I’m sure we have all exaggerated how tired we are, but there really is a point of fatigue. Horses can get it too! It’s our job to track our horse’s fitness, stay ahead of massive fatigue, and ensure their job is safe. Know the signs that a horse is overworked.
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What does it mean for a horse to be fatigued?
- It’s a bit more than being tired and not entirely exhausting. In horses, the more a horse exercises at high intensity, the sooner the activity needs to stop. A horse won’t be able to continue exercising at that intensity. Pressing a horse past the point of “STOP” leads to injuries and accidents.
- The funny thing about horses – they have that fight or flight thing ruling their brains. At any point, horses must pick up their “go bag” and get out of dodge. Dangerous imaginary things are going on! It’s the adrenaline that kicks in!
- Ever been rehabbing a lame horse, and he’s typically limping around? Until the wind picks up, and then he’s fancy trotting all over the land like he was never injured? That’s adrenaline.
- A horse’s “natural high” is estimated to be about 10x as much as a human’s, so horses may feel able to push themselves harder to survive, past the STOP message.
- A horse is also (typically) willing to perform tasks under our butts. They will often dig deep to find some adrenaline and keep working for you. Do we know their STOP buttons?
- Where the tiredness comes from causes fatigue. It starts in the brain and nervous system or the muscles themselves.
- In brain fatigue, AKA central fatigue, the horse’s muscles can continue, but other factors are not. Hormones, blood sugar levels, and underlying medical issues tell your horse to stop exercising to stay safe.
- But, when the muscles are “done,” they still receive the message from the brain to work. But they can’t do anything. The mechanism of muscle exhaustion is still a bit fuzzy. It’s thought that electrolytes play an important role as they physically move across cell membranes to cause muscle contraction. Without the tools to keep moving, muscles can’t, despite the brain telling them to work.
- It’s more than just leg and back muscles that can fatigue. It can be the cardiac muscle that weakens, as well. Even the associated muscles of the respiratory system can become overworked.
- Fatigue is that feeling your horse is running out of battery or gas. Fatigue cannot be measured like an on/off switch; it can be gradual and on a sliding scale. An overworked horse tends to become that way slowly.
Things you may notice when you are riding that indicate tiredness:
- No changes to his rhythm and pace – he may resist moving faster or into upward gaits. He will mostly do the job but at the lowest level.
- Your horse has changed his rhythm and pace. You may feel that need to be continually kicking on, as he is always slowing down.
- Your horse’s stride may shorten. You will feel more up and down motion going on. Shorter strides are bouncier and less comfortable.
- Your aids are ignored! It’s as if you are but a mere mosquito in the saddle, not communicating a thing.
- Interference, forging, knocking himself, and even stumbling. Many of these instances of a horse whacking himself are related to other things. Whatever the reason, interference clearly shows your horse is having trouble moving under himself. For more information on interference and forging, this article explains it all.
- You may feel lots of resistance to keeping the same canter lead going. There’s a hind leg that takes all of his body weight at the canter, and it can get tired! Swapping leads to rest that working hind leg is a common coping mechanism.
Vital signs are, well, vital!
- Your horse has increased respiration and heart rate. Heart rate is the gold standard to measure a horse’s fitness. These are part of your horse’s vital signs!
- Longer recovery time after exercise. Vital signs tell you the recovery rate. Knowing how long your horse takes to have his temperature, pulse, and respirations return to normal tells you about his fitness level. Fatigued horses take longer to return to normal.
- Some horses have collapsed as a result of excessive exercise. You typically only hear of it happening during shows, but it can occur at home, too.
Why this is confusing while you are riding:
- What you might be feeling can be caused by numerous things. For example, your horse is not really on the aids. Is this because your horse is tired, or your aids are unclear? What about the horse you must nudge and encourage at every step? Horses can tune us out, and horses can do this because they are just plain exhausted.
- There are other factors to consider, as well. Is the footing making your horse change his gaits or interfere? Is he starting to be a bit lame? Could his saddle fit be causing any of these feelings? Is he hungry? Hurt?
Take a step back and look at the bigger picture before going into any rabbit holes:
- Is what you are asking of your horse fair? Are you ignoring his body language and demanding something without taking a minute to assess the situation?
- What has your horse done in the past week? Weekend warrior horses are not going to be as fit as a horse that exercises consistently. Or did he have a long trailer ride recently? What about a show? Or an injury?
- What are your horse’s typical vital signs before, during, and after an exercise session? How are they different today? Start to include his recovery time after exercise as part of your vital sign checking.
- Did your horse flinch, have stiff muscles, or act uncomfortable while grooming? Is he sore?
Your horse’s body language speaks volumes
- While the signs of fatigue are vague while riding, you can also pick up some clues after an exercise session. There’s been some great information found after researching working cattle horses in Brazil that’s really interesting.
