Sensible Recovery Strategies for Equine Athletes

The steps you take to care for your horse both immediately after a competition and once you’re back home are important to his athletic longevity.

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recovery strategies for horses
A slow cool-down after your horse exerts himself hastens cardiovascular recovery time and helps minimize muscle soreness the following days. | Photo: iStock

Don’t leave your horse hanging after a long ride or horse show

You’ve done your homework training and conditioning your horse. Months of progressively steady improvements in cardiovascular fitness have transformed him into a strapping specimen. He’s performing at his peak, the competitive season is now underway, and you have high hopes for his ­performance.

You’ve just exited the arena after an exceptional ride. Now what—do you let him eat and drink to his heart’s content? Does he need to be rinsed off? Do you throw him on the trailer and get him home to rest as soon as possible?

Read on to find out how you should care for your athlete in the minutes to days following a competition to keep him in good form.

Warmup and Cool-Down

One of the most important steps in a horse’s post-exercise recovery is removing heat and metabolic byproducts from his deep muscles. A horse’s ability to dissipate heat depends on his fitness level and how appropriately you’ve ridden him for the conditions of the day.

“Fitness plays a major role in the efficiency of cooling down,” says Erin Contino, MS, DVM, Dipl. ACVSMR, an eventer and assistant professor of equine sports medicine and rehabilitation at Colorado State University’s Equine Orthopaedic Research Center, in Fort Collins. “Conditioning leads to physiologic adaptations that help to dissipate heat. For example, circulating blood volume expands and capillaries increase (in size and quantity) at the skin surface to allow heat exchange from the skin to the air through sweating.”

Recovery starts as soon as you mount up. “A proper warmup primes the body and optimizes functions for the upcoming exercise by increasing oxygen to the tissue and releasing red blood cells from the spleen into the circulation,” says Contino. “Warmup also enables muscle tissues access to energy stores. A warmup literally increases temperature within soft tissues to improve elasticity of the tendons and ligaments, and may help to prevent injury.”

Warmup provides another benefit: It improves aerobic metabolism—muscle cells’ use of energy in the presence of oxygen—to delay fatigue. When muscles function through aerobic metabolism, less heat and fatigue-inducing lactic acid associated with anaerobic (without oxygen) metabolism accumulates.

Fitness also plays a role in the muscles’ oxidative capacity. The longer the horse’s muscles can work with aerobic metabolism, the less heat and metabolites such as lactic acid are produced.

And after you cross the finish line or speed through the timers, proper cool-down should begin. Contino recommends not pulling your horse to an immediate stop but, rather, continuing to walk.

“Slow movement increases the amount of heat and lactic acid that is removed from the muscles compared to standing still,” she says. This not only facilitates rapid cardiovascular recovery but also helps minimize muscle soreness in the days following.

recovery strategies for horses
To cool your horse's core, sponge or hose him with water, scrape it away immediately, and repeat the process until his chest is cool to the touch. | Photo: Stephanie L. Church/The Horse

Cooling Techniques

Naturally, a horse with a shorter hair coat will cool down more efficiently, especially in warm weather. “Clipping before a competition significantly increases the speed at which a horse can cool down,” says Contino.

To cool your horse’s core, sponge or hose him with water, scrape it away ­immediately, and repeat the process until his chest is cool to the touch. If exercising in a very hot and humid climate, you might apply water to the whole horse. But if you’re working in dry or mild conditions, keep water away from the big haunch muscles to prevent cramping (e.g., tying-up). You might also apply dilute rubbing alcohol (1 pint per 5 gallons of water) to his body to accelerate cooling, but avoid sores or open wounds.

Fans and hand-walking improve airflow across the horse’s body; misting fans add an element of cooling. Seek shade to protect him from the sun’s heating radiation. Refrain from using coolers if the weather is warm but, if there is a chill in the air, you might need to throw on a haunch rug.

Water, Feed, and Electrolytes

All horses need water to keep their metabolism working effectively. How soon to allow water intake after exercise depends on the effort and speed at which the horse worked. Allow an endurance horse engaged in aerobic exercise, for instance, to drink whenever he desires. A horse performing anaerobic exercise (e.g., a racehorse or an advanced event horse) needs to cool down sufficiently before being allowed long drinks. You can offer these horses water, but in stages.

“It has been shown that there are no adverse affects from offering water to a horse after strenuous exercise,” says Contino. “As I cool down my horse—walking, sponging, and scraping—I offer a gallon at a time, then offer more water staggered with short walks. Horses wanting to drink usually do so within the first five minutes; others wait until they are back in their stall, which doesn’t happen until the horse is fully cooled down.” 

