A topic that’s discussed often in human athletics is the importance of recovery days when trying to build strength and muscle. These “rest” days often consist of yoga, stretching and light workouts like walking, which allows muscles to heal and grow stronger. It makes sense, then, that an equine sports recovery period would also be valuable in equine athletes, like Western performance horses.
But what does recovery look like in horses, and are the many products available on the market useful? Quarter Horse News checked in with Dr. Sarah Reuss, VMD, DACVIM, Equine Technical Manager at Boehringer Ingelheim, to learn more about sports recovery in equines and how to make it a regular part of your horse’s training.
Muscle Growth Requires Rest
Recovery is basically allowing a body to return to its baseline, Reuss said. During recovery, the body flushes out any waste products that have built up during exercise, replenishes proteins and enzymes, and heals microscopic tears in the muscles. Recovery helps reduce fatigue, preventing injuries that can occur due to exhaustion.
“In performance horses, that fatigue aspect is arguably one of the most important parts of recovery because they can’t tell us when something is hurting,” Reuss said. “They may not be overtly lame but might have a little strain or are just tired. Because they’re so good, they’re going to keep doing their jobs, but so many injuries, especially soft tissue and musculoskeletal injuries, happen when they’re tired. A leg might go slightly where they didn’t really want it to just because they couldn’t control it.”
It might seem counterproductive to give your horse a day off when you’re trying to build up to a big event, but riding him hard every day will actually have the opposite effect from what you’re trying to achieve.
“If you look at human bodybuilders, recovery has become a huge portion of their protocols to get bigger muscles,” Reuss said. “You actually really need those recovery days to allow muscle cells at the molecular level to heal and repair themselves to get bigger.”
Any Level Horse Can Benefit
All horses with jobs are athletes, whether they are mostly trail horses that go to two shows a year or are in consistent training programs for big events. As such, they can all benefit from recovery periods, Reuss said. Those that fall into the former category might need even more consideration.
“Sometimes the lower level performance horses actually have a little bit more unbalanced wear and tear versus the high level horses that are probably being managed more intensively,” Reuss said. “A horse might have to compensate more for a lower level rider’s balance, versus a better rider. Because of that, we should be paying attention to these things in all of our horses.”
Recovery Starts at Home
It may sound intimidating, but recovery days don’t have to be anything fancy, and there are plenty of things you can do at home on your horse’s rest days.
“For our horses, active recovery can either be a day of turnout, a day where you just go for a trail ride, or a day where you just work with the horse on the ground and let him kind of do what he wants,” Reuss said. “I think all of those things are still moving us towards our goals, whether that’s the futurity or just local horse shows. It’s still moving us in the right direction while allowing your horse to live his best life.”
Warm-ups and cool-downs around rides are also important in helping your horse recover from its workout. Allow 10-15 minutes of long and slow warm up, and follow up your ride with another 10-15 minutes of walking to cool down.
There are things you can do on a daily basis, too, to keep your horse in top shape – keeping him at an appropriate body weight, for instance, is easier on his joints and ligaments than letting him become obese. Even giving your horse a good curry can be productive, allowing you to find tender places on his body that signal possible problems areas.
The Latest Technologies Might Help – Or Not
There are lots of products on the market that are said to help with recovery in horses: static magnetic therapy blankets, pads and wraps that utilize magnets to increase blood flow; Pulsed Electro-Magnetic Therapy, or PEMF, which creates a mild magnetic current to reduce inflammation and provide pain relief; saltwater spas; and ice boots, for instance. While a few of them have some evidence to support their claims, not all of them do, Reuss said. Still, they likely won’t hurt your horse, either.
“In terms of recovery, that’s where it’s hard to really know what’s working, because hopefully there’s nothing actually wrong, so how do you measure what it’s doing?” Reuss said. “There’s probably not a huge downside to them, we just don’t know how truly effective they are in terms of where and how you’re spending your money.”
Most of these products are not cheap, she noted. If your horse isn’t injured and you’re just looking for a way to maintain him, there might be more efficient ways to spend money on him.
Consistent Veterinary Care Is Best
Nothing beats good, old-fashioned veterinary care, combined with good nutrition, when it comes to keeping your horse in the best shape possible. Preventative veterinary assessments can often catch issues before they become catastrophic problems, versus spending money on the latest trend that might or might not actually do anything for your horse.
“Strategize where you spend your money,” Reuss said. “In any horse, whether it’s that elite animal or lower performance horse, having a good relationship with your veterinarian and some regular lameness assessments — just to make sure we’re not missing injuries or we’re not seeing things start to get a little bit off that we could stop before they become major issues — are important.”