For those of you who compete throughout the year (or even if you don't compete but like to train for certain goals, such as jumping higher or getting in longer trail rides), it's important to remember that it is possible to over train. Managing a horse's workload can be challenging — some horses seem to thrive on tons of work, others show signs of burnout if pushed too hard — but it's an important aspect of horsemanship.
Often, the idea of overtraining seems to be more synonymous with the elite level athletes. You know, the riders qualifying for World Cup or a CCI5* or a 100-mile race. But these riders aren't the only ones who must be conscious of overexertion.
As we look forward to the arrival of warmer weather and more riding, here are four things to be mindful of in order to best look out for your horse's wellbeing:
Overtraining Can Lead to Burnout
If your normally happy-go-lucky horse suddenly starts to seem grumpy, pinning his ears when asked to go forward or not wanting to go too far from home, look at your training program. Be observant of your horse and familiarize yourself with what is "normal" for him.
One way to do this is to regularly monitor your horse's heart rate. Regular heart rate checks are multipurpose, but one primary function of this is to know what is normal for your horse. Each horse will have its own heart rate patterns, so make sure you know this information for your horse. This makes it easier to spot when something is not quite right.
Overtraining Can Cause You to 'Peak' Too Soon
If you listen to any sport commentary, often analysts will talk about the concept of training for peak performance. Timing plays a role in this, as the ultimate goal is to have the athlete peak at just the right time.
When designing your competition season, set your intentions for what competitions or goals you'd like to tick off and work backwards from there. Work off of your heart rate data and past performance to understand what type of schedule works for your horse. When something doesn't work well, make a note of it and make a change.
Overtraining Can Cause Injury or Lameness
Just as with any other sport, it's important to treat our bodies and our horse's bodies with respect and care. Don't expect a horse to stoically push through pain, and look for signs of discomfort before they manifest as "dead lame".
Similarly to how even a conditioned runner can sprain an ankle if they push too hard or too fast, a horse can also be more susceptible to tendon or ligament strains if training is too much.
Don't be afraid to mix in some active recovery as you plan and train for the season. A week or a few days of active walking, hacking, or other low-impact activities are not only good for your horse's body, but also his mind. Often, a break means a refreshed horse that's ready to go back to work with a renewed sense of energy.
Overtraining Can Take the Fun Out of Riding
Sometimes, it's easy to get caught up in the goals, the numbers, and the competition. It's easy to forget why we are riders in the first place. Did we begin riding because we wanted to win competitions or train endlessly? Sure, that's a big part of it for many riders. But for the most part, we all got into horses because we love them, plain and simple.
It's important to remember this as we train for our goals. Yes, goals are a vital part of success in any arena. But be wary of getting too focused on that end goal, because it's easy to forget to just enjoy the time we have with our horses.
So don't berate yourself for taking an easier ride or letting off the gas pedal every now and then. Your horse will thank you, and you'll likely feel the effects of having a more forgiving schedule yourself.
Happy, healthy horses perform the best. Let's make 2020 the year in which that is our main priority!