Cross-Training Keeps A Horse In Top Shape

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Almost everyone cross-trains their horses to some extent. Event horses by definition are cross-trained, and they are among the fittest of equine athletes. When an open jumper has a dressage school, he is being cross-trained. If the dressage horse goes for a hack on a long rein, it may be cross-training, but if he is allowed a crisp, “pipe-opening” gallop, it is definitely cross-training.

Football players are a great example of cross-training, using everything from running to weightlifting to sharpen specific abilities. They focus on precise aspects of their performance — balance, strength, speed, fast reflexes and basic conditioning — and incorporate other activities in their training to enhance them.

Contrast this with the casual human athlete, who defines cross-training as incorporating different activities so that body development/strength stays symmetrical. Swimming or specific weight programs may be used for upper-body strength; treadmills and jogging are used for lower body strength. All this is beneficial but may not do much to make individuals excel at a specific sport — they may be in great shape but still be lousy golfers.

An important benefit of cross-training is to prevent stress caused by repetitive movements, the same repetitive stress syndrome that causes tennis elbow and other ailments in humans. If you train a horse for a specific activity in the same way every day, muscles and connective tissues that become strained will not get any relief, increasing the likelihood of inflammation and injury.

When choosing your cross-training disciplines, you need to focus on ultimate goals, such as the open jumper who chooses dressage training to establish better balance and responsiveness. Cross-training is also a good way to keep your horse in condition while giving some sore areas a needed rest. However, the only way to know for certain if your cross-training activity is giving you the same level of aerobic or anaerobic conditioning is to monitor the horse’s heart rate (see heart-rate monitors October 1999).

Specificity Of Training
Specificity of training means for a horse to excel he must be trained and conditioned to the specific activity. A horse cannot win races (anaerobic exercise) if he is only galloped slowly (aerobic exercise) any more than a horse can be conditioned for an endurance ride by training at speed over short distances.

The horse’s body can only be adapted to specialized demands by progressively and systematically presenting him with greater loads. The racehorse trains by working at faster and faster speeds, while the endurance horse adds more and more miles at a pace that will make him competitive over the distance. Specificity of training is also necessary to develop the needed balance and coordination in his nervous system.

Specificity in terms of aerobic vs. anaerobic activity is important in all sports. However, with a mature horse who knows his job, it is less important to constantly school inside your one discipline or using the same routine. The racehorse can mix track work with swimming, treadmill or even work cross-country. As long as the work load — as defined by heart rate and lactate production — is the same, the same conditioning effect will be obtained.

Cross-Training Goals
A training program is only successful if you meet your defined goals.

Bring in variety: A break from the routine is a common reason for cross-training. A relaxed cross-country hack is a universal favorite for horses of all disciplines. Variety prevents sourness. The activity should be something the horse enjoys — something that keeps him alert, eager and willing with minimal need for direction from you. That hack through the woods may be perfect for an arena-bound dressage horse, but not for the rental trail horse. The well-behaved lesson horse’s idea of a good time will be the instructor taking the horse over a demanding course of fences or for a brisk gallop.

Sharpen specific skills: Like the football player running sprints, integrating training methods from other disciplines can improve your horse’s performance in his primary sport. Collected dressage work can be a good way to encourage an endurance horse to engage his hindquarters and improve his agility for difficult terrains.

Relieve physical stress: Horses with chronic lameness problems often require creative training methods to enable conditioning to proceed without aggravating the injury/weakness. This includes horses that perform at speed and horses that place high demands on specific areas of the body, such as hocks in jumpers and high-performance Western horses, shoulders in gaited horses, and the back in driving horses. The problem becomes how to protect the horse from injury but continue training. The more specialized and demanding the sport, the more difficult it becomes to accomplish both goals.

Bottom Line
In our chart (see link below), we list appropriate activities for avoiding sore areas and for continuing conditioning for your discipline, while varying your horse’s routine. Specificity of training is always an issue with cross-training. Your alternate activity should ideally be one that accomplishes the same type of conditioning the horse needs.

Also With This Article
Click here to view ”Use Cross-Training To Your Horse’s Benefit.”
Click here to view ”Case History.”
Click here to view ”Western Riding ClassAnd Cross-Training.”
Click here to view ”Dressage And Cross-Training.”