It is a significant article when you consider that sport horse training is largely based on subjective judgement and traditional training methods with surprisingly very little scientific influence. Such empirical training methods are used by the professional and amateur rider alike. The article presented a summary of current literature but stated that further research is required in this area.
You can read Equestology's summary of this article below. There are some really interesting concepts covered and we present this summary as a tool to help you review your own training program in a very deliberate fashion. It starts with a review of the principles of training and then covers some specific strength training exercises. It is not a short article, so make a coffee and give yourself plenty of time to sit and read it!
Preparation of the horse for competition involves conditioning and schooling. Conditioning induces physiological and structural adaptations that maximise performance and help to maintain soundness, whereas schooling develops neuromuscular co-ordination and mental discipline. The main objectives of horse training are:
- To minimise the incidence of injuries or metabolic disorders.
- To delay the onset of fatigue through improved cardiovascular and respiratory capacity as well as musculoskeletal development.
- To improve skills or work capacity.
- To improve or maintain maximum performance preparing the horse for competition.
- To maintain willingness and enthusiasm for exercise.
The emphasis placed on each of the above objectives will depend on the individual characteristics of the horse (temperament, ability, conformation etc) and the discipline for which he/she is being prepared. For example, a show jumper will require a greater focus on skill set and strength than a horse being trained for endurance events where an improvement in stamina is the main aim.
The Seven Principles to Consider When Formulating a Training Plan.
1. Avoid or minimise the incidence of injuries.
3. Progressive Loading.
1. To avoid or minimise the incidence of injuries
Exercise induced injury is the main factor that results in the failure of an equine athlete to train, to compete and to perform. One of the major goals for training horses is to increase musculoskeletal strength so as to prevent injuries. Injury results when the load applied to a structure exceeds its capacity to sustain it. So in order to reduce injury, the structure is required to increase its ability to sustain load. In general, soft tissues such as skeletal muscle and cardiac muscle are highly malleable and are significantly and rapidly improved by training. However, tendons, bones and joints take longer to improve. Thus, in order to avoid injury, trainers need to take into consideration the time required for the horse's different tissues to adapt to training.
The basic principle of training is that a single exercise session leads to fatigue and mild cellular damage which in turn results in short term adaptive responses.
For training to be effective, there must be some degree of overreaching. Overreaching refers to the performance of an activity at sufficient intensity and duration to induce some strain. If the training stimulus is not intense enough there will be no adaptation. However if there is not enough time for recovery between training sessions, such overreaching can lead to what is known as overtraining.
Overtraining is defined as a loss in athletic performance despite the maintenance of an increase in training intensity. Overtraining occurs when training is too vigorous and/or rest periods between training sessions are too short.
For most horse trainers there is a delicate balance between attaining and maintaining peak fitness and overtraining. There is no set formula as each horse can be quite different. For this reason, it is important to identify signs of overtraining as early as possible. Symptoms of overtraining may include joint swelling, reduced appetite, weight loss, behavioural changes, and a reluctance to exercise. Poor performance is also observed in overtrained horses.
On the other hand, when the load of training is not enough or where there is a lack of training, another condition, known as detraining, occurs. Interestingly research in detraining in endurance horses has shown that maintenance of trained muscle characteristics during inactivity is more prolonged in horses than other athletic species. Trained muscle characteristics will last last throughout 5-6 weeks of inactivity although not beyond 12 weeks.
To ensure that fitness levels are being attained, maintained and increased, heart rate monitoring is useful. Increases in fitness are reflected in decreases in heart rate during sub maximal exercise and also in the reduction in the time that it takes for the heart rate to return to normal post a training session. (In the university setting maximum oxygen uptake, VO2 max, is a gold standard in the measurement of aerobic capacity. Blood lactate levels have also been measured.)
3. Progressive loading
The basis of any training program is to provide incremental increases in workload to improve performance through continual adaptation. So how do we increase workload? The usual progression of a conditioning program is to maintain a low intensity of exercise in the early stages of the training (i.e. when the horses are young or returning to work) and increase the duration.
