What Makes Horses More or Less Likely to Miss Training Days?

The next time your equine athlete is on stall rest, don't ask why his barnmates seem so much sounder than him unless you really want to hear the answer: Researchers recently determined that several factors—from the animal's history to your own training and management techniques—appear to make horses more or less likely to miss training days due to injury.

Horses with previous orthopedic injuries typically need about twice as many days off as horses without such histories, said Agneta Egenvall, DVM, PhD, professor in veterinary epidemiology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Husbandry, in Uppsala. Conversely, horses in a varied work program—regularly training in different places and in different kinds of activities—are far less likely to have injury-related days off than those in rigid programs, she said.

Researchers studied the training and injury records of 263 elite show jumping horses in the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. Of those, injuries forced 126 horses to miss 2,357 days (6%) of the cumulative 39,028 days they should have been in training. The vast majority of the days off—77%—were due to orthopedic injury, Egenvall said.

Interestingly, Egenvall said, the researchers found very little correlation between workload and days off, said Egenvall. “There were perhaps a few horses with ‘half-clinical’ injuries that could not be trained that much (horses that had days lost, were then entered into training, but lapsed back into days-lost again),” she said. “But these horses were often not trained much from the beginning anyway (as far as we could tell). However, this is a question that needs further elaboration from the general principles of training physiology/pathophysiology.”

Comparing countries, it appeared that horses in the U.K. had the fewest days off. Why this is, however, remains unknown, Egenvall said, but could be the result of something as simple as a cultural difference in deciding when horses need a break. Another explanation is that some riders might just be more successful in keeping horses healthy for training than others. But Egenvall cautioned that inter-country data might not have any significance at all.

What does seem clear, however, is that horses with sound orthopedic histories and/or varied workouts are less likely to miss training days. This means getting veterinary checks and records on horses you’re planning to buy and doing different kinds of training— dressage in the arena, jumping in the field, galloping along the river bank, longing and groundwork, and even going for a swim, if possible.

But ultimately, it comes down to the rider's ability to maintain his or her horse's health and fitness when training for competition.

“Our data essentially catches the effect that some riders manage to keep their horse healthier than other riders—even among professional riders,” Egenvall said. “This impression is substantiated by the fact that we followed the riders in our study for a rather long time.”

The study, "Days-lost to training and competition in relation to workload in 263 elite show-jumping horses in four European countries," was published in Preventive Veterinary Medicine

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.