While at an event Contino recommends adding electrolytes to your horse’s feed twice daily, along with offering free-choice salt. Endurance horses exercising over 50 to 100 miles need electrolyte supplementation about every 20 miles or so, although the exact amount and frequency depend on the day’s weather conditions. Racehorses, Western performance horses, and steeplechase horses that run at speed for mere minutes so should do fine with access to a salt block in the stall or paddock.

Once a horse working anaerobically has cooled to his normal temperature, pulse, and respiration; has stopped sweating; and his muscles no longer feel warm, you can offer him hay, says Contino, but withhold grain until several hours later.

Encourage horses working ­aerobically to eat hay or green grass at every opportunity, as forage is an excellent storage vehicle for fluid and electrolytes in the intestines. You might also offer additional water, calories, and fiber through beet pulp mashes. Withhold grain until these horses are well-cooled-out to ensure blood flow is redirected from the muscles to the intestinal tract.

Addressing the Legs

All equine athletes benefit from leg icing following heavy exercise to cool the limbs and reduce inflammation. This is particularly true for endurance horses traveling hours of arduous miles on the trail.

“For strenuous work or for horses with a musculoskeletal injury or concern, ice is very effective to reduce pain and inflammation,” says Contino, adding that you need to completely submerge legs in ice water to cool tissues beneath the skin effectively.

If there is a cold creek nearby, stand the horse in it for 20 to 30 minutes. Otherwise, fill a muck tub, bucket, or boot with ice and water. You can also use commercial icing systems, which keep cold water flowing through the leg boots and add compression. 

Soak legs in water before applying ice boots—this helps conduct cold into the tissues. In a recent study researchers used a thermal imaging camera to measure the average surface temperature over the cannon bone in treated and untreated limbs after 20 minutes of cooling: The iced legs were 11° Fahrenheit cooler and retained some chill effect for up to 15 minutes after boot removal. For a more prolonged effect change the ice boot to a fresh frozen one at least halfway through the 20- to 30-minute icing period, or sooner if the ice packs thaw quickly.

Commercial ice boots that contain gel packs are also available and have some ability to lower temperature, especially in superficial tissues, if applied correctly.

Another useful device is a cold-water salt spa. “The salt makes the water hypertonic, so it has a ‘drawing’ effect to decrease edema (fluid swelling),” says Contino. “Cold water removes heat, and the jets and water movement massage (the legs) to increase circulation and also decrease edema.”

After icing a horse’s legs, Contino dries them thoroughly and applies clay-based poultice to the cannon regions. She covers the poultice with wet paper (a brown paper bag cut to size or thick paper towels) and standing wraps, leaving them on overnight.

“The poultice draws out heat, while bandage compression keeps the legs tight,” she says. “This is especially important when confining a horse to a stall, which precludes limb circulation that would otherwise occur with turnout.”

Contino says she’s a fan of using traditional standing wraps, such as “no-bow” types, or therapeutic wraps secured with a track, standing, or flannel bandage. “Polo wraps don’t provide sufficient compression when applied over the padding,” she says.

“If the horse has incurred a leg injury, it may take several hours for swelling to appear after the legs have been unwrapped,” she adds. So, inspect limbs in the hours and days after competition carefully and frequently.

She says riders can also apply an herbal-based liniment with or without bandages or in place of a poultice.

“I don’t advocate using anything new at competition, so use techniques that a horse is accustomed to at home,” she stresses.

Sensible Recovery Strategies
To encourage your horse to drink well, make sure the water is room temperature, not ice-cold, and add a small amount of beet pulp to the bucket, if needed. | Photo: iStock

Preventing Dehydration

A horse needs to be well-hydrated to perform and regulate body temperature. To monitor your horse’s hydration, check for skin turgor, or how fast it snaps back when pinched; it should be about one to two seconds on the point of the shoulder or the upper eyelid (while people commonly pinch the neck, this region is not as reliable due to differing amounts of fat beneath the skin). If you see a delay in the skin snapping back, the horse is already 3-5% dehydrated, which impacts both performance and health. 

While not always available at shows or events, a scale tracks body weight changes and is one of the most reliable ways to monitor hydration, as loss of body fluid from dehydration lowers a horse’s body weight.

To encourage your horse to drink well, make sure the water is room temperature, not ice-cold, and add a small amount of beet pulp to the bucket, if needed.

