Tiredness and fatigue can affect all horses, regardless of discipline or level. Like humans, horses become fatigued – physically and mentally – during exercise. They may also become fatigued in the event of injury or illness. A tired horse is more likely to make mistakes, fall and injure itself, so it is important that we as riders do what we can to recognise fatigue and ensure that our horses are fit enough to carry out what we ask of them. This article focuses on how fatigue can increase the risk of horse leg injuries and tendon injuries, as well as what riders can do to help prevent fatigue-related injuries.
Muscle Fatigue and Central Fatigue
There are two main types of fatigue: muscle fatigue and central fatigue. Muscle fatigue is when the horse’s muscles become physically tired. The brain is sending the right signals, but the muscles are too tired to carry out the movements. Central fatigue is when the brain sends signals to make the horse slow down, even if the muscles have plenty of energy. This type of fatigue may occur as a result of hormones, pain, or low blood sugar levels.
Both types of fatigue are important and should be noted. Fatigue is often simply a sign of the horse getting tired just like we do when exercising. However, it can be a sign of an underlying health problem.
Signs of Fatigue
There are a number of signs that your horse is fatigued. It is important to learn what is normal for your horse, and to know when to stop pushing your horse. A tired or fatigued horse is more prone to injury, either through falling or through the tendons and ligaments having to take the strain due to tired muscles.
Signs of fatigue in horses include:
- Reduced coordination – this could be stumbling, tripping, overreaching, brushing, losing balance, etc
- Reduced responsiveness to the aids, including unwillingness to increase the speed or gait
- Frequent changes of lead in canter or gallop
- Increased head and neck movement
- Hitting fences / obstacles
- Increased breathing effort
It is important to note that different horses will become fatigued at different points. The point at which a horse becomes fatigued will depend on their fitness level, age, type, the ground / going, heat and humidity among other factors. Knowing your horse and understanding their fitness and ability level is key to recognising when they are likely to become fatigued.
What Riders Can Do
A fatigued or tired horse is more prone to injury. Whatever the type or cause of fatigue, it is important that riders recognise when their horse is fatigued as well as whether that fatigue is simply due to exertion or whether it may be rooted in an underlying issue.
If your horse becomes fatigued during a competition, it may be wise to pull up and return another day. Regardless of whether the fatigue is due to lack of fitness, weather or ground conditions, or a health issue, withdrawing could prevent a serious injury to you and your horse. The same applies during training, out hacking or hunting: A tired horse is more prone to injury.
Whilst some level of fatigue is to be expected at times – towards the end of a cross-country round, for example – it is down to the rider to understand when “enough is enough” and distinguish whether the horse is safely able to continue. Fatigue is not an on/off switch; rather a gradual descent.
The Importance of Warming Up and Cooling Down
Whilst all horses will become fatigued eventually, there are things we can do to help them perform at their best. An appropriate exercise regime will help your horse develop a suitable level of fitness for the task in hand. However, there are also things we can do before and after exercise in order to aid our horses’ performance. Warming up properly before exercise is key to getting the horse moving – physically and mentally – helping to reduce the chance of fatigue and injury. Furthermore, an effective cool-down will help the horse’s body to recover properly after exercise. You can find out more about what we are trying to achieve when cooling our horses’ legs here.
Cryochaps Horse Ice Boots
An effective cool-down routine, combined with icing and compression, can help aid post-exercise recovery. This, combined with appropriate rest and fitness work, can help reduce fatigue and help your horse perform at their best. Cryochaps horse ice boots have been designed as a portable, convenient icing solution – great for training and competitions.