Returning to Competition After COVID-19 Lay Off

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John Borys photo

By Hilary M. Clayton, BVMS, PhD, Diplomate ACVSMR, MRCVS

Stay at home restrictions during COVID-19 have affected us all. Some riders are fortunate in being able to ride throughout the restrictions, but others have been entirely isolated from their horses.

As the restrictions are lifted and competitions resume, we must be cognizant of the fact that horses coming back into work after an enforced rest have lost strength and fitness and should not immediately resume work at the previous level. Returning these horses to full training or competition too quickly increases their risk of injury. This article addresses re-conditioning dressage horses that have had an interruption in work due to COVID-19 restrictions or, indeed, for any other reason.

For more detailed explanations of the science behind the recommendations, follow the hyperlinks.

Fit for Dressage

Each equestrian sport has specific requirements for cardiovascular fitness and muscular strength. The need for cardiovascular fitness depends on how long and how hard the horse works. Muscular adaptations occur in specific muscle groups that are important for performance in the sport.

Dressage does not have a high requirement for cardiovascular fitness compared with other equestrian sports, such as eventing. The table below shows the average distance, duration and speed of dressage tests at the national and FEI levels. The amount of time spent performing slow movements such as passage, piaffe and pirouettes in the FEI tests is responsible for their relatively slow average speed.

Heart rate is a good indicator of the horse’s workload. Despite having a slower average speed, the FEI tests are performed at a higher heart rate indicating that the horses are making a more intense effort. This effort requires strength in specific muscles, notably the gluteals, hamstrings, thoracic sling, triceps and core muscles.

 National testsFEI tests    
Distance (km)1.1-1.31.1-1.3
Time (minutes)5-66-8
Average speed (m/s)32.5
Average heart rate (beats/min)~105~130
Max heart rate (beats/min)<160~160
Table 1: Comparison of cardiovascular requirements for national and FEI dressage tests.

Warm Up at Competitions

Although the duration of test in competition is only 5-8 minutes, the additional time required for warm up adds considerably to the total workload. Regardless of competition level, dressage riders spend an average of 30 minutes warming up for a class. Heart rates are similar in warm up and competition, so the total cardiovascular requirement is for a moderate level of aerobic fitness, sufficient to exercise for 40 minutes, including working continuously for 5-8 minutes during the test. Horses should be conditioned beyond the minimal requirements in case of challenging weather or less than ideal footing.

Loss of fitness

During training a dressage horse becomes fit enough to perform his regular workload. This means, for example, that a third level horse is fitter than a training level horse and a Grand Prix horse is considerably stronger than a third level horse. If the workload decreases or the horse is laid off, cardiovascular fitness and strength are lost progressively over time.

Table 2 relates the duration of the layoff to the amount of time needed for re-conditioning. It shows that fitness is maintained quite well for the first month of a layoff then declines progressively over time.

Duration of layoffTime to re-condition
1-4 weeks2 weeks
5-8 weeks3-4 weeks
9-12 weeks4-6 weeks
>12 weeks6-8 weeks
Table 2: Time needed to re-condition a horse after a complete layoff of different durations.

Re-conditioning Goals

The fitness requirements change as dressage horses move up through the grades of competition. Table 3 shows the general requirements for fitness at different levels and the type of work used to achieve these fitness levels. Each increase in level builds upon the requirements for the lower levels.

Training to first levelSecond to fourth levelFEI levels
General cardiovascular fitness Strengthen core musclesSame as first level plus Greater cardiovascular fitness Muscular strength developmentSame as fourth level plus Maximize strength in appropriate muscle groups
Work 4-5 days/week for 30 min Trot and canter continuously for 2-3 minutes Cross training: different footings and gentle slopes, use poles and gymnasticsWork 5-6 days/week for 45-60 min Use sport specific strength training  Multiple repetitions of the movements for the level in an interval training format Cross training: gradients, poles, gymnastics, jumping, underwater treadmillWork 5-6 days/week for 45-60 min Targeted strength training exercises Interval training based on sport-specific movements Cross training: gradients, poles, gymnastics, jumping, underwater treadmill
 Table 3: Fitness requirements and recommended types of exercise for different levels of competition

Re-conditioning Dressage Horses

Core Training

Core training performed from the ground is a valuable technique and is useful for preparing the horse for exercise. It activates and strengthens the muscles of the back, abdomen, sub-lumbar region and the muscles that transmit forces between the limbs and the trunk. Core training exercises include baited (carrot) stretches, stimulated movements to raise the withers, lift the belly and tuck the pelvis, and balancing exercises in which the horse moves or resists movement of the trunk relative to the limbs. These exercises activate and strengthen the muscles that protect against injury to the spine and should be part of the routine care of all horses. The optimal time to do these exercises is immediately before riding.

