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Conditioning for Success


By Jennifer Dunlap, DVM
                One of my favorite movie lines is from “Champions,” a wonderful movie that tells the true story of British steeplechase jockey Bob Champion and his incredible Thoroughbred partner Aldaniti. A special treat was seeing Aldaniti play himself in the movie! They both had to overcome life threatening medical issues, through grueling conditioning and physical therapy, to come back to win the Grand National Steeplechase. During the movie Bob states that “a horse will do anything for you if he’s genuine and he loves you.” Lines like this may be a romantic view of a horse and rider partnership, but it also serves as an important reminder that we do ask a lot of our horses, and we have to be the ones in the partnership to say how long a ride should last, how hard a ride should be, and what footing we should ride in.

                Horses are athletes and should be conditioned as such. Without proper conditioning, a horse can easily be injured. A rider's weight changes the dynamics and causes a horse to change his way of going, the range of flexion and extension of joints, and pelvic and spinal alignment to balance the load on his back. It is critical that a horse be properly conditioned to allow for development of core body strength, tendon and ligament strength, and elasticity and bone density. I've seen stress fractures in horses that were too young to be started under saddle, despite their imposing size; tendon and ligament injuries; and exertional rhabdomyolysis (aka, tying up, Monday morning sickness.) This is a prominent subject in veterinary medicine, and entire textbooks have been written on these issues. So for the purposes of this article, I confine the subject to the relationship between conditioning (or lack of) and exertional rhabdomyolysis. 

                Rhabdomyolysis is the breakdown of muscle fibers and the release of myoglobin into the bloodstream. The myoglobin is extremely toxic to the kidneys and if the tying up episode is severe, permanent kidney damage, muscle necrosis (death of muscle tissue), or death can result. Acute one-time tying up episodes can be due to exercise overload, poor conditioning for the task at hand, electrolyte imbalances, or vitamin E, selenium or electrolyte deficiencies. Chronic multi-episode tying up is likely due to either polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM) or recurrent exertional rhabdomyolysis (RER.) PSSM is an inherited abnormality seen in some lines of Quarter Horses, Warmbloods and Draft breeds and is due to a problem storing glycogen in the muscles. Some draft horses, though, have a one-time tying up episode of PSSM in which sudden death can occur. Recurrent exertional rhabdomyolysis (RER) can occur in some lines of Thoroughbreds, Arabians and Standardbreds and is thought to be due to a disorder of calcium regulation that is triggered by excitement. 

                We all want to keep our horses sound, yet there are, unfortunately, times when a horse will sustain an injury no matter how careful we are with their care. But the biggest key to keeping a horse sound and fit for the task at hand is not anything with which a veterinarian can treat your horse, or anything you can get out of an expensive supplement, or order from Smartpak - it is simply proper feeding and conditioning. 

1) Determine whether or not your horse is fit enough to do what you are asking him to do.
The British 3-day event team owes much of its success over the years to its conditioning program. Their conditioning program creates horses with “legs of steel,” so to speak. When horses are brought out of the pasture for return to work, they spend weeks walking in the fields building bone density and tendon and ligament strength; then they start trotting; then canter work begins. Obviously, we don't all have fields to ride in, but the take home message is to steadily ramp up fitness to accomplish your goal. If you have a long trail ride planned in two months, start now with conditioning your horse on hills, doing a lot of walking and trotting, adding minutes to each ride. If you are planning to go to the Bird Dog Field Trials, begin conditioning your horse 10-12 weeks in advance, starting with short walking rides and adding time, distance, and speed. Pulling an unfit horse out of a field to go to a trail ride, field trial, a hard lesson, or weekend riding clinic can, at best, cause sore muscles and, at worst, cause significant injury and the risk of rhabdomyolysis. 

2) There should always be three parts to a ride. The first is warm up: 10-15 minutes of a good forward walk to warm up the soft tissues and increase blood flow to the muscles, which supplies oxygen and needed nutrients to working tissue. The second part is the actual working part. Whether this is conditioning, doing dressage, roping, jumping, etc. the time of this section of the ride can increase with increasing fitness. The third part, the cool down, is just as important: 15-20 minutes of light jogging and walking to clear lactic acid from the muscles and to allow for slowing the heart rate. It is critical to have the warm up and cool down phases! Without them, the likelihood of an injury increases. They also prevent a horse's brain from overloading and anxiety from developing if exercise starts and ends slowly.
This regimen is obviously an ideal model. Most of us work many long hours during the work week, squeezing in rides when we can. So options include: ponying one horse from another to condition both when in the field; asking a friend at your barn to do some of the rides; and being realistic about your riding goals. A horse that is only ridden once every two weeks would not be fit enough to take an all-day trail ride in the mountains. 

3) Feed your horse for the job you are asking him to do. Diet should be based on forage - hay and pasture and grain/feed added as needed to maintain good weight and fitness. This is very important, so your feed store, your feed manufacturer representatives, and your veterinarian can help you decide on what feed is appropriate for your horse. I like to feed my own horses fat. I have drafts and Thoroughbreds and I find they tend to remain "cooler," behavior-wise, and have more sustainable energy when working when I add fat to high quality mixed grass hay and their grain/feed. I like Purina Amplify, but you can also use corn or canola oil. Find more details on this subject at our website:; click on “news.”

4) What are the signs that my horse has tied up and what should I do? 

                a) Signs: dark urine (myoglobinuria); hard, painful muscles especially over hips and back; colic behavior; muscle spasms; collapse; profuse sweating; rapid respiratory rate and heart rate.

                b) STOP moving your horse and get off his back. Keeping a horse who is tying up moving can further damage muscles, leading to more myoglobin release and kidney damage. If needed, get a trailer to the site where your horse is located, or get a veterinarian to your horse in the field. If there is no way to get help to your horse based on his location, e.g., narrow trail, then get off and slowly move your horse to a location where he can get help.

                c) Call your veterinarian! Some horses will do well with oral fluids and electrolyte supplementation, but others need IV fluids to flush the kidneys, medications to increase blood flow to the kidneys, and hospitalization. Your veterinarian will take blood samples to check kidney values and muscle enzyme levels. I like to use an I-Stat hand-held blood analyzer, so we can get blood values right in the field. This really helps to tailor immediate fluid and electrolyte replacement for rapid treatment and, hopefully, reversal of any kidney insult. Try to get to the source of the problem with help from your veterinarian. Your veterinarian can help determine what is going on and make recommendations for treatment and management. At minimum, I generally recommend maintaining a horse who has tied up on a vitamin E/selenium supplement and providing a source of electrolytes. If I suspect PSSM or RER, genetic testing can be done with hair samples and muscle biopsies to rule out or rule in the cause of the rhabdomyolysis. Treatment and feeding recommendations can then be based on these findings. With careful management, a reduction in carbohydrates, and an increase in fat in the diet, most affected horses will do well.

                Pay attention to your conditioning and feeding program, whether you enjoy heading down the trail or heading into the show ring, and you will have a healthy, fit horse ready to do anything for you.
Urine cup on left shows normal urine. Urine cup in middle is dark red due to myoglobin (myoglobinuria). The horse was ridden hard in deep footing and was on a cracked corn (high carbohydrate) diet. He recovered and his diet/management changed. Urine cup on right is black due to very high concentrations of myoglobin. The horse was pulled out of pasture, ridden hard in a field trial, collapsed from the stressful workout when not conditioned, and now has permanent kidney and muscle damage. 

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