Thursday, February 7, 2008

Discussion: Conditioning, it's not just for your hair!

A discussion on the MB led me to this post, which is actually something I've been meaning to talk about here for a while. One of the things that horrifies me most in the horse world is the number of people who simply do not know squat (or seem to care) about equine conditioning. A horse, like a human being, can't just come out of a pasture and go right to work. Depending on his conformation and general "toughness," this will result in varying degrees of soreness/injury. It often results in chronic hard-to-diagnose issues like body and back soreness, but it is equally common to see tendon injuries. There's a right way to condition a horse, but it seems like a shockingly small number of horse people truly understand it.

I grew up in polo, where conditioning is a big deal. A lot of polo ponies have half the year off and only play the summer or winter season, depending upon where you are, so you are bringing them back from marshmallow pasture condition to finely tuned, muscled up athletes on an annual basis. And most polo ponies are Thoroughbreds, not a particularly tough breed when it comes to soundness, so you'd better do it right. We start them back just walking in sets (ride one, pony however many you can) for 45 minutes with two short 5 minute trots somewhere in the middle. They are ridden 6-7 days a week and the trots increase until you're up to twenty minutes, and it's only then that you add cantering and start working up from there. And you don't sit on the same one every day - you give their backs a rest. Trotting builds muscle, so you do that first, and then you add the cantering, which builds "wind" - the endurance element for a horse who is expected to gallop, stop and turn for 7 minutes straight - five or more times the length of a horse race. Throughout the process, you watch their legs like a hawk for any signs of heat or swelling. If you do it right, in four to six weeks the horse is ready to play polo again and to hold up for the season.

That's what I grew up with and I was at a barn that had little else, so I really didn't know about the rest of the horse world until I was an adult. In my 20s, I had a barn that I leased to a hunter/jumper trainer and I started seeing things that just boggled my mind. They would get in these sale horses that they had NO history on, that for all they knew had been sitting in a field (horses from the local dealer that he had just picked up at various auctions), and they would literally jump on them and work them into a white foam and try them over fences the first day. OMG. I couldn't believe it. It was obvious to me from looking at the horses that they weren't fit enough to do any of that. No one cared. Of course they had lots of vet bills and horses would have these injuries and need stall rest and surgeries and all kinds of crap. I couldn't believe the amount of money wasted.

In the past twenty years, I've seen more unfit horses on trails, at horseshows (I recall one obese AQHA gelding tying up and being unable to leave the arena at a 4-H show), in scary Youtube videos, and on idiotic "colt breaking clinic" videos (run 'em around til they are foamy, that's the way to train them in one day!) than I ever wanted to imagine existed. I've seen people who think it's just fine to take a totally unfit horse on a six hour trail ride, and then wonder why he bucks the next time they ride him. Good God, people, this is why we have so much lameness! OK, bad conformation is a major contributor but lack of conditioning is right up there. Just like a human athlete, an unfit equine athlete is prone to injury and soreness. They have pain behaviors just like human beings do. They stiffen up and protect themselves and cause other injuries. The hocks hurt, and that makes them backsore, for example.

And there is such a range of knowledge and belief on this topic. In the h/j or dressage worlds, it's not unusual to find people who believe that it's better to canter an unfit horse at first in a half seat position until he's a bit more muscled, stretched out and used to cantering again before you plop your butt down on his back. In other disciplines, no one does this or even thinks about it. (I never used to do it, either. I always do it now with anything that has soundness/back issues or is coming back from a layoff of unknown time, like a rescue. As with many things in horses, I thought about it and it made sense, so I do it.)

Some of the things I've learned over the years (and you may discuss at random whether or not you think I'm misinformed or what your experience is) include:

1. Don't work an unfit horse hard on a small circle, like in the round pen or longe line. Much better to ride in a large arena or field, with fewer turns. Establish a level of fitness before you ask for small circles/sharp turns/rollbacks.

2. While conditioning should start on level ground, trotting uphill is a great exercise that builds muscle and really helps horses with chronic issues like a weak stifle. Don't trot downhill - way too hard on the forelegs. I don't care what they do in the John Wayne movies!

