The Healing Power of Rest

By Keelin Redmond, DVM

Physical training of the horse is essential. Everyone knows that in order to be strong enough and fit enough to run, jump, piaffe or spin, the equine athlete must be in a fitness program. One of the most essential parts of a fitness program is rest.

Rest in the context of sports medicine is defined as “time spent NOT training.” There are many reasons why rest is essential; some of these reasons are physiological and some are psychological. Rest makes the athlete stronger, because it allows stressed tissues to repair, rebuild, and strengthen. Human athletes and their trainers have long extolled the virtues of incorporating rest into training programs. The human sports medicine community extensively researches, writes and practices rest and recovery. As we evolve in equine sports, it may benefit us to learn from their example.

Normal, healthy exercise creates muscle tissue breakdown, depletion of energy stores and fluid loss. Rest is when the body deals with these changes and adapts to the stress of exercise. Without sufficient time to repair and replenish, the body will continue to break down. Ice, poultice, magnetic wraps and whirlpools all have their place, but none will compensate for insufficient rest.

There are two types of recovery: short term and long term. Short term (or “active”) recovery takes place in the period of time immediately following intense exercise. It can include low intensity exercise during the cool-down phase and in the days following a hard workout or competitive event. The body uses this time to replenish energy and fluid stores, increase the protein content of muscle cells, remove metabolic waste, and repair damaged tissue. In the equine athlete, this translates into taking it easy for a day or two after a hard school, or for a couple of days following an event. Some movement is good during short term recovery; low intensity exercise like turnout or light trail riding can be helpful to stretch muscles and mobilize waste products.

Turnout can play an important role in rest and recovery for your horse.

Long term recovery refers to days or weeks built into the year-round training schedule. Human athletes train for specific events in a “ramping up to peak” fashion. Marathon runners usually have a training plan that begins 16-20 weeks prior to a specific race, peaking at the race then allowing for some period of “down time”. Rarely are human athletes expected to reach optimum fitness and then maintain it indefinitely. Long term recovery allows inflammation to subside and stressed muscles, tendons, cartilage and bone to repair. “Down time” also helps the athlete to recover psychologically in order to resume training with fresh enthusiasm. Symptoms of overtraining in the human athlete can include irritability, mood swings, depression, loss of desire to train and susceptibility to injury. As every horseman knows, the equine athlete can exhibit many of the same symptoms.

The changing equestrian culture has impacted our horses’ long term recovery. There was a time when weather precluded riding for months at a time and horses were rested until the snow melted. Now, with the advent of indoor arenas and vans to Florida, many horses train and compete year-round.

The amount of rest and recovery time each individual needs varies. Genetics, injury history and environmental factors likely all play a role in this variability.

What can you do? Listen to your horse. Keep a training journal. Record not just what he did on any given day but how he felt. If you took him for a walk hack the day after a jump school, did he feel stiff? What about the next day? Does he feel better if you just turn him out or if you walk him under tack as well? This can help you determine how much and what kind of rest your individual horse needs following a jump school, a show, a season, etc. Plan your week. It’s probably not ideal to follow a tough jump school with a tough flat lesson or gallop the next day. Incorporate trail rides, stretchy flat work, and turnout where you can. Be conscious of short-term recovery. Warm up and cool down slowly and carefully every day. If he jumped this morning and has been in the stall at the show all day, take him for a hand walk this afternoon. Plan your year. Sit down with the show calendar and make an “A Plan,” “B Plan,” etc. Budget time for your horse to rest and recover. Most horses can take up to 30 days off without losing significant fitness. This period of time is likely even longer if the horse is being hacked or trail ridden a couple of days a week. We’re all in this together. Get close to your team. Talk to your veterinarian and your trainer about rest. Together you can make a plan designed for your individual horse. A happy, comfortable horse is good for all of us.

This article was originally published in the May/June 2016 print edition of The Plaid Horse Magazine.