1. Training Load must be higher than the horse’s fitness level
To build muscle, for more stamina or strength, requires a specific exercise to be performed intensely enough. In other words, the existing muscles need to experience a slight overload to push the body to adapt and grow towards becoming stronger in the future.
If the exercise load is within the normal spectrum, it is too low to stimulate adaptation and growth. You cannot expect changes. Training Load is the most important factor in improving strength and, thus, performance. If a horse does not have enough strength to perform an exercise, its balance and precision, for example, will be affected. To progress, a training should be well above 'normal' and increase in intensity, as the fitness level of the horse increases.
The correct increase in loading can be achieved by increasing the training frequency, intensity and duration, both within one training session, and between training sessions. To prevent overtraining, do not change more than one factor every two weeks.
2. Schedule enough ‘active’ rest days
When a horse has been intensively trained, many waste products are produced in the muscle, tendons and joints. Lactate, for example, is the substance that causes the muscle to feel sore.
It is important that these waste products leave the body as quickly as possible. Unlike humans, if the horse gets little or no movement the day after training, the lymph system will not work properly. This means that the waste materials are not removed and accumulate with the lymph fluid.
The amount of days of active rest required after a training depends upon the intensity of the training. Training causes ‘micro-damage’ in the muscles of the horse. The horse requires enough time to recover in between training sessions for the muscles to grow - The horse's body adjusts to the training stimulus. This is what we call super-compensation.
If an equally heavy training is given during the recovery time before the muscle reaches supercompensation, a reverse process can occur. This is called ‘overtraining’. In this scenario, the horse deteriorates in strength, endurance and agility.
3. Horses learn by training three days a week
Equestrians often follow their own ‘gut’ feelings, when they decide how often they need to train their horse to teach them a new exercise. For this reason, research has been done to establish the optimal time interval required between repeating a new exercise.
A group of horses was taught a completely new exercise. Half of the group repeated the new exercise for 28 consecutive days (every day of this 28 days). The other half repeated the new exercise for 28 days, but every three days. After the 28 days, half of the horses had practiced 28 times, while the other half had practiced only 10 times. At the end of the study, all horses were scored on the execution of the new assignment taught to them. A comparison of the scores showed that, despite the difference in the number of training sessions, there was no significant difference in the learning progression of the two groups of horses.
This research indicates that horses do not ‘forget’ what they have learnt in a new exercise, if they are only trained every third day, instead of daily. This means that less training time is needed to learn a new exercise. Time in repeating exercises can be used more efficiently.
4. Provide enough variation in the type of training
It is impossible to train all types of muscles simultaneously. For this reason, it is important that there is variation in the type of training. In general, there are three types of training:
Cardio Training: This increases the stamina of the horse, so that it can continue for longer in exercise at low intensity. This requires a specific type of muscle fiber - Type I muscle fibers. These muscles typically appear slim and long. In addition, the heart- and lung muscles especially need to develop in Cardio Training to ensure that as much oxygen as possible gets to the muscle.
Strength Training: The development of more strength for, for example, jumping higher, or to get more swing in trot, requires Type II muscles. This muscle type provides more power, but does not have the same endurance properties as Type I muscles. Muscle strength can be built-up for very specific muscle groups in Strength Training.
Gymnastic Training: The vast majority of modern horses are very agile and flexible. To keep them this way, after a harsh training, the muscles require stretching to prevent them from becoming stiff and contracted even during relaxation. Training for flexibility can be achieved by bending the horses body in different directions, so that the outer muscles stretch out long.
If you train the muscles in separate locations within the horse’s body differentially, some muscles have extra time to recover. So, do not plan three days of jumping (unless this is what you specifically need to train). Instead, alternate jumping, with dressage training, or vary exercises from day to day within your dressage training to target different groups of muscles.
5. Vary the surfaces that you ride on
A good way to improve the athletic ability and fitness of your horse is to train on different surfaces. This not only improves its proprioception (the horse’s sense of the position and movement of its own body, including its sense of equilibrium and balance), but also leads to more complete muscle-building and support of soft tissues. The horse’s body only adapts to the way that it is being used and when it is challenged in training. Through riding on different surfaces, the bone density increases, and stimulates the layers of cartilage associated with the joints to dampen different types of shocks.
Research shows that horses that always train on the same surface, are less coordinated, and are more likely to trip and injure themselves. This is because the nerve signals to the limbs and stabilizing muscles are not as frequently triggered and are not trained in adapting to another surface. This means that the training is not optimally effective.
6. Training and nutrition go hand-in-hand
A horse’s feed must match with the training of the horse. There are four elements to check.
The amount of fiber. The horses gut needs fiber to function, and to be able to absorb all the nutrients that are provided from any other feed.
The energy given. This needs to balance with the activity of the horse and, thus, might vary from day to day. Too much energy makes the horse fat and can make it extremely difficult to handle in training. The main sources of energy for the horse include grass, other roughage sources, and carbohydrates (starches) in concentrated feedstuffs (mixes and cubes).
