Running out of steam?
Horse & Hound|July 08, 2021
What could be behind a horse’s failure to develop or maintain fitness as expected? Andrea Oakes investigates
Andrea Oake

YOU prepared him methodically for the season, but your horse’s energy reserves seem unusually low. Or perhaps his fitness levels are not progressing, despite the fact that you’re following a training programme.

Before delving too deeply into the potential veterinary issues, performance horse consultant Peter “Spike” Milligan MRCVS advises first placing your training techniques under the microscope. Only then can a horse’s fitness – or lack of it – be objectively assessed.

“A competition horse needs to be just fit enough,” says Spike, a British Eventing youth performance squad vet. “Event horses at the lower levels are often too fit, which can compromise their soundness, appetite and condition, as well as their ability to achieve a good dressage score. Yet a slightly overweight, underfit eventer is at risk of injury.

“A good starting point is to understand the athletic demands at your horse’s level,” adds Spike. “You can then set measurable fitness parameters.”

To benchmark fitness levels, Spike suggests using a stopwatch and a horse heart-rate monitor.

“You can then assess fitness by speed of recovery, recording the time taken after a work period for the horse’s respiratory rate to return to 16 breaths per minute – or for his nostrils to stop flaring. If you do two six-furlong gallops, for example, the trend should be for the recovery time to shorten.

“Bear in mind that genetics play a part in a horse’s fitness capacity,” adds Spike. “A horse with more thoroughbred in his breeding will have greater innate fitness and an ability to maintain this. A warmblood, however, may have more power and endurance but less speed.

“Age also matters,” he adds. “The equine cardiorespiratory system is incredibly efficient; young Flat racing horses are on the track at two to three years, but they are still maturing skeletally. While older competition horses may be more at risk of developing an injury that rules out work, they tend to retain a natural degree of fitness. Their riders often know them well and know how to bring them to the required level. It’s all about understanding the horse you have.”

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