- The researchers found that a horse’s overall body language showed fatigue more clearly than just facial expressions. Droopy eyes and twitching lips signal tiredness but also signal bit and mouth-related issues.
- Observing how your horse handles his weight and body after work is key. If he’s shifting his forelimbs more than once a minute, this signals fatigue. A horse will also start to ignore flies!
Start to notice how often your horse shifts his front legs. This is a valuable clue!
There’s no black and white rule book to follow here. Many things contribute to a horse’s energy state, including the following:
- His general fitness level. Is he capable of doing the job at the intensity that you are asking? Can he sustain this level, day in and day out?
- Consider your horse’s age, health, and genetics. Old guys and injured horses putter out faster than young guys and healthy horses. There’s nothing you can do about genetics except work with what you have.
- How is the environment when you are riding? Hot and humid weather slows things down, as can the extreme cold.
- At what speed and intensity are you asking your horse to work on any given day? And that includes the terrain you are on! A horse that can easily do trot sets on level ground that’s beautifully maintained won’t be able to do the same on hills and terrain without conditioning.
- We have the most influence over a horse’s fitness. Proper training and gradual increases in work often result in a fitter horse. Pair your training plan with monitoring his vitals and caring for his body between workouts. Diet, grooming and massage, post-exercise leg care, regular veterinary work, and even time off contribute to a horse’s fitness.
- Learn to properly measure your horse’s fitness by understanding his heart rate. It’s simple to take this measurement a few times! Learn more here.
- There are great pieces of wearable technology for horses to measure fitness! These allow you to monitor your horse’s heart rate as you warm up, exercise, and cool down.
- Over time, this information tells you about your horse’s fitness level trends. Generally speaking, a horse will have a lower heart rate over time as fitness increases. After exercise, the recovery time will also shorten as your horse returns to his resting vital signs quicker.
- You don’t have to have a fitness tracker, but it can help. Otherwise, take your horse’s vitals before, during, and directly after a ride to get a rough idea. Then retake them every few minutes after you finish the exercise to discover recovery time.
Most fitness trackers link up to your phone!
- Heck yeah! And what scientists have found is fascinating. One study looked at horses with a regular training routine for some time versus horses with intense exercise for weeks followed by a low-intensity routine for the remaining weeks. This mimics the common practice of using “detraining” to undo the stressful training that precedes.
- The researchers found that the overtrained horses had muscular changes and changes to other parts of their bodies. The study results show that overtraining harms the heart, muscles, immune system, and more. And, the “detraining” didn’t do much for fitness!
What are the signs of exhausted horse syndrome?
- First, you will find exhausted horse syndrome in horses asked to perform at more strenuous levels for more extended periods. Think fox hunters, event horses, and endurance horses.
- It’s the perfect storm of fatigue, dehydration, and overwork that causes serious consequences.
- Horses won’t be able to regulate their body temperature, resulting in hyperthermia (overheating). They often stop sweating, despite having a higher temperature. Vital signs are elevated and may not come down after the work has stopped. The pulse may be hard to find, and the gums can become dry, sticky, and dark red. The capillary refill time is less than one second, and your horse is in massive danger.
- Horses can become lethargic and depressed, and uninterested in food. Your horse may seem like he’s drunk, stumbling around. He will be painful and act colicky and lame. Laminitis is also a risk in these situations.
- Organ damage and death can occur. Get veterinary help right away! Even if your horse has normal-looking gums, you need your vet to guide you until they can arrive. You will be helping your horse lower his body temperature and monitoring all vital signs.
It’s so easy to take a temp!
- It starts with knowing your horse’s baseline fitness levels. Track those vital signs as your horse exercises.
- Take your horse’s warm-up seriously. Start slowly, and practice the advanced movements in a smaller size, slower gait, and less intensity for a safe warm-up.
- Get your vet involved with your horse’s training plan! They can help you outline a safe way to increase your horse’s fitness.
- Take lots of long-rein breaks. Breaks are rewards and allow you to see how your horse stretches. You can also take a peek at his nostrils to gauge respirations during this time.
Here are a few more thoughts on this topic.
- Resist the urge to judge a horse’s fatigue by how much foamy sweat he has. While excessive perspiration and/or the inability to keep sweating signal that something is wrong, foamy sweat has a different mechanism. Latherin is a component of sweat and will create foam from friction. That’s all! It’s not an indication of health.
- There’s one last thought about our horses and their training programs. My mind was BLOWN WIDE OPEN after starting my personal exercise routine. Once I did this, I gained specific empathy for what it’s like to push myself. I had to learn to say STOP at eh best time. I experienced a learning curve to find a balance between resting and recovery and work. I dealt with soreness, setbacks, and even pain. We are not machines; we can undoubtedly overwork ourselves and our horses.
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