The next phase involves maintaining or reducing the duration as the intensity increases. The intensity of exercise depends on the amount of energy expended over a period of time. Heart rate can be used to assess intensity.
In the final phases the program becomes more sport specific, mimicking the competition.
Periodisation is described as the purposeful sequencing of different training units (long duration, medium duration, and short-term training cycles and sessions) so that the horse and rider can attain the desired skill set and fitness levels relating to a specific goal. Periodisation entails the systematic process of altering one or more program variables over time to allow for the training stimulus to remain challenging and effective.
The article talked about using the Olympic or WEG cycle to formulate a 4 year training plan. However, you could substitute any long term goal you like and then break it down into stepping stone goals. When training a horse, as opposed to just riding, we should have a specific goal in mind i.e. a competition or event. From there we work backwards formulating a training program that relates to the acquisition of required skills and fitness relating to the the overall goal. The plan must also factor in recovery time.
Obviously each horse and horse/rider combination is a unique unit and the individual temperament, skill, age, history of injury, competition schedule, available resources, and goals need to be taken into account when devising a training plan.
Specificity means that the the type of work must emulate the competitive event in which the horse will later be required to participate
In order to prepare a horse adequately for competition, the horse should regularly perform the type of activity that it will perform in competition, at an intensity that will induce the physiological changes needed to permit optimal performance. Specificity of training signals bone, soft tissue and the cardiovascular system to adapt in a fashion that will prepare the horse for the rigors of competition.
The use of cross training or other exercises that are not specific for your discipline can also be of benefit if used with a targeted purpose in mind. i.e. cavalletti work for dressage horses to encourage a more expressive gait.
When designing a training session or formulating a training plan for the season, the trainer needs to consider the horse as a whole. For example, it only takes about a month to develop a significant amount of aerobic and cardiovascular fitness in horses. Building up strength in tendons and bones often takes longer. In order to develop a durable athlete we need to dedicate the necessary amount of time to develop fitness in all parts of the horse so as to avoid injury. Furthermore, when training a horse we need to also consider its psychological state. A horse may be ready for the physical demands of competition but will it be able to cope with the psychological demands? This is often the reason horses are out competing at a level that belies that which they are training at home. For optimal individual performance, horses must be in peak physical condition and have the correct psychological state in order to perform at their best.
STRENGTH TRAINING IN HORSES
Use the following "workout plans" to achieve your desired outcome. Specific strength training exercises appear in the next section.
Training for muscle maximal strength: 1-6 repetitions of each exercise performed relatively slowly at more than 85% of the maximal strength of your horse. This is done for 3-6 sets with a rest interval of 1-3 minutes between sets.
Training to increase lean muscle: 1-3 sets consisting of 6-12 repetitions relatively slowly at 67-85% of maximum intensity with 1-3 minute rest periods between sets. An example of this type of strength training would be setting up a jumping course of relatively easy hight and difficulty and repeat the course three times.
Training for muscle power: The aim is to improve a muscle groups explosive power and is useful for eventers and jumpers. It involves doing1-3 sets of 1- 2 repetitions of each exercise at maximum speed at 70-90% of the maximal strength of your horse. A rest period of 2-3 minutes between sets is recommended.
Training for muscular endurance: this kind of training helps muscles to be able to keep performing a movement for a prolonged period. This is the type of strength that is the most specific for performance horses. Training for muscular endurance involves 1-3 sets of 12 repetitions at a controlled speed with short rest periods between sets.
Strength Training Exercises:
1. Hill work
Gradients are the foundation of equine strength training. Working a horse on a hill makes use of the effects of gravity to selectively load the hind limbs on an incline or the forelimbs on a decline. Furthermore, a hill challenge strengthens the horses body muscles and helps improve balance and stamina. It can also be beneficial to work across a slope, especially in horses which are asymmetrical as this can help strengthen the weaker side.
