The Dangers of Unassessed Exercise Programs for Horses

by Kevin K. Haussler, DVM, DC, PhD

In today’s digital age, horse owners and trainers have unprecedented access to a wealth of information about equine fitness and training. While this can be a valuable resource, it also carries significant risks. Many owners may implement ground and under-saddle exercises they find online or learn at clinics, or recommended by their trainers, without having their horse properly assessed for fitness, pain or dysfunction. This approach can lead to unintended harm and setbacks in the horse’s health and performance. Before initiating a conditioning or training program, it is crucial to perform a comprehensive assessment of the horse’s current fitness level. This helps to identify any underlying health issues, set realistic goals, and tailor a program that meets the specific needs of the horse.

The risks of unassessed exercise programs

1. Inappropriate exercises for the horse’s condition

Not all exercises are suitable for every horse. Without a professional assessment, owners and trainers may choose exercises that are inappropriate for the horse’s specific condition or fitness level. Too strenuous or prolonged training sessions can exacerbate existing issues, lead to new injuries, and negatively impact the horse’s overall health and well-being.

2. Aggravation of undiagnosed or subclinical issues

Most horses in active ridden work have mild pain or dysfunction that is not immediately apparent. Engaging in exercises without addressing these underlying issues can aggravate repetitive use injuries, resulting in chronic pain, reduced performance, and further tissue damage.

3. Lack of progress monitoring

Exercises found online or taught at clinics often come without guidance on how to monitor progress or adjust the program based on the horse’s response. Without proper monitoring and modifications, a horse may not progress as expected, and owners and trainers may miss signs that the exercises are causing harm or are not effective.

4. Misalignment with the horse’s needs and goals

Generic exercise programs may not align with the specific needs and goals of the horse, such as improving a particular aspect of performance such as suppleness, impulsion, or transitions. This misalignment can lead to wasted time and effort, as well as potential harm if the exercises are counterproductive to the horse’s actual needs.

The importance of professional assessment

1. Individualized fitness plans

A professional assessment allows for the creation of an individualized fitness plan tailored to the horse’s specific condition, needs, and goals. This ensures that the exercises chosen are appropriate and beneficial, leading to safer and more effective training.

2. Early detection of issues

Professionals can detect subtle signs of dysfunction or health issues that may not be apparent to the untrained eye. Early detection allows for timely intervention, preventing minor issues from becoming major problems.

3. Ongoing monitoring and adjustments

Professionals provide ongoing monitoring and can adjust the exercise program based on the horse’s progress and response. This dynamic approach ensures continuous improvement and addresses any issues that arise during the training process.

4. Comprehensive health and performance goals

Professional assessments consider the horse’s overall health and performance goals, ensuring that the fitness plan is aligned with long-term objectives. This holistic approach promotes the horse’s overall well-being and supports sustainable performance improvements.

Equine health and fitness are complex fields that require a deep understanding of anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics. Unfortunately, not all trainers possess the necessary education to make informed recommendations regarding a horse’s fitness regimen. This lack of knowledge can lead to well-intentioned but harmful advice, potentially causing serious harm to the horse.

Recognizing subtle signs of pain and dysfunction

Horses often exhibit subtle signs when they are experiencing pain or dysfunction. Being able to identify these signs early can prevent further injury and ensure the horse’s health and comfort. Any changes in behavior need to be closely monitored. Facial expressions that include changes in tension around the eyes, ears, or nostrils may indicate distress or discomfort. A horse that is reluctant to work may be experiencing pain. Postural changes may include consistently resting a limb or weight shifting. Palpable differences in muscle tone or development are often indicators of dysfunction. Any changes in the horse’s gait, such as a shortened stride or lack of impulsion, are often early indictors of pain and lameness. A horse that suddenly performs poorly in activities it usually excels in may be experiencing pain. A horse that resists cues or has difficulty in performing certain movements it previously performed easily may be in discomfort.

The importance of not training through pain

1. Preventing further injury

Continuing to train a horse who is in pain can exacerbate existing injuries and lead to new ones. Pain is often a signal that something is wrong, and ignoring it can result in more severe damage that may require extensive treatment and recovery time.

2. Maintaining trust and bond

Training through pain can erode the trust between a horse and its handler. Horses may begin to associate training with discomfort, leading to increased anxiety and resistance. Maintaining a positive and pain-free training environment helps to build a strong bond and trust with the horse.

3. Long-term health and well-being

Ignoring pain can have long-term consequences for a horse’s health and well-being. Chronic pain can lead to compensatory behaviors that cause secondary injuries, negatively impacting the horse’s overall quality of life. Addressing pain promptly ensures the horse remains healthy and comfortable.

