It’s the festive season, and for many of our horses, that means a well-deserved break from competition and training schedules. And that, it turns out, is one of the best things you can do for your horse, and for your competitive riding career.
Why Rest is Essential
Rest is beneficial for your horse on a physical and a mental level. Physically, your horse needs time to recover from exercise, both in the short and long term. In the short term, rest allows the body to heal and adapt to the increasing stresses placed on it during exercise. Muscles strengthen, bones adapt to stress, energy stores are replenished. In the long run, rest is what will prevent plateaus in training and performance.
Mentally, a break will prevent fatigue, increase motivation and enthusiasm, and allow your horse the best opportunity to bring his best self to the arena.
Short-term vs Long-term Rest
Short-term rest is incorporated in your training on a weekly basis. For example, a high-intensity fitness session might be followed by a day of flatwork where suppleness and freedom of movement is the goal. A jumping lesson might be followed by a day off, a hack, or in-hand work. Rest can certainly take the form of a day off, or it can come in the form of a change in exercise, which can also be described as cross training.
Proper cooling down after an intensive session forms a part of this process, allowing the musculoskeletal system to recover from exercise.
Long-term rest involves weeks off from training and competition. Horses can maintain their fitness levels for four weeks or more, especially when they are turned out and going on light hacks during that period. Long breaks should be planned annually or biannually, and should be determined by your horse’s needs as well as the competition schedule. Taking multiple shorter breaks throughout the year may be an option, and taking one long break once a year is another. Do what works best for you and your horse.
What do Short-term Rest Days Look Like?
There are many things you can do on rest days during a training schedule. These could include:
- Working on your relationship with your horse by spending time grooming, massaging or hanging out with them while grazing.
- Go for an in-hand walk with your horse, work on ground manners and your communication and synchronicity as a team.
- Review your training videos and journals to plan the next few days of training. Recognise and be grateful for the improvements you have made, and notice the areas where you would like to see more improvement, then plan your training schedule accordingly.
- Book a treatment session for your horse with a Vetrehabber right after an intensive exercise session or a competition. A Vetrehabber will help speed recovery and reduce muscle soreness, and may also help identify any areas in your horse that might be taking extra strain during competition.
- Rest days can also include active rest, which might mean a light hack, groundwork or lunging.
Long-term rest can look a little different, and should include turn-out to pasture, long relaxing hacks, and plenty of time spent together building your relationship.
Injury prevention is one of the most important benefits of sufficient rest. Fatigued athletes are at a higher risk for both acute and overuse injuries, and an injury for our equine athletes can be devastating. Tendons can adapt to stress, but they take a long time to do so, and they require both the stress and a sufficient period of rest to be able to make those adaptations. The same is true for muscle, although it doesn’t take as long and injury has a better prognosis for recovery.
Part of preventing injury is to prevent overuse of specific structures. We can do this by varying the structures that are stressed during training – through changing the exercise performed, and through cross training. A good training routine should include work on different surfaces, ridden and unridden work, skills development (your specific sport) as well as fitness training, strength training, and suppleness training. By varying the structures worked on daily, and the intensity of exercise, we can give our horses the best chance of developing as athletes and preventing injuries from occurring.
Above all, listen to your horse! Changes such as irritability, grumpiness, a lack of motivation, a plateau or dip in performance or a change in his ability to cope with exercise can all be indicators of fatigue and can guide you toward giving him a break or lowering the intensity of exercise for a period of time. Work together with your vet and Vetrehabber to ensure that these changes are not as a result of a physical problem, and to help your horse recover, rest and return to optimal performance.