As a rider I try to get ahead of this curve by adding some sort of exercise program into my winter regime. Not only does that help to fight off the winter "fluff" but also keeps the core strength that I rely on as a balanced rider. I like to use core building exercises like Pilates and Yoga to help with balance, focus and core strength. Today as I was trying to smoothly go through the motions while becoming more and more aware of the fatigue in my winter soft muscles I was forcibly reminded of what my horses go through in the spring. For me, I am able to see beyond the burn and the shaking and the sweating (and, I'll admit, the swearing under my breath) to see the goal and the payoff for the hard work. As a human I am able to set a goal and work towards that goal with conscious determination. But, what about our equine partners?
The cruel trick of physiology is that the muscles that we lose first are the ones that we have to work the hardest to develop. The smaller muscles of inner core strength and posture for both us, and our horses are the most difficult to maintain. Those are the muscles that our sedentary lifestyles find they don't need for survival. So, while I haven't done any weight lifting this winter, my biceps aren't too far off from my typical summer condition. My abdominus rectus, hip flexors and extensor spinea muscles are unfortunately far below what their normal strength is in peak riding season. These three muscle groups are at the core of good strength, posture and balance for humans, and coincidentally, for horses as well.
Human muscles of balance and core strength. They function to keep us aligned like a perfectly balanced Jenga block pile. Image from flyingform.com
|Equine muscles of balance, and core strength. They function as a draw bride to help raise the back. Image from Eitan Beth-Halachmy.|
You can use the body condition scale to assess your horse's weight prior to beginning your spring training program. For horses that are a body condition score of 7 or below, they can probably handle light work without too much stress to the joints and muscles, keeping in mind, of course, any pre-existing conditions like tendon injuries or mild arthritis. Warming up those joints prior to increasing intensity is so important for joint health. If your horse tends to go out on the end of the lunge line and re-enact the Pendleton Round-Up before settling down to work, consider instead hand walking for 10-15 minutes prior putting on the lunge line. Those full on leaps of unrestrained joy prior to really getting warmed up can be more damaging than the rest of the work out.
Understanding muscle fatigue is a very important part of understanding how to strengthen those muscles and prevent the overall body soreness that will limit the try in our equine partners. I am going to discuss specifically working with muscles for strength and form, and not endurance. Endurance conditioning relies on building the capacity for anaerobic respiration within the muscles. For our purpose I am considering the strength it requires for the horse to hold himself in self carriage, like a yoga pose.
Without going into the nitty gritty nerdy details, it is important to have a working understanding of muscle physiology. The muscles function like an engine that has two sources of energy. The most efficient form of energy is the gas that the body provides. This gas (glucose) is delivered to the muscles via the blood stream. Like the gas sitting in the carburetor (perhaps dating myself here) there is always just a little gas sitting in the muscles for basic function. Under work the muscles can quickly deplete the local supply of glucose and then have to switch over to the reserve tank. This reserve tank is not as efficient and burns fuel in the absence of oxygen. Though the body can produce fuel in the absence of oxygen, the bi-product, is continuously converted to lactic acid which is responsible for the stinging burning feeling in tiring muscles. Through conditioning we increase the time it takes between the first tank and the reserve tank as well as make the secondary reserve tank conversion more efficient causing less build up of lactic acid.
The good news is that the muscle fatigue process is fairly quickly reversible with the influx of oxygen from the blood stream which allows for the rapid conversion of lactic acid back to it's precursor form. This is the importance of the rest phase of exercise, especially as we are building muscle strength. So, the old, "no pain, no gain" thing is true to a point. But the more the burn, the longer the recovery rate should be. It's also pretty difficult to explain the theory to your horse which is likely experiencing the exact same pain and struggles that we are as we are reconditioning these poor fatiguing muscles.
Horses are blessedly programed and built a little bit differently than we are. As prey animals they are genetically programed to not show weakness. So, a horse that is experiencing muscle fatigue may or may not show this overt discomfort to it's owner. The physical desire to continue to perform may override the pain to the point of actual damage to the horse. This is why horses get overwork injuries frequently. They just don't know to show discomfort while they are working. But, what they are also very good at is remembering how something felt the last time they did it. Have you ever had the experience of working your horse with a new concept which the horse seemed to pick up with relative ease only to come back a few days later and have nothing but trouble with it? Odds are the horse experienced some degree of pain with the exercise, mastered through it at the time but in the infinite and wise equine wisdom, decided that exercise was best avoided in the future.
So, it is up to us as riders, coaches, and partners for our equine athletes to recognize and understand the limits of the body and work to build those languid winter muscles back up to super star strength over a period of time. Short periods of contraction, paired with adequate periods of rest are the best way to begin to build those muscles back to working strength. Any of the maneuvers that require the horse to engage those small core muscles of balance should be done in short intervals in the beginning of spring training with periods of rest and release through stretching exercises. If you do yoga yourself you know that in the beginning, any of the strength and balance poses are difficult to maintain over an extended period of time and would be impossible without intermittent breaks using child's pose. The free frame is our horse's child's pose. The free frame allows the horse to stretch those long muscles that work in apposition to the smaller, shorter muscles of balance and self carriage. Those must stretch to develop suppleness to work in opposition the shorter muscles of flexion. As your horse becomes stronger with consistent work we can hold those poses longer and longer with less periods of rest.
How can you be sure you are not asking too much of your horse? Be a conscious rider. You can feel how easy or difficult it is for your horse to hold a specific maneuver with softness and correctness. As I struggle to build strength, the first thing that happens to me as I fatigue are the whispered cuss words. For my horse it is loss of softness to my aids, and generally my hands first. If a maneuver (say shoulder in) requires strong aids from the rider, it is likely a difficult maneuver for the horse. It doesn't mean your horse is dull, or unwilling. It may just mean those muscles are weak and unconditioned. Those are the times where you look for that moment of softness and settling into the maneuver before releasing and rewarding with the free frame and stretching.
Pushing boundaries and rewarding the try is a delicate balance that we walk as we work towards making our horses the athletes that we envision. When in doubt, I recommend rewarding try always. The muscle strength and development will happen. Our horses are built to be better athletes than most of us are. Do not make the mistake of pushing muscle development in exchange for damaging try. It doesn't matter how great of a pep talk you give your horse, the peppy encouragement of "one more time!" that may work so well on exercise tapes is meaningless to the horse. The blessed relief of that long stretch, however is something they can definitely appreciate.