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A Guide to Recovery

By Dr David Marlin

After a competition is over, whether you have won or lost, how you help your horse recover can have a major impact on how your horse performs in its the next competition or even for the rest of the season.  Many months and in most cases well over a years’ preparation will have gone into getting to a competition. Does as much thought go into getting home and what to do with the horses once they are back in their home stables? In most cases probably not. The post-competition period for many riders will be a less hectic and stressful time however. Although, in some disciplines, such as show jumping and dressage, for example, the next important competition may only be a matter of days away.

The place to start with looking at post-competition is to acknowledge how much competition itself can take out of horses. Horses may have travelled considerable distances, experienced changes in feeding, be in an unfamiliar stable, with unfamiliar horses, a very different routine to at home, have experienced the additional stress of competition and in many cases increased stress from their riders. Some horses will have picked up injuries and there is always an increased risk of picking up a bacterial or viral respiratory infection when many horses mix.

So the first question is when is a horse that has competed ready to travel home? The answer will vary by discipline. For example, endurance horses after an intense 160km competition will have some of the most extreme changes in electrolytes and may require 3-4 days for the levels in the body to start to approach normal. They will also have lost the majority of their muscle “sugar” energy stores (known as glycogen). Anyone who has run a marathon will know what that feels like the next day and few would wish to undertake a long journey immediately. So these horses benefit from 24h rest as a minimum before being transported for more than a few hours. The same would apply to the eventers. A show-jumper or dressage horse on the other hand may well be ready to travel after just a few hours rest. But this depends on the individual horse. There will be endurance horses that only need 24h to recover and show jumpers that might need 4 days.

Surprisingly perhaps there is very little scientific study of recovery from exercise in horses. One study from Sweden (Jensen-Warren et al., 1999) showed that following a 120km endurance race, recovery in muscle enzymes (an indicator of muscle damage) and the “stress” hormone cortisol took place within 24 hours of finishing the race, but that it took up to 8 days for the white blood cells (the immune system) to return to normal. And the same group several years later showed that muscle energy stores (both glycogen and fat) took up to 8 days to fully recover (Essen-Gustavsson and Jensen-Warren, 2002).

There is also perhaps surprisingly very little scientific study of the recovery of human athletes following competition. However in one study of runners taking part in the Los Angeles marathon, 13% of runners reported having a respiratory infection in the 2 weeks after completing the marathon compared with only 2% of runners who turned up but did not compete (Nieman et al. 1990). This is not a surprising finding. Exercise, especially intense and frequent or prolonged exercise suppresses the immune system. This is why when many horses mix at competitions there is always a high risk of infection and of course, it only needs one infected horse to cause a problem.

What are the risks of transporting a horse before it has sufficiently recovered? Muscle soreness, dehydration, electrolyte disturbance and low muscle glycogen could lead to a bout of tying-up, colic or an increased risk of a slip or fall when being loaded or during the journey home. These same conditions might also increase the risk of respiratory disease or a bout of colic. In many ways the journey home may carry a greater risk than the journey to competition. Being exposed to a strain of Streptococcus zooepidemicus, the bacteria most commonly associated with shipping fever (pneumonia), that the horse has not been exposed to before (and will therefore not have immunity to) may increase the risk of shipping fever on a long homeward journey (>8 hours).  A horse that has not fully rehydrated before leaving on a long journey is also likely to be at more risk of shipping fever as in dehydrated horses the respiratory defences are compromised. The main risks for a bout of colic will be changes in feed, stress and dehydration. Therefore it is advisable to minimise changes in feed on the homeward journey and when arriving home, and potentially even more important than on the outward journey.

On arriving home, how long should horses be allowed for recovery? Again, this will depend on the discipline, if the horse has picked up any injury or infectious disease, how long the travel was as a starter. Again, we have little to go on from a scientific point of view in horses and also little when it comes to human athletes. Marathon runners generally allow 2-3 weeks recovery following a race. Many riders would be concerned about loss of fitness if they gave this length of recovery period. However, several scientific studies have shown that whilst human athletes may lose a significant amount of fitness in a 2-3 week period of reduced training, horses taken from competition fitness to box rest lose very little fitness over a period as long as 4 weeks. Of course whilst fitness may not change with reduced activity, behaviour and performance might. Reduced activity would require a change in feeding (i.e. less energy). Turn-out at grass may allow development of a “grass-gut” and in the absence of being regularly ridden, there may be a decrease in skills. On the positive side, a break may allow a jaded horse to regain some enthusiasm and also allow recovery from any minor injuries. If you have the option to turn-out on a small bare paddock this is beneficial for recovery. It keeps the horse moving more than in the stable and helps promote blood flow. It also keeps the horse mentally happier. If you only have access to grass paddock, then consider a grazing muzzle. Horses grazing with muzzles where their grass consumption is very low in my opinion is preferable to being stabled.

So when is a horse likely to be ready to begin training and compete following a period of recovery at home? Once again, we have very little to go on as far as specific information and we come back to discipline differences. For show-jumpers and dressage horses following a big competition, a few days light work may be all that is needed. This would be similar to human sprinters, who can compete fairly frequently. But human marathon runners generally allow somewhere around 5 weeks between races and believe that they can “peak” and put in their best performance only as much as 2-3 times per year. This type of approach would be indicated for endurance horses and eventers competing at 3 day events. And the more frequent marathon runners compete, the more likely they are to be injured. This should not be a surprise. A study from Holland showed that male marathon runners who entered a race more than 6 times in the previous 12 months were up to 2½ times more likely to suffer a lower leg injury (Van Middelkoop et al. 2008).

So to summarise, trying to ensure that horses get some recovery time before leaving a competition is important to minimise the risk of injury or disease on the homeward journey. Obviously there is little other than rest that can be given to ease tiredness, but potential threats to health during transport such as dehydration can be reduced by making sure that the horse has access to lots of high moisture content forage (i.e. haylage or steamed or soaked hay). The journey home is likely to carry a greater risk than the journey to a competition with tired and possibly dehydrated horses and horses that may have picked up some form of infectious respiratory disease. Once at home, a period of recovery with decreased work and corresponding decreased feed (energy) intake should be planned.

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