From an ethical standpoint, it is our responsibility to ensure that the animals in our care are not subjected to unnecessary pain or discomfort. Prioritizing the horse’s well-being over training goals demonstrates a commitment to humane and compassionate care. By prioritizing the early detection and treatment of pain, we can ensure that our horses remain healthy, happy, and able to perform at their best.

How to recognize fitness and lack of fitness in horses

Ensuring that a horse is in good physical condition is essential for its overall health and performance. Whether you are a veterinarian, trainer, or horse owner, being able to recognize the signs of fitness and lack of fitness in horses is crucial.

1. Body condition score

Evaluating the horse’s body condition score helps in understanding its nutritional status and fitness level. Scores of around 4-6 on a 9-point scale indicate a healthy body weight. Thin horses often have visible rib margins and bony prominence over the withers and pelvis. Overweight horses typically have enlarged and prominent crests, the inability to readily palpate the ribs, and excess fat around the tailhead. Affected horses should have their feed type and amount assessed and be examined for potential metabolic issues (e.g., insulin resistance).

2. Muscle tone and development

Assessing muscle tone and development helps in identifying areas that may need strengthening or conditioning. Observing the symmetry and firmness of muscles across different parts of the body provides a baseline for tracking progress. A fit horse will have well-defined muscles, particularly along the neck, shoulders, back, and hindquarters. The muscles should be firm to the touch but not overly rigid (i.e., hypertonic) or soft (i.e., flaccid). Look for smooth transitions and symmetrical muscle development from left-to-right and cranial-to-caudal. Many horses will have very well-developed muscles in one body region but be poorly developed in an adjacent body region.

3. Flexibility and range of motion

Evaluating the horse’s flexibility and range of motion can highlight any stiffness or limitations that may need to be addressed before starting a training regimen. Ensuring that the horse has a good range of motion reduces the risk of injury during exercise. Dorsoventral and lateral spinal flexibility is a prerequisite for performance of any kind. All limb articulations should also have free and fluid motion without any signs of stiffness, pain, or injuries. Healthy joint mobility supports smooth gait transitions and the overall movement patterns required for in-hand and ridden exercise. Stiffness, pain, and lameness may become more apparent during exercise. Identifying signs of pain or lameness could indicate musculoskeletal issues that need to be assessed and managed appropriately.

4. Cardiovascular fitness

Monitoring heart rate, respiratory rate, and recovery times provides a clear picture of the horse’s cardiovascular and respiratory fitness. This helps in setting appropriate intensity levels for conditioning exercises. A horse with good cardiovascular fitness will recover quickly after exercise. Heart rate monitors can help to keep track of physical fitness in real time. Signs of labored breathing, excessive sweating, or difficulty recovering after exertion are possible indicators of poor cardiovascular fitness or other underlying medical issues that need further evaluation.

Regular monitoring and assessment of your horse’s physical condition are vital to maintain its health and performance. By paying attention to muscle tone, cardiovascular health, flexibility, and body condition scores, you can ensure that your horse stays fit and healthy. If you notice any signs of poor fitness, consult your veterinarian or equine specialist to develop a proper fitness and nutritional plan.

Best practices for horse owners and trainers

1. Consult with qualified professionals

Before starting any new exercise program, consult with qualified professionals such as veterinarians or equine physiotherapists. Their expertise ensures that the exercises are suitable for your horse and address any specific health or performance concerns.

2. Schedule regular assessments

Schedule regular assessments to monitor the horse’s condition and progress. Regular check-ups help detect any emerging issues early and allow for timely adjustments to the fitness plan.

3. Educate yourself and collaborate

While it is beneficial to educate yourself about equine fitness, always collaborate with professionals to verify the information and its applicability to the horse. Collaboration ensures that our self-education is supplemented with expert guidance, minimizing the risk of harm.

4. Be patient and progress gradually

Introduce new exercises gradually and be patient with the horse’s progress. Gradual progression allows the horse to adapt to the new exercises safely, reducing the risk of injury.

In closing…

While the internet and clinics offer valuable resources for horse owners, and the horse’s trainer has the best of intentions, it is crucial to recognize the risks associated with implementing exercise programs without a proper assessment. Each horse is unique, and a one-size-fits-all approach can lead to significant harm. By consulting with qualified professionals and ensuring thorough assessments, owners and trainers can develop safe, effective, and individualized fitness plans for their horses.

Join Dr. Haussler on July 25th at 4 pm MDT for a conversation on this important topic with guest collaborators – human and equine manual therapist Elisse Miki and trainer Karen Rohlf.

Interested in learning more?

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