Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot: Best Practices for Cool-Down and Recovery

The vet box at The Event at Rebecca Farm, which hosts USEA Classic Series Novice and Training Three-Day Events. Photo by Leslie Wylie.

In our last equine management piece with Kirsty McCann of Foran Equine, we looked at what constitutes optimal best practice when traveling horses to and from competitions. This time, we are covering the areas of further management, warming up, cooling down and recovery after strenuous exertion.

Many championship events or upper level competitions take place during the summer, in countries with hot or humid climates. Horses competing at an elite level require a high standard of management to enable them to perform at their best, and those management practices must be adaptable, depending on both the environment and the individual needs and requirements of each horse.

Being stabled away from home becomes quite normal for many horses, and for the most part the horses do cope quite well. Given that horses are out of their ‘home’ routine and environment, Kirsty recommends that they are taken out of their stables at least every four hours during the day. Hand walking, hand grazing or free lungeing are all excellent ways of maintaining gut mobility, and of keeping the horses mentally and physiologically stimulated. In warmer weather or in hotter climates, Kirsty has observed that many riders use a quite prolonged amount of walking as their initial warm up, and as their cool down. Rather than getting stuck into a lengthy or heavy schooling session or a demanding warm up, it can be better overall to use plenty of walk intervals during exercise to optimize performance and recovery.

Looking at the areas of the overall management of the performance horse, the post-cross country cool down and also recovery, Kirsty offers us some invaluable tips and advice:

  • Immediately after the cross country phase, dropping the horse’s heart rate and body temperature as well as slowing the rate of respiration, is the main focus. Getting the horse stripped off and washed down-whilst keeping it walking-begins the process. At International competitions, a vet will also be observing and monitoring each horse. From here, icing and claying will begin. Rehydration is vitally important, although it is advised that horses do not receive electrolytes until they have fully recovered and are taking in or being administered with fluids. This can be up to three hours post exertion.
  • Antioxidants are as important as electrolytes in recovery management. The physical chemical reactions created by strenuous exertion create oxidative stress, by virtue of an altered physiological balance of antioxidants and free radicals. This imbalance creates an excess of free radicals, which in turn causes an inflammatory response within the athlete. Oxidative stress can contribute to conditions such as Exertional Rhabdomyolys (a.k.a. tying up), Exercise Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage (aka ‘bursting’ or ‘bleeding’), damage to the airway or Sore Muscle Syndrome, amongst others. Using supplements with a high vitamin E content can be hugely beneficial, as the vitamin E ‘mops up’ excess free radicals. This helps to stabilize or re establish a more regular balance of antioxidants and free radicals, and promote optimal recovery for the athlete.
  • Using a Ubiquinol Co Q 10 supplement year round can be an excellent help to the performance horse. It is a ‘super antioxidant’, and also aids cellular and metabolic energy-vital for recovery from exertion, and also from injury. Horses are naturally low in Co Q 10, due to their high grain diet.
  • Many riders struggle with finding the best work-feed ratio when it comes to managing fitness levels and individual temperaments. If you are unable to feed a horse the recommended amount for any reason, then you must supplement with a balancer. Optimal levels of vitamins, minerals, protein and amino acids are vitally important for any horse expected to perform well during strenuous activity. For horses that are prone to carrying weight, a low calorie balancer can work very well. Additional energy sources such as fibre and oil can help to provide slow release energy through the diet.
  • When planning your competitive schedule, it can be extremely useful to incorporate having  a forage test done for each new batch of hay or haylage that is ready for use. A forage test will look at the standard nutritional content, as well as minerals, antagonists and hygiene. For horses that are under-performing, a simple forage test can provide clues and answers. Supplementing for imbalances created by the forage being used can be transformative for performance horses.

With sincere thanks to Kirsty McCann and Foran Equine for their generous contributions.