Did you watch the Badminton Horse Trials? What an exciting event, testing horses and riders to the limit. The new course was challenging in itself, but the slippy ground, blustery winds and heavy showers added to the test.

A number of the horses were quite fatigued with several jumps to go, and some riders pulled up due to their horses losing stamina. Ian Stark, one of the commentators and a very experienced past competitor, commented that many of the horses were not fit enough.

It’s a big challenge for riders at the top of horse sports to get their horses fit enough without causing injury during training. However, some experts have proposed that the increase in injuries during competition might be due to suboptimum fitness for the actual event. A study by Dutch researchers following 29 horses during their preparation for the 2010 European Eventing Championships showed high levels of injury and suboptimal conditioning (inadequate fitness). Fitness was measured using heart rate and speed at a set blood lactate concentration(VLa4).

Horses were trained at a much lower speed than required during competition. An elevated heart rate preceded injury, and could be an effect of early lameness.

Eventing (Horse Trials) is a test of skill, stamina and speed.
Eventing (Horse Trials) is a test of skill, stamina and speed.

Using heart rate monitors to quantify training helps to ensure an effective fitness programme and might indicate impending lameness. The authors of the study recommended more careful monitoring of horses during training, and stated that horses should be sufficiently fit for their competition.

The principles of conditioning (fitness training) include:

  • Progressive loading (training load must be gradually increased for an increase in fitness)
  • Specificity (training for a specific discipline, to ensure appropriate physiological adaptation)
  • Individuality (horses vary widely in their response to conditioning and each individual should be monitored and their programme adapted accordingly)

Physical conditioning (fitness training) causes adaptations in the heart and lungs, the muscles, supporting soft tissues (including ligaments, tendons), bone, temperature regulating system and central nervous system. Adaptations in these systems as a result of training allow the horse to go faster for longer before fatigue sets in.

Adequate fast work is imperative for top level eventers, and many riders use gallops regularly.
Adequate fast work is imperative for top level eventers, and many riders use gallops regularly.

Energy supply from the diet can be a limiting factor, but cannot give an unfit horse stamina. Only a progressive, specific, individually tailored physical conditioning regime gives a horse good stamina.

Good fitness reduces the onset of fatigue, decreases the risk of injury and increases the chance of winning by optimising performance. No amount of specialist feeding can make up for a lack of fitness and stamina relies on both an appropriate diet and a good level of fitness.

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About Clare MacLeod

Clare MacLeod MSc RNutr is one of the UK’s few registered independent equine nutritionists who also has expertise in health and fitness. She advises private and commercial clients in all sectors of the horse world and is a hands-on horse owner herself. Clare is passionate about correct nutrition as a foundation for good health, without which peak fitness is not possible. She states “Good nutrition isn’t everything, but there’s nothing without it”.