When long-distance runners train for a marathon, they do more than hit the path five times a week. They may swim, bike and lift weights too. And as with any sport, this type of cross-training is a cornerstone of improved physical performance. Similar to human athletes, horses benefit from alternating training regimens. With the high rate of musculoskeletal injuries in athletic horses, there is a need for more effective training methods that improve strength without over-stressing joints, bones, tendons and ligaments. This is why cross-training is so important.
One of the central purposes of cross-training is to build strength and aerobic fitness.
"It is critical for the mental and proper musculoskeletal development of the athlete to have for every three training days a day off or even better provide cross-training, like trail riding or swimming, on these days," Dr. Judith Koenig, of the University of Guelph's Ontario Veterinary College, told The Horse.
Interspersing different exercises both improves fitness and helps prevent injuries. An endurance horse that cross-trains with dressage could develop enhanced coordination and reduce injury risk as muscles tire during an event. Apple-A-Day™ supplies minerals needed for healthy muscle function and hydration, and JC's X-Tie Up™ promotes healthy muscle metabolism.
On the other hand, a show horse that completes an occasional 12- to 25-mile run can nurture greater aerobic capacity and endurance for long show weekends.
Cross-training can remove much of the stress from a horse's bones and muscles. As with their human counterparts, equine bones are dynamic – they are constantly responding to stress. This bone remodeling is determined by both growth and mechanical loading on the bone.
Microdamage within the bone happens as the result of repetitive strain. When microdamage occurs, damaged cells relay signals to remove the damaged bone and replace it with healthy bone. The problem is that overtraining causes this microdamage to happen at a faster rate than the horse's body can fix, and the repair is never as strong as the original bone. As a consequence, there might be a weak point in the bone, setting the horse up for future injury.
Dr. Hilary Clayton, of Sport Horse Science, told The Horse that though a similar microdamage repair cycle takes place within the tendons and ligaments, these body parts have a limited ability to repair themselves quickly. The big difference between tendons and bones is that elastic tendons accumulate damage over the lifetime of a horse, putting older horses at risk of exercise-related damage.
The foundation of a strong musculoskeletal system is gradual and varied loading. Train the horses on various terrain and at different gaits, which enables the bone and soft tissue to be stressed in different locations, thereby lowering the risk of repetitive strain.
Incorporating exercise equipment
There is a variety of exercise equipment – such as mechanical walkers, treadmills and swimming pools – that trainers use to further condition horses. A mechanical walker, sometimes called a European Hot Walker, has gained popularity as a tool for light conditioning work. Unlike traditional "hot walkers," which were mainly designed for cooling out racehorses after training and racing, mechanical walkers allow more freedom of movement.
Another effective tool is the treadmill. Several different models are available, with the differentiating factors being size, speed capabilities and price. Treadmills can be used for walking and trotting exercises – this equipment is particularly useful in the winter when the ground is frozen or covered in snow.
Despite the physical benefits of these tools, it's helpful to keep in mind that the social relationships a horse develops is critical to its overall happiness and well-being. Rather than focusing on these as central pieces of training, trainers should use the equipment in tandem with workouts such as hacking, jump schooling in groups, cattle sorting or beach riding.
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