Physiological Demands on the Horses’ Body in Different Equestrian Sports

The equine musculoskeletal system has undergone many evolutionary adaptations to ensure effective locomotion, resulting in the wide variety of movement capabilities of performance horses. Even though certain aspects of physical fitness remain important no matter what the discipline, there are some major physiological and physical demand differences when comparing for example flat racing, to dressage, to show jumping, that no matter what your competition level it is good to understand. It is also important to understand these difference if you are wanting to retrain a horse to compete in a different sphere. A very common one is retraining racehorses to either compete in dressage or show jumping. Even though they are fit, well muscled performance horses, their bodies need to completely change to a new set of physiological demands. Musculoskeletal training and conditioning must be specific to make the precise adaptations each requires for the athletes to excel.

Flat racing is mainly run on grass but some are on artificial surfaces, with distances ranging from 5 Furlongs to 2 Miles 6 Furlongs. These horses are Thoroughbreds starting racing from 2 years old, most ending their career at around 6-7 years old. Flat racing is about speed so the Jockeys are lighter, with the weight, including the saddle, ranging from 8 stones to 10 stones. Nearly all Flat races start from stalls requiring explosive power and are a test of speed and stamina.  Limb forces increase with speed so training has instigated a number of evolutionary anatomical and physiological adaptations for economical high-speed locomotion. 

Comparing this to dressage which requires precision and obedience, with levels ranging from grassroots to elite athletes, therefore a range of ages and breeds participate throughout the levels. Competition and training is predominantly on an all-weather surface.  Especially at the lower levels horses will generally not be exclusively dressage trained, they may have multidisciplinary training such as eventing.  As the level of competition increases, the technical difficulty increases, muscular effort increases and the training becomes more purely dressage based.  There is very little published on the physiology of the horse in response to dressage training, however it is known that as the level of difficulty of dressage tests increases, there is an increase in duration and reduction speed as the horse spends more time performing collected movements and multiple transitions, expending a considerable amount of energy overcoming inertia.  There is an intermittent pattern of energy expenditure with short bursts (10-15 seconds) of medium and extended trot and canter.  In elite sport there is a tendency towards Warmblood types due to the large movement and refinement of gaits required, in particular German horses have gait characteristics more adapted for dressage. Other breeds do have traits liked by dressage trainers such as Lusitano’s. The breed difference is a factor to take into consideration as they move differently creating different musculoskeletal demand.  Such as in collected trot, Lusitano horses have lower vertical impulses in fore and hind limbs than Dutch warmbloods.  Cardiovascular fitness is not a limiting factor in performance of an advanced dressage horse; but would be in the flat race horse.

Show jumping is a test of teamwork and harmony between horse and rider, testing control, accuracy and athletic ability of both. Heights range from 70cm to 1.60m. There are usually between 10 – 15 jumping efforts with the aim of fewest faults in the fastest time.  As the level increases, the height and width of the fences increases and so does technicality of the course.  Tighter time allowances, tighter turns, angles and shorter or unusual distances between fences making the ability of the rider even more important, the rider is the brain of the athletic combination. Looking at the time in gallop and airborne in show jumping at preliminary, intermediate and open levels of competition Clayton 1996 found that in the first round the total time decreased progressively from the preliminary (80.8 s) to the intermediate (75.0 s) to the open (67. 5 s) level, but the average speed (399. 6 m/min, 399.0 m/min and 403.2 m/min, respectively) did not differ between levels. Both the galloping time between fences and the airborne time over the fences were longest at the preliminary level.  In the jump off, the open competition had a significantly higher speed, together with a significantly lower total time and galloping time. Comparing the jump off with the first round at the 3 levels of competition, the total time, the total galloping time and the airborne time were shorter in the jump off. There was an increase in the percentage of time spent galloping between fences and a corresponding reduction in the percentage of time spent airborne in the jump off compared with the first round. However, the average speed increased only in the open competition. The horses performed at speeds in the range of 399.0 to 445.2 m/min for periods of 39.1 to 80.8 s. The interval between jumping efforts varied between 4.3 and 5.6 s

There is some cross over between the physiological demands of the different disciplines and some aspects of physical fitness are important for all horses. Also, some level of cross training is important for both physical and psychological well-being aspects of horsemanship. However, all the structures of the musculoskeletal system need to be supported and enhanced by a good training programme specific to the discipline in the course of the horse’s education, to help refine the skills involved in each discipline and prevent injury.  Developing training plans based on the demand of each individual equestrian sport can extend functional movement up the age scale to ensure career longevity, future proofing the horse. If you need help developing a generalised training plan for an “all-rounder” or a specific training plan tailored towards a particular discipline, your trainer &/or physical therapist can help with this.

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