Equispa Your Horse to Fitness
"I'll call you when my horse is hurt." I can't tell you how often this is said. In this day and age, we are fortunate that this does not necessarily have to be the case. In many instances, preventative measures can be taken that help insure against unnecessary injury or lay-up. In general it is commonly accepted among horse people that proper hoof care, dental care and nutrition will help the horse maintain optimal health. It has also become acceptable in many parts of the country to supplement these practices with massage, acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy and saddle fitting to keep the horse comfortable and performing at his peak. When administered correctly, these modalities can often uncover the problem rather than masking it.
Swimming the horse is another modality that is recognized by many as beneficial in both prevention and rehabilitation. Swimming keeps the horse fit cardiovascularly, as well as assisting with strength development. An added benefit particularly useful when bringing a horse back from injury is that swimming allows this to be achieved without concussion on the joints or limbs. There are a number of ways to swim your horse.
Swimming in the old swimming hole: Those of you who have experienced this on horseback must agree that this is a great experience as well as a great workout for your horse. There are, however, a few drawbacks. As horses get into deeper water and submerge they tend to panic temporarily and will "porpoise". This is their natural way of swimming. Once they have established their rhythm they can become more comfortable, but often will still tend to invert their back and use more of their neck and chest to pull them along. Another disadvantage is that it can be difficult to control the horse's direction particularly if you are bareback and you will more than likely eventually slide off the horse. Using a synthetic or old saddle that you don't mind getting wet, will allow you to stay with the horse a little better. There is always the possibility of the horse and/or rider getting caught up in the reins. BE CAREFUL OF THIS.
A safer and more beneficial way of 'swimming' the horse would be to go to the beach or a pond with a long shoreline that has a fairly consistent slope into the water. Have the horse enter going parallel along the beach. Gradually take him to the depth that would be to his belly or just a bit above. This will ensure that the horse's limbs will be submerged and the resistance will be acknowledged. This will also allow the horse to achieve optimum cardiovascular benefit as well as muscle building without inverting the back. Once the rhythm is found, the horse can go round and in a frame, receiving an hour's workout in as little as 15-20 minutes. Alternating walk/trot sets are most helpful when conditioning in this manner.
Another way to achieve isolated strengthening would be to take the horse to mid cannon bone or knee / hock depth. This will encourage the horse to lift his leg higher, mimicking hill work. This can be most beneficial in strengthening stifles, particularly in an area without hills. The only drawback to this technique is that the horse has weight on his back. You can, however, use this to your advantage by encouraging him to use his hind end and come through his topline. Many horses have increased their strength, impulsion, and suppleness through the use of this exercise.
Pool swimming: There are a number of facilities available
that have equine swimming pools. Over the years, they have shown remarkable
results in increased fitness levels and recovery from injury or surgery.
The pools are generally similar to the round swimming pools that we are familiar with. There is an umbrella rig above the pool and a line is attached from the rig to the halter. The horse is then encouraged around the pool by a handler (with the line) and swims. The drawback with this is that it is in many cases difficult for a number of horses to relax enough to swim correctly. Many will raise their heads and invert their backs, particularly the muscles around the withers. This in turn can undo much of the work that has been put into the horse, trying to encourage a topline and softer underneck. Many horses never really are able to relax enough when totally buoyant, and are unable to feel the ground underneath them.
Hydraciser: One answer to the above dilemmas is the Hydraciser. The Hydraciser is a submersible treadmill that allows the horse to walk at a slow, medium, or fast pace. The horse may take as many as two or three attempts to load into the oblong tank, however it is better for the horse to go about the process slowly, making sure it is a positive experience for him. Once the horse is comfortably in the tank, feeling secure rather than claustrophobic, the treadmill may be introduced. Some horses take to this quite naturally, while others may take some time to become accustomed to the foreign movement occurring beneath them.
Once they have accomplished this (and feel pretty proud of themselves), water is slowly introduced. Within 1-2 minutes the tank can fill to capacity, automatically draining the overfill and recycling it through 3 filters for sanitation purposes. Initially the fill is controlled to allow the horse to feel comfortable first with water on his hooves, then his knees, and finally his abdomen or above, depending on his size. The horse may at first move side to side until he becomes accustomed to the treadmill's movement, but he quickly gains coordination, realizes his parameters and accepts the tank as exercise. The speed of the treadmill is adjusted to the individual horse's needs, taking into consideration his fitness and soundness levels, as well as what is expected to be accomplished through the use of the tank (e.g. conditioning, increased speed, etc.) It is quite amazing and rewarding to see the horses relax, lick and chew, breathe rhythmically, and round their toplines as they complete their cycles through their workouts. In approximately 15 minutes a horse can achieve a workout equivalent to 45 minutes of regular work and this can be adjusted from easy to difficult.
If a horse is returning to work, he may be introduced to the tank walking at a slow, steady pace. The steady pace with a longer duration is also beneficial to the already fit horse to supplement his conditioning. As the length of time increases, so do the horse's stamina and endurance.
For example, Willie (the chestnut horse in the photos) is a barrel racer. His owner, Valen Caldwell (with Willie), discussed her desire to get Willie faster without the stress of riding and pushing him hard everyday. We developed an individual protocol for him, which included the Hydraciser three times a week until competition season resumed. Willie began to show improvement after four to five sessions. In her first competition, she shaved 3/10ths of a second off her time. This may not sound like much but at the national level it can make a difference between winning or not even coming close.
With horses such as Willie, as well as with reiners, cutting horses, or quarter-milers, we are attempting to increase the horse's fast twitch response. Fast twitch muscle fibers are those that are white in pigment coloring. Although the number of them cannot be increased their performance can be improved, and their limit fine-tuned. The method used to achieve these results is called fartlek (Swedish for "speedplay") commonly know as "interval work" in the human world.
Once the length of the session has been determined, the horse is put through a "warm-up phase" before beginning his actual workout session. In the middle of the workout, the speed is turned up until the horse approaches his anaerobic threshold (fast walk). After a period of time the speed is reduced to allow the horse a recovery period before the speed is again resumed. This cycle is repeated 3 or 4 times depending upon the individual horse's response. A proper cooldown is absolutely necessary.
Horses that have foundered, bowed a tendon, sprained or torn a ligament, as well as those who are coming back from surgery, have benefited from the use of this machine. It can also be used as an adjunctive therapy to bring an unfit horse into condition, generally in two short weeks, by working him in the tank four times a week. A horse who is already fit can have his fitness maintained through routine 'tanking', as well as enhanced by varying the intensity and/or the duration of the workout. Some horses 'tank' as often as twice a day, morning and afternoon. Horses that have had a heavy schedule of jumping, racing, eventing or competing in any discipline can benefit from a "rest and relaxation" let down which still allows them to maintain their fitness levels. It is a very effective way to "bring back" a horse that has been laying off the track or off his work in general, whatever that work may be. It is also a wonderful reward for your favorite horse. Truly, the uses for the Hydraciser are endless.