Hilary Clayton conditioning by cantering uphill

Working on the Longe or in a Round Pen

Horses are likely to be quite fresh after a prolonged break in training and, for the rider’s safety, may need to be longed or allowed to blow off steam in a round pen before being ridden. A word of caution though about not over-doing work on a circle. Stress on the lower limb joints is different on circles than when moving on the straight. Lower limb stress is higher on circles of smaller diameter, when the horse turns at faster speed and when the horse performs (unintended) acrobatics. It is suggested that longeing be limited to 5 minutes in each direction when preparing to return to work.

Cross Training during Re-conditioning

Cross training simply means training in a different way, in a different place, or on different footing or terrain. It helps to build sound, fit, all around equine athletes and helps to avoid the temptation to drill the same exercises in the same arena every day. This has mental benefits in relieving boredom and also, very importantly, the variety in the type of work reduces the risk of repetitive strain injuries by imposing different loading patterns on the limbs.

Cross training is a valuable addition to a dressage training program as a means of preserving orthopedic health. It is not the key to elite performance; this requires highly sport-specific training.

Management Factors

Prior to starting ridden exercise, check whether the horse’s routine health care is up to date.

Re-conditioning After a Layoff of 12 Weeks or Longer

A horse that has had a complete layoff for longer than 12 weeks will have limited capacity for exercise under saddle and should be brought into work slowly to establish a baseline level of fitness. During reconditioning the cardiovascular system will regain fitness rapidly and the horse will start to feel fresher and more energetic. However, the supporting tissues of the musculoskeletal system respond more slowly, so don’t be tempted to allow the horse to do too much too soon. Stick to the program!

This table shows a reasonable progression of exercise to return a horse to being competition ready at training or first level in 6 weeks. Horses that were performing at higher levels immediately prior to the lay off can progress a little faster and complete this phase in 2-3 weeks.

Week 1Walk 10 min per day, 4 days per week
Week 2Walk 20 min/day/4 days/week Trot 2 min split into short segments Include suppling exercises
Week 3Walk 30 min per day, 4 days per week Trot 2 min in short segments Canter 2 min in short segments Include easy movements (TOH, leg yield)
Week 4Walk 30 min per day, 5 days per week Trot 3 min in short segments Canter 3 min in short segments Perform more frequent direct transitions Include easy lengthening and shortening of stride
Week 5-6Walk 30 min per day, 5 days per week Trot 3 min in short segments Canter 3 min in short segments Include transitions trot-halt-trot

After completing this schedule, the horse can be considered to have achieved a baseline level of fitness shown by an ability to exercise:

  • with a frequency of 4-6 days/week
  • for a duration of 30 minutes per workout
  • trot and canter continuously for periods of 2-3 minutes

Baseline fitness is the minimal level of fitness required to compete at training through first level.

Hilary Clayton trail riding

Re-conditioning After a Layoff of 8-12 Weeks

The following exercise schedule is suitable for:

  • Horses that were laid off for 12 weeks or longer and have completed the re-conditioning necessary to achieve a baseline fitness level
  • Horses that were laid off for 8-12 weeks that have retained a baseline level of fitness. Note that in this group of horses work under saddle should be reintroduced gradually over a period of about a week after which the horse can follow the conditioning program below.

This stage of the re-conditioning program involves gradually increasing the duration of the workouts from 30 minutes to 45-60 minutes, increasing the intensity of exercise by working with more impulsion and doing more frequent transitions, and integrating sport-specific training. This phase of re-conditioning will take 3-4 weeks in horses that were previously competing at second to fourth levels.