Then, watch for other signs your horse might be getting dehydrated. “Knowing a horse’s normal routine and behavior is critical to recognition that something is wrong,” says Contino. “Monitor manure production—not only the number of piles but also the texture.”

Dry feces indicate dehydration, while feces covered in a gelatinous mucus point toward dehydration along with a sluggish gut, with the potential to develop an intestinal impaction. 

Attitude changes often indicate dehydration and/or heat stress. Any alteration in the horse’s normal bright, alert interest in his surroundings is a warning sign. Deflated posture, poor tail tone, lack of response to stimuli, reduced appetite, and reduced urination volume or frequency are other signs of dehydration and metabolic stress. 

Transport Concerns

While on the trailer horses are constantly using their muscles for balance. With this in mind, you ideally want to arrive a few days early to a competition, if possible, to allow your horse time to ­recover. After the event wait until he’s cool and rested before you load up and head home. Not everyone has this luxury due to logistics, so be aware of how transport stress—in both directions—might affect your horse.

Time your trip home based on how strenuously the horse worked. For hauls longer than eight hours, Contino recommends traveling part of a day and stopping overnight to rest. She suggests taking 20- to 30-minute breaks every four hours to let the horse rest—a good opportunity to gas up or take a bathroom break.

“Horses are able to rest while the trailer is stopped but can’t get their heads down to clear their airways,” she says. “If the area is safe to unload (well off the road away from obstacles, and, ideally, surrounded by a fence), I like to get them out to graze for a short while.”

Some horses, however, travel poorly and do better with a drive straight through. Contino suggests limiting your trip to 10 to 12 hours and giving these individuals a longer recovery time at home, due to the physical and mental toll of both transport and the competition. 

Back at Home

Once your horse is home, turnout will help him recover. Simply walking around a field will increase circulation and help clear the body of metabolites, reduce limb edema, and prevent stiffness. Contino says massage is also helpful for relieving stiffness in the large hindquarter muscles. You might also keep standing wraps in place for a day or two.

For the endurance horse, the general rule is to give him one day off for every 10 miles of trail ridden—so, a 50-mile horse should rest for at least five days. Some of those days can include a mounted walk or slow trot on gentle trails.

Contino says the amount of time off other athletes need correlates to how hard they worked. “I usually give one day off and then one day of long, slow work (a walking hack) prior to resuming normal training,” she says. “However, if the horse performed a particularly strenuous event, didn’t cool down quickly, if muscles feel tight, or behavior and attitude are not engaged, I double this time frame to two days of turnout and two days of long, slow work.” 

If a horse showed clinical signs of tying-up (tight or painful muscles) after competing, plus elevated muscle enzymes on blood screens, then have your veterinarian perform additional bloodwork and monitor clinical signs to determine when the horse can return to work.

“Muscles often take up to three days to recover following strenuous or prolonged exercise,” says Contino. “Horses are slow to replenish glycogen stores (carbohydrates the muscles use for energy) compared to humans, and ‘carb loading’ has not been shown to be an effective strategy in horses. There is some evidence to suggest that diets higher in protein help to ­replenish glycogen stores faster. And, there is some evidence of benefits with leucine (an amino acid) ­supplementation.”

No matter the equestrian pursuit, Contino recommends palpating each limb thoroughly to pick up problems post-event. But be sure to familiarize yourself with what is normal for your horse well before the competition.

“An old adage says that if you are blindfolded, you should be able to identify the horse by palpation of the legs,” she says. “Knowing what is normal for that horse makes it easier to pick up what is abnormal.”

Palpate the limbs after each phase of the competition, prior to poulticing and bandaging, and after bandage removal. Check for heat, swelling, or sensitivity, which are early indicators of a problem. Also jog and/or longe the horse at the event and twice a day upon returning home to check for soundness.

Take-Home Message

Use these strategies at every level of training, conditioning, and competition to help your horse recover following an athletic event. The steps you take immediately upon completion, as well as back home, can help your horse return to exercise, while maximizing his athletic longevity


Written by:

Nancy S. Loving, DVM, owns Loving Equine Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, and has a special interest in managing the care of sport horses. Her book, All Horse Systems Go, is a comprehensive veterinary care and conditioning resource in full color that covers all facets of horse care. She has also authored the books Go the Distance as a resource for endurance horse owners, Conformation and Performance, and First Aid for Horse and Rider in addition to many veterinary articles for both horse owner and professional audiences.

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