Autumn fitness: Is road work the way forward?

Perhaps your horse has enjoyed an end of summer break? Or the kids getting back to school now means it’s time to get fit for the opening meet? Either way, you will have no doubt thought about what the most effective way is to condition your horse and improve their overall fitness, in preparation for what comes next. Fitness training works by inducing stress on the body. In doing so, physiological changes will take place in the horse’s connective tissue – skin, tendons, ligaments, muscles and bones.

Why roadwork?

Traditionally steady controlled roadwork in the early stages of fitness plans was advocated to harden legs. It has widely been taught for years that the slight concussive effect of walking on the road results in the bones strengthening and remodeling. Therefore becoming thicker and stronger. Bone is a living structure that will adapt to any changes and stress applied. Advice regarding tendons suggested work on a hard surface hardens the tendon and forces the collagen to replenish itself due to stress. The younger the collagen the stronger it is. Meaning the tendons are better placed to cope with stress and strain.

We are not all starting at the same place…

Summer will have left us all in various states of play. Some have had an easier summer with a harder winter’s hunting ahead. Perhaps you have evented this summer, enjoyed a short break and are now bringing your horse back into work. Or your horse may have had weeks off given the heat and firmer going experienced this year in the UK. It is important therefore to note that every fitness plan is wholly individual. Based not only on the intended workload for the horse, but on type of horse, age, current condition and workload (if any), previous injuries etc. Starting with a horse in soft condition who has been totally roughed off, is entirely different to a fit event horse that has had a few weeks holiday to provide a mental and physical break to prevent staleness. You must adjust your fitness plan to fit the needs and requirements of your horse.

Benefits vs detriments; is there a balance? Is what we were taught correct?

Historically roadwork has been highlighted as the crucial building blocks for fitness. But work on hard ground can have negative effects. During the warmer months most of us avoid competing on hard ground for just that reason. So what is the balance and when is enough, enough?

Dr. David Marlin (in his article Warning – Road Work Ahead) re-evaluated the cost benefit of using road work in the early stages of getting horses fit. He readily acknowledges that “.. long-slow work…(is)…A good basis for increasing bone strength, muscular and cardiovascular fitness”, and that many riders use the roads for this. But he also makes some interesting points following his studies on the subject. He writes…”Roadwork results in forces on the hoof around 20x higher than working on good grass or artificial surfaces. BAREFOOT horses are at similar risk from roadwork as shod horses. Roadwork DOES NOT “harden” or strengthen tendons. Work on the road DOES contribute to joint/cartilage deterioration. Roadwork DOES increase bone strength – but you only need a few minutes of trot each day to achieve this. Horses will adapt to roadwork 3-4 times a week in 3-4 weeks. Beyond that, the fitness benefit will be negligible”.

Tendon talk…

Prof Roger Smith (in his studies for the RVC) discussed how roadwork is commonly used to strengthen tendons. “Broadly speaking, exercise helps in the development of young tendons. But with exercise post skeletal maturity, the effect appears to be more damaging than positive. The effect of surface type is less clear but hard surfaces tend to cause greater impact forces. Including possible damaging high frequency vibrations which may have adverse effects of tendons (and possibly joints). In contrast these vibrations can be very stimulatory for bone remodeling. For a horse recovering from tendon injury, the vet will usually prescribe periods of controlled exercise. It is recognised that this is critical for tendon repair. This is a very different situation from healthy tendons that cannot be influenced positively by exercise”.

In summary…

A measured ‘less is more’ approach is desired. Using steady roadwork in the early stages of your fittening programme can be valuable. All that is required to increase fitness is light exercise in controlled periods of about 30 to 60 minutes. Do this three to four times a week, ideally spaced throughout the week. Limiting the trot work to avoid unecessary concussive effect.

Overall, the best case scenario is to work your horses on varying surfaces. Including good grass, arenas and roads. “Too much time spent on one surface increases the risk of injury,” says Dr Marlin. “This is increasingly a problem as many horses are now only being ridden in an arena. We really are damaging them.”

Perhaps it is more the terminology we need to change? Rather than the methods used for fitness. It seems our predecessors got it right. They used walk road work initially in their fitness plans, and kept trot work short. But to say we do this to harden up the legs can sound misleading. Hardening tendons does not make sense, as although tendons in their make up are to a degree inelastic, they cannot harden with roadwork. More that a slight concussive effect allows tendons and ligaments to become more resistant to challenges the horse will face. Maybe toughening might be a better word. Essentially you want the tendons to be exposed to a variety of terrain so when the horse advances through what we ask of it – be it competitively, out on the hunting field or as leisure horse being worked – it has been conditioned to them all. This would mean that all the structures in the leg can then react to different surfaces underfoot. And that the horse has been prepared in the best possible way for the going and stresses it encounters.

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