  • All exercises should be performed with good technique to strength the correct muscles and develop correct coordination patterns
  • Transitions within the gaits, between consecutive gaits and between non-consecutive gaits are an excellent way to build strength and improve coordination. Be sure to maintain an uphill balance before, during and after each transition to maximize the benefits
  • Gradually decrease the diameter of turns and circles down to 8-12 meters while maintaining correct bend and verticality of the horse’s body. This strengthens the back and abdominal muscles and also the abductor and adductor muscles in the limbs. Frequent changes of bend test the coordination between these muscles on the left and right sides of the body.
  • Lateral movements in all gaits as appropriate to the stage of training strengthen the abductor and adductor muscles in addition to improving collection, balance and bending.

Cross training is valuable to protect against repetitive strain injuries:

  • Try to work outside of the arena several days per week.
  • Walk on different types of footing (concrete, gravel, sand, turf) and uneven footing to enhance proprioception.
  • Work on uphill gradients to strengthen the gluteal, hamstring and core muscles. Walk and later canter on progressively steeper uphill slopes to improve muscle strength.
  • Walk downhill slowly in self-carriage, while encouraging the horse to push up and back with the forelimbs strengthens the triceps and thoracic sling muscles that elevate the forehand.
  • Poles, gymnastic grids and jumping improve strength and coordination

The goal for this stage of training is that the horse can exercise:

  • with a frequency of 5-6 days/week
  • for a duration of 45-60 minutes per workout
  • perform multiple bouts of continuous exercise including all gaits for 6-8 minutes
  • perform several consecutive repetitions of the test movements without fatigue

This is minimal level of fitness required to compete at second through fourth level.

Re-conditioning for FEI Competitions

Conditioning for the FEI levels should focus on sport specific training with the goal of stimulating highly specific muscular adaptations that will allow the horse to perform with better impulsion, cadence and uphill balance, all of which increase the physical effort and energy expenditure. In general, the body’s physiological responses are geared toward minimizing energy expenditure but this is contrary to the objectives in dressage in which the horse is expected to expend more than the minimal amount of energy.

John Borys photo

After a dressage competition, a dressage horse’s blood lactate levels are around 3 mmol/L which is below the anaerobic threshold. However, it is believed that specific muscles work anaerobically and may experience local fatigue. The gluteal and hamstring muscles work eccentrically to control hind limb joint flexions that produce lowering of the haunches in piaffe and pirouettes. The same muscles work concentrically to provide forward and upward propulsive power. The forelimbs control speed and balance and are responsible for maintaining the elevation of the forehand (triceps, thoracic sling muscles).

Strength training is most effective when the muscles work at the same angle, through the same range of motion and with the same speed as in the dressage movements. Therefore, “doing dressage” is the most effective way to develop sport-specific strength. However, improvements in strength are dependent on progressively increasing the number of repetitions of the movements. A good way to accomplish this is to use interval training in which performing a highly collected movement alternates with a more relaxed forward movement with a set number of repetitions being performed – maybe four repetitions initially. This is regarded as one set. The exercise should be repeated on 3 days/week. Each week add one more repetition and continue to do the exercise on 3 days. Over time, as the number of repetitions increase, the muscles become stronger and the movement becomes easier. When using the movements of the sport to train strength, it is imperative to perform the movement with good technique, otherwise the muscles are trained incorrectly and the wrong coordination patterns are established.

Example of interval training to develop strength

What distinguishes strengthening exercises from regular training exercises is the adherence to performing a set number of repetitions combined with the regular increases in the distance or intensity of the work periods. Always pay attention to the quality of the work. Perform the movements correctly and, if the horse becomes fatigued, end the workout and cool down carefully. Never continue a training session when the horse is fatigued because muscle fatigue transfers more load to the tendons and ligaments making them more vulnerable to injury.

The risk of repetitive strain injuries in high level dressage horses is increased because so many of the movements are performed with joints of the hind limbs flexed. Cross training is encouraged, together with easy days to allow tissue regeneration between hard workouts. Horses that have reached the FEI levels also fall within the age category at which the elastic tendons have already accumulated damage and are more susceptible to strain-related injury.

1 COMMENT

  1. […] Among Dr. Clayton’s important works, some of her research has led to big changes in our sport.  While studying gaits and movements, her findings caused US Equestrian to revise rules regarding the piaffe and pirouette movements.  Always eager to share her conclusions with the dressage world, Dr. Clayton has provided numerous articles for USDF Connection magazine as well as YourDressage. Check out the recent article she wrote with tips for conditioning your horse for a return to competition after a layoff: https://yourdressage.org/2020/05/19/returning-to-competition-after-covid-19-lay-off/ […]

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