How to help your horse recover after exercise
When it comes to the management of the event horse, we focus a lot of our attention on their preparation for the event, but how much consideration do we give their recovery?
Overall, we are looking to get our horses feeling their best in body and spirit as quickly as possible. A combination of physical management, such as icing legs, the correct nutrition and proper rest can all help to prevent injury and illness.
Physical processes and cooling down
Leading Sport Horse Vet Jessica Pons explains why we should use cold therapy: “Any kind of intense exercise on a horse naturally creates stress in the body, especially around areas of impact, such as joints and soft tissues of the distal limbs. This leads to inflammation due to micro internal bruising and haemorrhaging within vital structures. Inflammation naturally occurs as a healing mechanism to accelerate repair in case of infection or injury, which can be helpful in areas with very low vascularisation (such as cartilage, tendons and ligaments) after an acute injury.
“Nevertheless, long-term inflammation in healthy structures or chronic (old) injuries can create tissue damage and pain. Decreasing temperature in the area can dramatically reduce the blood flow and therefore inflammation. This is why the role of the icing therapy in high performance athletes subject to intense periods of exercise is so important,” says Jessica.
“I usually advise icing for no less than 10 minutes and no more than 20 minutes. However, it really depends on the method used. You will reach a much quicker lower temperature with ice boots than with cold hosing, therefore I normally advise to cold hose your horse’s legs
for at least 20 minutes.
“If you are using boots that apply directly on skin, I would do no more than 15 minutes, making sure that no skin burns/rubs appear. Cold water salt spas are useful and are effective for prevention and treatment of injury.”
“When a horse finishes cross country, we are looking to cool the whole horse off as quickly as possible,” explains event rider Francis Whittington. “We take the tack and boots off and then get cold water on them straight away. While we are doing this, we check for cuts and bruises and treat those as necessary. A three day event is more strenuous than a one day, so we would probably be more intense with the cool-down process.”
Also important is that your horse doesn’t stand still if he is still blowing. “Usually you’ve walked back from the cross country course and they shouldn’t be puffing too hard around a one day track,” says Francis. If they are, then a walk between washes can help until the breathing pattern become more normal. “At a three day, they are always washed and cooled down and then walked.”
When it comes to icing legs, a lot comes down to the facilities you have in your horsebox for keeping things cold. Never put ice directly against the skin as they can cause ice burns, but you can use with a cloth between the ice and the leg. “These are left on for approximately 15-20 minutes. Sometimes we take it off for 20 minutes and the put the ice back on for 15-20 minutes and so on, until the leg feels cold.
Correct nutrition is vital for competition horses both before and after an event. It’s no different to the science behind human recovery – the right fuel is needed in order for the body to recover effectively from an intense workout, and to replace salts and nutrients lost through sweating.
In addition, you are refuelling the muscles and energy levels. Francis sees nutrition as one of the most vital parts of the recovery process. One of his favourite feed products is Saracen’s Recovery Mash, a feed developed to help achieve optimum hydration and recovery. It contains electrolytes, vitamin E to support normal muscle function, and live yeast to support the gut. It involves soaking, so is an easy way of getting more water into your horse and is palatable enough for even the fussiest of feeders.
“For me, the Recovery Mash is the holy grail of feeding. It’s one of the best products any feed company has come up with,” says Francis.
Assessing how much water your horse takes in is also vital. “We have very big automatic waterers, which we turn off when they come back from a competition, so we can gauge how much they have drunk.”
Feed nutritionist Lizzie Drury stresses that avoiding dehydration is the most important thing you can do for an event horse after competing. “After strenuous exercise, it is important to restore the muscle, liver and glycogen stores. The aim is to make sure the petrol tank is fully recharged before preparing for the next competition. That will only happen effectively if the horse is properly rehydrated.”
Her suggested rehydrated strategies include flavouring water to encourage your horse to drink. “Experiment at home. You can try things like Ribena, apple juice and cider vinegar to find the flavour your horse prefers. They will prefer to drink warm water over cold water, so have a kettle handy,” says Lizzie.
“Salt should be part of the daily feeding regime added to the feed and the horses should have ad lib access to a salt block. If your horse is in hard training, then use electrolytes on top of your salt. But be aware that your horse is actually rehydrated before adding electrolytes, so that you don’t dehydrate them more.”
In terms of concentrated feeds after a competition, Lizzie reinforces that you should make minimal changes so as not to risk digestive upsets. “Your horse has already been under stress when they are competing. If you have your feeding and training programme sorted before the start of the season and it works, you should stick to that. The aim with the hard feed is to put nutrients back in to help support muscle and immunity, so you might choose to feed 500-800 grams more than normal. You can add an additional feed rather than adding to existing feeds.”
At elite level, Lizzie suggests feeding additional vitamin E to support recovery of muscles and boost the immune system.
Rest and relaxation
“Rest is really important,” confirms Francis. “The importance of letting your horse rest after cross country must never be underestimated. A horse needs to be left alone – checked for any signs of injury or discomfort but then left to sleep.”
After a competition, Francis advises giving at least one day off and some of his horses would have more, taking things like age and level into consideration.
“It is as much about mental recovery as it is physical. We all expect a lot of our horses, so we must give them time to chill out.”
This mostly comes down to fitness. “For me, it is about controlling your repetition of exercises and working on the stability of your horse,” says Francis. “If the horse is balanced and carries itself correctly, it will gallop and jump better and is therefore less likely to injure itself.
“Fitness is not just about getting to the end of the course without your horse being on its knees. It also relates to being correctly muscled, able to carry their own body, be balanced and use body correctly in all three phases. You should make your training plan with these things in mind.”
Francis uses pilates all year round to keep his body in the best physical shape to perform at a competition. At the event, he stresses the importance of staying hydrated for efficient body and brain function.
“I use High Five products, which provide electrolytes and essential vitamins. I first started using these after my meningitis [Francis suffered with the illness in 2010]. They replenish everything you’re sweating out.”
It’s a well-known fact that some riders struggle to eat before they compete due to nerves, so a carbohydrate-rich supper the night before should top up the energy store in your muscles for competition day. Afterwards, a high-protein, high-carbohydrate meal should help to replenish you. But rehydrating is the key – especially on warmer days.
Horses are not so different to humans in that they need the correct physical and nutritional processes to efficiently recover from exertion, so make sure you’re following our tips to help you and your horse get over one event and get ready for the next!
First published in Mar/Apr 2020 issue of British Eventing Life, original words by Ellie Kelly