7 Tips on Equine Conditioning with Biomechanics Expert Dr. Hilary Clayton

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There are many important questions pertaining to equine conditioning and fitness as we all look forward to returning to work. Dr. Hilary Clayton recently shared some cautions and considerations in a Skype interview with Equine Guelph. Dr. Clayton is a veterinarian, researcher and horsewoman. For the past 40 years she has been conducting amazing research in the areas of equine biomechanics and conditioning programs for equine athletes. Dr. Clayton has also been a guest speaker in Equine Guelph’s online course offerings.

1. What are the differences between conditioning and training?

  • training is the technical preparation of the athlete
    (learning the skills and movements they will need to perform in competition)
  • conditioning strengthens the horse, progressively making them fit and able
  • the goal of conditioning is to maintain soundness while maximizing performance

2. Considerations for horses that go from full work to just pasture turn-out?

  • a gradual decrease from full work to less days a week, lessening intensity is ideal.
  • also, ideal that they stay in light work a day or 2 a week, however horses are resilient.
  • when workload decreases, diet decreases
  • do not change things suddenly

3. How long before a horse begins to lose muscle mass and fitness? What about bones/connective tissues?

  • horses maintain their muscle and cardio-vascular ability longer than humans
  • a month before horses start to lose cardio-vascular capacity and muscular strength
  • bone and tissue adapt in accordance with the work they are doing
  • with no work bones become weaker, muscles smaller and endurance decreases
  • good news is the strength of bone & muscle will increase again when work resumes
  • ligaments, tendons, cartilage of horse mature by 2yrs and are a bit more of an unknown
  • resilience is the ability to stand up to the performances

4. When getting back to work, where do you start and how do you know how to move forward?

  • 1st address condition of feet, saddle fit, and plan for increasing nutrition requirements.
  • start very gradually with walking for the first 2 – 4 weeks.
  • start with 10 min under saddle, working just 3 – 4 days in the first week
  • increase amount of walking by 10 min/week
  • by 3 weeks = 30 min walk/day, start introducing 20 seconds of trot then slowly introduce short canters
  • performing lots of transitions between gaits is great for improving fitness

5. What are the signs of “too fast, too long and too soon!” and how do we avoid this?

  • back pain, limb pain, inflammation
  • monitor any changes carefully
  • horses will fool you with their cardio-vascular fitness improving before their strength.
  • to avoid injury, don’t let an energetic horse dictate how much work you will do.

6. What are some of the similarities and differences in training programs for different disciplines?

7. What advice do you have for horse owners that are worried that leaving the horse alone is detrimental to its well-being?

  • Plenty of horses living outside 24/7 with little exercise that are doing just fine.
  • Horses are far from their natural lifestyle
  • Maximizing turnout and forage are ways to benefit our horses welfare.
  • They need water, food, shelter and an attentive care-taker.
Dr. Hilary Clayton and Donzi
Photo Credit: Carmen Franco

Biography: Dr. Hilary M. Clayton, BVMS, PhD, Dipl. ACVSMR, FRCVS is a veterinarian, researcher and horsewoman. For the past 40 years she has performed innovative research in the areas of equine biomechanics, conditioning programs for equine athletes and the effects of tack and equipment on the horse and rider. She has written 7 books and over 250 scientific articles on these topics.

She is a charter diplomate and past president of the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, an Honorary Fellow of the International Society for Equitation Science and has been inducted into the International Equine Veterinarians Hall of Fame, the Midwest Dressage Association Hall of Fame and the Saskatoon Sports Hall of Fame.

From 1997 until she retired in 2014, Dr. Clayton was the Mary Anne McPhail Dressage Chair in Equine Sports Medicine at Michigan State University. She continues to perform research through collaborations with universities in many countries and is active in publishing and presenting the findings. In addition, she is president of Sport Horse Science through which she applies the results of scientific research in the development of practical tools and techniques to help riders, trainers and veterinarians.

As a lifelong rider Dr. Clayton has competed in many equestrian sports, most recently focusing on dressage in which she competes through the Grand Prix level.