Human athletes are very aware of optimising recovery after a hard workout, to ensure they are ready for their next bout of exercise, or competition. For horses, however, a great deal more is written about pre-exercise feeding, rather than post-exercise.

Horses naturally recover more slowly than humans in terms of muscle fuel stores, and there is less that can be done to manipulate this process. Horses also lose higher quantities of fluid and electrolyte salts in sweat (relatively) than humans. So there are subtle differences.

There are three main factors to consider when optimising recovery in a hard-working horse:

  1. Replenishment of muscle fuel (glycogen)
  2. Replacement of fluid and electrolytes salts lost in sweat
  3. Repair and regeneration of muscle fibres
It’s after a bout of exercise when the horse is resting, that the body adapts and gets fitter.

Unlike for humans, refuelling of muscles can’t be rushed in horses. Giving an electrolyte solution to dehydrated horses post-exercise seems to enhance the rate of replenishment of muscle glycogen stores, but giving them carbohydrates such as glucose does not. It is also risky to give horses large amounts of soluble carbohydrates or starch, which can cause exertional rhabdomyolysis (tying up). The most important factor in refuelling is to get the horse eating their normal feeds as soon as they have warmed down. Feeding the usual meal but within an hour after warming down is recommended. For the horse, access to good quality forage as soon as possible after warming down is very important.

Post-exercise rehydration is crucial for horses, who often lose the urge to drink due to losing large amounts of both fluid and salts (it’s the imbalance of salt to body fluid that initiates the thirst response). Ideally, horses should be trained to drink isotonic solutions – 0.9% or 9 g salt in 1 litre of water – so that they are used to them. Salt loses its salty taste to horses who have lost large amounts of salt, so dehydrated horses who have sweated heavily are more likely to drink isotonic solutions. Adding molasses or fruit juice to water can encourage intake, although it does make the solution hypotonic, which isn’t ideal for uptake. There is a balance between getting the horse to drink, and the ideal solution to optimise rate of rehydration.

A stream, pond or the sea is an ideal post-exercise therapy for a horse, if you have the luxury of it nearby!
A stream, pond or the sea is an ideal post-exercise therapy for a horse, if you have the luxury of it nearby!

A well balanced, high quality diet is essential to provide the muscles with the nutrients they need for repair and regeneration. Protein is recommended for human athletes after resistance training (strength training), and it is probably prudent to do the same for horses. Feeding them their normal meal and offering good quality forage within an hour of warming down will help provide the amino acids necessary for muscle repair and regeneration. Care should be taken with the type of forage fed, and ideally it should be analysed. High quality feeds to balance forage should be selected, with plenty of good quality protein if that of the forage is questionable or low.

At this time of year, hunters are often working hard and sometimes for several days per week, and they would benefit from careful management post-exercise. The ideal scenario for post exercise management, however, might not be applicable to a horse that is very fatigued and dehyrdrated, when encouraging them to eat or drink anything is preferable over offering them the ideal meal or isotonic solution. For this reason, bran mashes are a popular post-hunting feed, since they tend to be very palatable and – if Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate) is added – draw water into the gut, helping to reduce the risk of impaction colic. If bran mashes are used post-exercise, then bran must be fed as part of the daily ration to avoid gut disturbance.

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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”.