3. There is no such thing as "too fit" and it does not increase bad behavior; however, there is no need to run a horse into the ground, either. 30 minutes of actual continuous work (i.e. not just walking) is about the most I ever ask a horse to do, regardless of how fit or young they may be. Walking for long periods with little trot or canter breaks, like on a trail ride, is different but should not be mistaken for not being work or being "easy" for the horse. It's easy for a fit horse - it can be hard work for an unfit horse even if you never break out of the walk, and they absolutely can injure themselves just walking.

4. Deep footing is the devil if you have tendon problems to deal with. Try to ride in an arena that is not deep, or on grass, particularly when fitting up a horse with a history of tendon problems. Like jogging in sand, deep footing makes for hard work, so if the only arena you have to use has deep footing, take that into account and increase the workload more gradually.

5. Interval training works for horses, too. Short gallops, followed by a return to a normal working canter, build wind and endurance.

6. If you're a 125 lb girl fitting up a horse for a 225 lb boss, recognize that the horse has to be twice as fit for you to be able to hold up to the added weight with him. Trot, trot, trot and build muscle to help the horse cope.

7. I honestly don't know if this is an old wives' tale or not but I always was taught that white foamy sweat is a sign of an unfit horse. A fit horse's sweat runs clear. (Excepting the between-the-butt-cheeks foam or the right under the edge of the saddle blanket foam that is friction related) OK, vets and vet techs, any truth to this?

8. Warm-up and cool-down properly. You'll never regret taking 15 minutes to walk at the beginning of a ride, on a loose rein. You will see that you have so many fewer leg problems. Same thing goes for cool-down. I used to ride where the horses played Sunday AM polo and then the barn was closed Mondays, so they would sit in box stalls until Tuesday night after work (the barn did not turn out for you). I started to walk them out for 20 minutes on Sunday afternoons and I think it was a huge, contributing factor in having pretty much a zero lameness rate - even with older horses with some chronic issues. If you can bring them home from a show or event or long trail ride and turn them out instead of putting them in stalls, I guarantee you'll have fewer lameness issues. They need to walk after they exert themselves - don't think it's better for them to lie in shavings and rest just because you're excited about heading for the couch and the Tivo at the end of the day!

9. Ponying really is a wonderful, wonderful way to bring a horse back into work, particularly a horse who has chronic back issues or lameness issues. Just think about it - isn't it better for the horse to build muscle first before having to deal with the weight/balancing a rider or being asked to put his head in a certain spot? Of course it is. However, it's weirdly discipline-specific. I mean, if you pony a horse around a dressage rider, their eyes bug out. (I was once yelled at by some dressage trainer at L.A. Equestrian Center because the fact I was ponying one (perfectly behaved, quietly trotting) horse in the arena next to hers was freaking her horse out. Why is your inability to control your horse suddenly my problem? He is gonna see weirder things than ponying at LAEC, just you wait 'til the gay rodeo, so I suggest you learn to ride. OK, rant over) Seriously, I don't know why all disciplines don't use ponying. Surely even you dressage people have a couple of 20 year olds that are quiet enough to handle another horse trotting next to them attached with a scary snake-like lead line. ;-) *ducks and runs*

All right, everybody, what do you think? Are you as horrified as the ignorance of proper conditioning in the horse world as I am? What is your regimen for bringing a horse back from a long layoff? What are your tips for fitting up a horse with soundness issues or back issues? Do you use protective boots/wraps or do you believe that horses get too dependent on them? (I do like the SMZ boots. Been using them for years, and no, I don't think horses get too dependent on them, though I save them for the conditioning period, and then only thereafter for strenuous activity or when footing is iffy) How many of you use relatively high-tech methods of conditioning, like aquacizers and treadmills, or do you do things the old fashioned way?

I'm also curious, for those of you in lessons with a trainer, what has your trainer taught you about conditioning? If you are a trainer, what do you teach your students?