It is recommended, as with other types of exercise, that hill work is incorporated gradually into the exercise routine (progressive loading principle) starting with a small number of repetitions on a gentle slope and incrementally increasing the work by performing a larger number of repetitions or by including steeper gradients. The appropriate work to rest ratio is 1:6 in which bounding up the gradient is the work and descending at a walk is the rest period.
2. Cavalleti or Pole work
Cavalleti work requires a horse to lift the legs higher, arch the back and stretch the neck. This results in both the loosening and strengthening of muscles whilst improving suppleness and flexibility. By engaging the hind quarters impulsion is increased.
Poles can either be set in straight lines or around the perimeter of a circle. Furthermore the horse can be worked with or without the rider.
Pole work is useful in the training of young horse whether they have a dressage or jumping career ahead of them.
The lowest height of most cavalletti is 15-20 cm which is best for walk or trot and the highest setting at 50 cm is ideal for canter. At the walk the ideal distance is approx 0.8m and for trot approx 1.3m between cavalletti.
3. Gymnastic Jumping
Gymnastic jumping is a highly sport specific strength training method. By adjusting the height and the width of the fences and the distances between them, the trainer can improve not only the horse's muscular strength but also its mental and physical agility.
There are two key criteria for using gymnastic jumping as a strength training tool.
1. The horse must be familiar with the technical skill required (First principle of horse training: avoid or minimise the incidence of injuries).
2. Sufficient repetitions must be performed to stimulate muscular adaptation.
This method of training should be used at least once a week even for experienced jumpers in order to maintain the strength of the musculoskeletal system.
Follow the repetition and sets with appropriate recovery times outlined earlier.
For sports that require a high degree of collection, employ small fences (70-80cm high) set at bounce distances (which creates a shortening-stretch cycle) so that the horse lands and then takes off again immediately, without adding a stride.
If the development of muscular power is required (i.e. show jumpers, eventers) the use of a series of small fences (60-90cm high) leading to two or three large fences at the end of the grid is effective and it also prepares the horse for jumping through combinations.
As when training hills, if a horse's strength is very one sided, the jump can be set on a curve because at take off, the inside leg is selectively loaded, which helps increase the strength on that side of the body.
Both uphill and downhill steps can be incorporated into a strength training program. A particularly useful exercise is one in which the horse jumps down a drop followed immediately by jumping up a step.
4. Different surfaces/Deep footing.
Exercise in deep footing like water, sand, snow or long grass creates resistance in thigh and pectoral muscles. Slow and careful conditioning accustoms a horse to deep footing, preventing tendon strain. Such exercises should be introduced very carefully and at a slow pace.
Water treadmills probably offer a better alternative to deep sand or snow as the footing is more stable and the the risk of slipping is reduced. Water treadmills also result in exercise of the joints through a greater range of motion resulting in an additional benefit as a suppling exercise.
5. Calisthenic Exercises
In humans, calisthenics improves strength through a variety of movements such as push ups, pull ups and setups which use bodyweight as resistance. In horses, an example of this type of strengthening exercise is when we train the horse to accept bit contact. When the horse is "on the bit" the horse's neck and back is arched by activation of the muscles of the top line and the weight of the head provides the resistance. In this way, the neck and back muscles are progressively strengthened.
Designing a Strength Training Program
In the annual conditioning cycle, the ideal time to improve strength is during the off season. The gains in strength can then be maintained through the competition season by a single workout each week.
The author recommended;
Jumpers: 1 day gymnastic jumping, 1 day hills, 1 day regular jumping
For an advanced eventer during pre-season: 1 day of cavalletti, 1 day regular jumping, 1 day gymnastic jumping and 2 days of hill work.
Endurance horse: 2 days of suppling exercises (dressage) 1 day of hills
A program was not given for dressage horses.
Castejon-Riber C, Riber C, Rubio M, Agüera E, Muñoz A, Objectives principles and methods of strength training for horses. J Equine Vet Sci 2017:56:93-103