Thursday, January 22, 2015

Fit to Ride

January is the month of resolutions.  Did you know that over 47% of Americans make New Years resolutions with the majority of those Americans putting fitness in the top 10?  With 69% of Americans over age 20 being over weight it's easy to see why fitness goals are in the top 10.  69 percent!!  That number astounds me.  I would like to believe that our numbers in the horse owning public are little below the national average given our fairly active outdoor lifestyle, but I suspect we, as a demographic, suffer a fairly high statistic as well.

As a veterinarian I am daily faced with the task of assigning body condition scores to my patients.  I examine the horse, using my hands as well as a weight tape and give it a score between 1 and 9 to describe it's overall condition.  I like to see most of my patients falling somewhere in the range of 4-6 with 5 being the goal for most recreational horses.  Because there is such a stigma against "fat shaming" in America right now I find that many of my clients are appalled when I flat out say, "your horse is fat".  They may giggle, joke about being an easy keeper or say he "wintered well".  They are often quick to say that he's a good horse anyway or that they love him anyway as if my comments about his weight somehow devalue or belittle the horse.  This is American anthropomorphism at its worst. As a veterinarian I am concerned only with your horse's overall well being and more importantly longevity.  I want  you and your horse to have a long, healthy and productive life.  He can't do that if he isn't kept healthy throughout his life.  There are a multitude of problems that are associated with prolonged obesity in horses including, lipomas, metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, arthritis, and laminitis.  Interestingly enough these conditions mirror the most common conditions associated with obesity in humans: diabetes, osteoarthritis, stroke, heart disease, some cancers and gout.  I'm not being "mean" when I tell you your horse is fat. I'm doing my best to help you recognize it, correct it, and make changes so that you can help your horse live a long and healthy life.

Wouldn't it be simpler if it worked this way for us humans?  If our doctor would just look at our "owner" and say, "She's fat.  Cut the grain completely, switch to grass hay only at 18 pounds/day and exercise for 25 minutes 3 times a week.  Muzzle if you need to."

Unfortunately it's not that easy.  We, as horse owners are probably guilty of making poor choices for our health due to our busy schedules with our horses.  While you are busy rushing to the barn and getting ready to ride or mixing the 5 different supplements that your horse gets every evening you may have forgotten to feed yourself properly.  A bag of chips and that extra slice of pizza that somebody left in the fridge will suffice for a lunch on the go.  No time to exercise because you have to get to barn to get your horse his turn out time. There are more excuses than there are bales of hay in your barn.

Luckily our life on the go helps to keep things from getting too out of hand for most of us, but is it enough?  We expect athletic excellence from our horses.  We want our horses to be in top form and able to be at once graceful, athletic, swift, and able to go all day without tiring.  Can we expect less from ourselves?

I think in order to get the most out of your partnership with your horse and the best performance it is important for us to be as fit, flexible and healthy as possible.  For an equestrian, balance, flexibility and fitness improve our feel and timing in the saddle.  By decreasing the weight our horses are forced to carry we can avoid having to ride a 1200# horse.  There is a reason draft crosses are currently enjoying a popularity trend.

This year I made many resolutions (I like to think of them as goals) for my horsemanship.  I want to advance my horsemanship skills and improve my feel and timing and go on to accomplish goals both with my vaquero horsemanship and cowboy dressage.  Among those goals I added working on my own fitness.  As I've aged I have lost flexibility and added pounds.  I can't continue to ask for excellence from my horse without demanding the same excellence from myself.

There are many many programs out there that are designed to target the muscles and areas that most equestrians need to concentrate on the most.  Pilates and yoga are both excellent disciplines for increasing core strength, balance and flexibility which are all important for a balanced rider.  Recent research has even linked some equine lameness with back and balance problems in the rider.  Improving your own balance and flexibility may help your horse to move more balanced beneath you.

For back country riders, fitness is even more important.  While nobody likes to think about the worst case scenario, we have all heard the horror stories of horses becoming injured in an accident in the back country resulting in the rider having to hike out.  If you are not fit enough to hike out as far as your horse has carried you in, you have no business being out there in the first place.

So, I challenge you, my fellow horse friends, to take a real look at both you and your horse's body condition score.  Determine if your horse is at an ideal body condition and make the necessary changes to assure he is.  Your veterinarian can help you with this.  Then take a hard look at your own body condition score.  If you need to make changes there, have a strong talking to your body's owner and start those changes today. I bet if you take at least half as much interest into the quality of diet and exercise you prescribe for your horse as you do for yourself you will make changes for the better.  Do it for your horse.  Do it for your horsemanship.  Do it for yourself.

Here are some resources especially for horse folks.