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horse training

Cross Training – What is it all about & why is it so important for EVERY horse?

No matter what discipline, if any, a horses’ training programme needs to be fully balanced and progressive to include all aspects of fitness (cardiovascular, speed, stamina, endurance, strength, suppleness, flexibility, coordination, agility, balance), plus working through the scales of training; rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness, collection, and improvement of skill level. A training programme needs to progressively overload the systems of the body for optimal and functional adaptation. Training and conditioning for all disciplines is a very fine balance between optimal adaptation and an overuse injury. Trying to work on all of these factors within one discipline can only be done through repetitive movements which is the major cause of overuse injuries such as ligament issues, mainly suspensory, tendon issues, muscle strain, wear and tear on the joints.

What is cross training?

Cross training involves adding different types of exercise, movement, disciplines or modalities into a training routine to achieve an overall more rounded fitness level and set of skills that the body can then call on when needed. If a horse is constantly trained dressage on a perfectly harrowed surface, one day for some reason there is a rut on the surface or a slightly hard patch due to frost or drought, causes the horse to roll on its step that it is not used to doing which takes the limb rotation into a different plane it is not used to, this can cause a strain on the DDFT or other soft tissues for example. If this horse was regularly ridden on varied or uneven terrain, grass, roads, hardcore, its tissues of the limbs in particular would be better conditioned to the variety in movement and would have no issue in coping with this minor anomaly in the surface.

Why cross train?

In human research athletes who specialise in a single sport had an 85% higher chance of injury than those who that do multiple activities (McGuine et al. 2017), this is expected to be higher in horses.

For a horse specialised in an individual discipline (ie exclusively a show jumper, exclusively a dressage horse), the repeated loading and strain from the one particular movement in one plane, doing the same thing day in day out will have the same effect. But also repeated riding in a poor movement pattern or with compensatory mechanisms in play being repetitively overloaded will also cause training overload associated injury, e.g. lack of flexibility, suppleness, fitness, subtle lameness/ unsoundness or asymmetry, pain, unbalanced rider as a one off may not cause much of a problem to the horse but if this is a repeated pattern will lead to injury. Hence, this is also another major reason for:

a.) Having your horse regularly checked and treated by an advanced qualified and experienced equine physical therapist to pick up on these minor anomalies in symmetry, posture etc. and correct these before they are repetitively loaded, affect performance, and cause lameness.

b.) having a coach that is dedicated to your horses’ correct way of going, global body mechanics and correct rider biomechanics rather than getting you to jump that big jump, perform movements that neither rider or the horse are ready for.

Cross training also allows for muscle recovery time, allowing the horses body time to repair and replace any damaged tissues.  DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) caused by build up of lactic acid that the body needs to remove and repair of muscle and free radical damage takes around 48 – 96 hours, replacement of muscle glycogen takes around 48 – 72 hours. Other types of exercise can be done within this time just not the same type of repetitive loading and alternative exercise and movement can actually help with these times.

Therefore, we cross train so we can continue to work them just in a different way, to work on different aspects of the scales of training or fitness to prevent excessive overload, to give them a better rounded education and to protect them against injury:

For horses cross training is adding a variety of exercises and training:

  • Non-training related exercise – e.g. turn out, which has proven to be protective against lameness
  • Varying surfaces – helps with tissue adaptation and also educates the horse in matters of proprioception and coordination which, again, helps to protect against lameness
  • Stable exercises – good as a baseline before introducing other types of exercise and training, without the weight of the rider or challenge of movement. They increase flexibility, improve strength and endurance of the muscles and most importantly they switch on correct neuromuscular pathways. These include exercises such as active baited stretches, isometric contractions; ask your equine physical therapist for more and appropriate prescriptive specific exercises that are appropriate at the present time for your individual horse
  • Proprioceptive training – poles, bending, inclines, declines, circles, surfaces, again ask your physical therapist about specific proprioceptive training for your horse and their individual stage of development
  • Ground work and other work off the horses back – including lunging (video on correct use of lunging coming soon, keep a eye on social media for more info), long reining, straightness training, classical training
  • Cross discipline – a dressage horse going on a farm ride, hacking, a happy hacker having a little jump, a show jumper learning piaffe, half pass etc. puts the body into a different range of motion that can be extremely beneficial to aspects of fitness and help the body to avoid injury. The engagement to work on these movements can also help to increase overall suppleness and flexibility and it can always help to be able to make a jump off turn by a stride of leg yield that the horse is used to doing instead of having to perform a sharp turn which can be very damaging to limbs so it can help avoid injury in this way too.
  • Psychological benefits of cross training is also surmountable – it helps to prevent sourness and staleness of a particular discipline.

Overall, to prevent injury, for your horses health, fitness, sanity, and increasing their performance in your chosen discipline, cross training is essential for long term benefits.