The protein content of feed is important if you want the horse to develop muscle. Muscles are built of protein. Feeds that are particularly rich in proteins, include grass, good quality roughage (young-cut grass) and mixes and cubes for brood mares and youngstock.
Finally, vitamins and trace elements require your attention. Vitamin E and Selenium support processes that remove waste materials from the muscles, and Magnesium influences nerve-signal transmission and, thus, can help support good reflexes and coordination of the horse.
The only way to guarantee a good ration for your horse is to have your roughage analyzed. Research has shown that roughage varies a lot, and this affects the whole feed intake. It is recommended to adjust the ration at least twice a year to the developments of a horse. With changes in training, the ration should be re-tuned to align with changes in feed requirements.
7. Always stick to the same structure for training
Horses like to know what is coming. This reduces stress and increases their coordination and learning abilities. Therefore try to keep everything within the same routine. It may be boring for you, but it is great for the horse. This routine already start with brushing and saddling up, do the same things, in the same order, the same way, every day.
Riding starts with warming-up in walk to increase the blood and lymph circulation, this improves the supply of nutrients to the muscles and the removal of waste products. Walking the horse may be done in-hand, under the saddle, or in a carousel treadmill. In the second part of the warm-up, you might ride in a calm trot or canter. The goal of warming-up is to stretch the muscles.
After this come two to four peak intervals. All types of training have peak moments, except the recovery training. Typically a peak interval lasts around four to eight minutes, and is followed by a short period in walk. During the walk, the oxygen pool in the muscles is restored and lactate is prevented from building up.
Finally, a training is concluded by cooling down. You can stretch the horse’s body again in trot and then finish the training with at least ten minutes of walk, either riding the walk, or walking in-hand.
Your training ends when your horse is unsaddled and you checked the horse for injuries, anomalies, thickened legs, etc. Finally, also notice the time it took your horse to recover. After ten minutes of walk, the breathing and heart-rate should have gone under 14 breaths per minute and 60 beats per minute respectively.
8. Carry out a quick health check of your horse
It is important that you always carry out a quick health check, both before- and after the training. In this way, you can easily keep an eye on the development of the horse’s body and notice quickly if there are problems. There are five checkpoints that a veterinarian examines when doing a quick health check, always in the same order.
Firstly, check breathing. You can notice this most easily on the flank. With a healthy horse, this can be seen subtly as the belly rises and falls a little bit. In rest, this should be between eight and 14 times per minute.
Secondly, After the breathing check, you check the horse’s pulse. One of the easiest arteries to use for this is under the jaw. You can feel it by touching softly with your middle three fingers. The heart-rate in rest should be around 20 to 30 beats per minute.
Thirdly, check the temperature of the horse. For this, a special veterinary thermometer is best, because it records the temperature quickly within 10 seconds. Most horses generally find thermometer a little frightening, so make sure the horse understands what you are about to do. Glide your hand from the withers, over the backside to the tail and push it aside. The sphincter has a small hole in the middle. Gently insert the thermometer with some lubricant or saliva. The temperature of the horse should be around 37.5ºC and 38ºC.
Fourthly, check the skin. You can feel the temperature at the horse's extremities. See if the ears, nose, legs and hooves feel warm or cold. You also check the fluid balance. Take a small pleat in the skin between your fingers, when you release it, the pleat must be gone quickly again. If it remains visible, it can indicate that the horse is dehydrated. Look in the mouth to check if the mucous membranes are moist and pink.
Finally, check the lymph nodes. In particular, those just behind the jaw and in the throat are good to check. They should be about the size of a grape. Feel if that is the case and check if the horse find it painful when you touch them.
The horse’s health check is complete after checking the lymph nodes. If there are things that you are concerned about, or that are not how they should be, it is sensible to ask the advice of a vet, or even arrange a veterinary check-up.
9. Set challenging goals for yourself
Research has shown that setting specific- and challenging goals leads to higher performance than setting a simple goal, or no goals at all. One goal might be to be able to reach a high level in competition, but it could also be to hack out without stress. Whatever your goal is, it provides motivation and increases perseverance. Split your goal into smaller steps or objectives, so that it becomes clear what you can do today to achieve the wider goal. With every effort you make, you will feel good about getting one step closer to your goal.
Try to make your goals and objectives very specific and provide sufficient challenge, because then there is a sense of reward and/or esteem for you and the horse, when you reach a goal, this will provide motivation to achieve the next goal.
10. Make sure that your horse gets movement several times a day
It is important that a horse is taken out of its box several times a day for exercise. Firstly, movement ensures a good blood circulation. Which ensures energy levels are restored in the muscle. This means that the horse will sustain a workout for longer. If there is too little movement, there is a chance the horse gets stiff legs or muscle/tendon trauma.
In addition, adequate exercise stimulates the lymph system. The lymphatic system ensures that the resistance of the body rises, healing and renewal improves and all harmful waste in the body is safely discharged. After an intensive training, many waste products grow in the muscles of the horse. The lymphatic system must get the chance to dispose these waste materials. As the lymph system is stimulated by movement, it is important that the horse moves enough daily.
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