Dr David Marlin
We all understand as riders the importance of getting our horse fit to compete. A horse that is properly trained would always be expected to perform better and be at a decreased risk of injury than an unfit horse. But how you manage your horse after competing can also have an influence on when your horse will be ready to compete again and can reduce the risk of certain health problems. In some equine sports, a rapid recovery will be extremely important, for example in show jumping or dressage competitions over several days or three-day eventing, where the horse needs to recover after the first day to compete again the next.
Perhaps surprisingly there is very little scientific study of recovery from exercise in horses. One study from Sweden (Jensen-Warren et al., 1999) showed that following a 120km endurance race, recovery in muscle enzymes (an indicator of muscle damage) and the “stress” hormone cortisol took place within 24 hours of finishing the race, but that it took up to 8 days for the white blood cells (the immune system) to return to normal. The same group of researchers also later showed that muscle energy stores (both glycogen and fat) took up to 8 days to fully recover (Essen-Gustavsson and Jensen-Warren, 2002).
The main effects of exercise are a reduction in muscle glycogen (the main energy source and the animal equivalent of starch in plants), loss of water and electrolytes, muscle damage and suppression of the immune system. How and what a horse needs to recover quickly will depend on how long and hard it has worked, how fit it is, whether it has any underlying health issues and also the weather.
The first issue to address is dehydration.
Dehydration can increase the risk of colic and respiratory disease. This is particularly so in association with transport. Feeding a gut balancer product before, during, and after competition can help horses prone to GI disturbance when away from home competing. Horses have a strong thirst immediately they finish competing so make sure that water is offered as soon as they finish, even between classes. There is no reason to limit how much water horses drink. One myth is that too much water causes distension of the stomach, but distension is also one of the main factors that causes the pyloric sphincter to open and allow water out into the small intestine. As far as water temperature, horses in one study showed a preference after exercise for cool water over cold or warm water.
The next stage of recovery is replacing the muscle glycogen stores.
This takes around 24-48h but can be optimised by making sure the horse is hydrated and has a good supply of starch containing feeds. Complex carbohydrate supplements such as EnerGex are also a safe way of providing horses with valuable carbohydrates to aid recovery in energy stores. It is also important to give feed as soon as possible after exercise to get effective energy recovery.
Large amounts of electrolytes can be lost in sweat depending on the weather and how hard and long the horse has been working. A horse at a summer show for a day can lose a surprising amount of electrolytes. Electrolytes should be provided daily in the feed according to stage of training and the weather rather than just at times when the horse is competing. It’s not possible to load horses with electrolytes before or after a competition and this also risks upsetting the GI tract. However, during or after a hard competition, and/or in warm weather, and when there is moderate sweat loss, a syringe of electrolytes can be given to aid recovery. People are often told not to give electrolytes for fear that this will draw water into the stomach and further dehydrate a dehydrated horse. However, this is precisely how the horse’s thirst mechanism works. If water were drawn into the stomach this would make the blood electrolytes more concentrated and stimulate the horse’s thirst.
Remember that a number of studies have identified transport after competition as being an increased risk for colic. Try to allow your horse time to recover before traveling, especially after hard competitions. Also try to maintain the same diet when competing as at home and avoid bran mashes or any other changes that can upset the GI tract.
Most horses will benefit from at least a few days turnout before being brought back into work after a competition and this is important to allow the muscles to recover, any disturbance to the gut to settle down, and for the immune system to get back up to strength.