One of the most important things we can do to prevent sports related injuries in our horses is to keep them properly conditioned. For barrel racing, that’s conditioned for four sprints and three turns in varying ground conditions. While long trotting or even loping around the pasture is great for overall physical (and mental) conditioning, it doesn’t prepare a barrel horse’s muscles and soft tissue for the demands of the sport.
By Matt Randall, DVM
Consider the human marathon runner. Without a doubt, they’re extremely fit. But even so, they can’t just jump on a bike or jump in the ocean and think they’re going to be able to compete in a triathlon. They, too, have to condition their muscles for the demands of cycling and swimming.
Sydni Blanchard at Calgary. (Mike Copeman)
If your horse doesn’t need a lot of barrel work, conditioning for strength, and thus soundness, in the turns often gets over looked.
What you ask your horse to do during your conditioning program impacts their potential soundness. A horse that spends too much time doing straight lines and big soft circles isn’t physically prepared for hard, sharp turns. A little pattern work or loping small barrel-sized circles will improve a horse’s strength for the turns. Periodic sprinting, or breezing your horse, also helps with developing the fast-twitch muscles necessary for quick bursts of speed during your barrel run.
Where you ride also affects what your horse becomes physically fit to handle. By conditioning in altering terrain, your program can decrease your odds of a sports related injury to your barrel horse due to the various footing you may encounter at an event.
For instance, studies have shown that soft, deep footing is more likely to cause a soft tissue injury, like a strained suspensory ligament, while hard ground is often responsible for damage to bones and joints, like aggravating arthritis.
Conditioning your horse by simply long trotting in the pasture or down the roadside where the ground is typically firm and asking them to run in deep, sandy pens is often asking for trouble. The horse is more susceptible to a soft tissue injury because the body hasn’t been prepared for it through routine conditioning.
Tendons and ligaments actually have a very slow turnover rate, meaning they adapt to changes slowly. This is one of the reasons soft tissues often take months or years to heal properly. Muscle, on the other hand, has a faster turnover rate and is much better able to adapt to stress.
Muscles, tendons and ligaments work as a team to keep the joint stable. Ligaments mostly connect bone to bone across joints and are extremely important in providing stability. Muscles connect to tendons, which cross the joint to induce motion, but also help to provide stability. Weak or easily fatigued muscles may be unable to aid in stabilizing the joint, leaving the ligaments to take up the load. Under the right, or wrong, conditions, this may lead to ligament and or tendon injury.
When compared to ligaments and tendons, bone has a much faster turnover rate. It’s a very dynamic tissue, and even in mature horses, it’s constantly changing and adapting to stresses in the environment. In a sense, working your horse on firm ground is exercising the bone. Concussion on the hard surface increases bone density and strength. This may help eliminate stress fractures and bone bruises. On the down side, conditioning on hard ground can put additional stress on joints because they’re absorbing the shock of the hard footing.
You should also be mindful of your horse’s pre-existing conditions. Don’t overdo your conditioning on hard ground with a horse with arthritic issues or overwork a horse with bad suspensory ligaments in deep footing. With horses like these, you may want to pick your battles when it comes to competition footing, as well.
You also should avoid over conditioning your horse. While a week away from the gym may leave you panting at your next visit, horses don’t lose their shape as fast. A few days after a stressful weekend of many runs and long trailer rides (which are more physically demanding than most people realize) allows a horse’s body to “catch-up.” It’s during periods of rest when muscles, joints and soft tissues repair themselves. Rest is as vital a part of conditioning as the physical work.
Varying your conditioning program can help maintain your horse’s competitive edge and soundness. While there is little you can do to prevent bad luck, having a properly conditioned horse will certainly hedge your bet.