The warm-up and cool-down aspects of a ride are extremely important in helping your horse stay fit and sound. Horses need regular exercise to stay in peak condition; however, they also need proper care after a hard workout to help with cool-down and recovery.
There are multiple areas to pay close attention to after a ride: body temperature, respiration, muscle care and leg condition. Although these areas play an important role in the horse’s recovery, the role of a proper warm-up shouldn’t be overlooked for its effect on recovery. Most riders know a proper warm-up is vital to a successful ride, but it also aids in the recovery process. Giving your horse an appropriate warm-up increases the temperature in the soft tissues, thus increasing the elasticity of tendons and ligaments and helping to prevent injury. It also helps with aerobic metabolism (the use of oxygen to adequately meet energy demands during exercise), a mechanism for producing less heat and lactic acid build-up, which helps to delay fatigue.
Body temperature is primarily a concern in hot, especially humid, weather but can be a factor all year round. Normal horse temperatures range from 99° to 101°F. It’s a good idea to check your horse’s temperature at rest periodically, for two reasons: it will help you to learn what is normal for your horse and it will also get your horse used to having his temperature taken as a routine procedure. Plus, if you plan to do endurance rides or eventing, your horse will have his temperature taken at veterinary checks along the way and you’ll be able to know how far he is from normal.
A horse’s temperature will rise with even moderate work, as the action of all those muscles creates body heat. Horses cool off by sweating and, to a lesser extent, by breathing faster or harder; however, these actions also act to dehydrate your horse. This makes it important to provide water as part of your cool-down routine after heavy exercise. By allowing your horse to drink, it will help him stay hydrated, cool down faster and regulate his body temperature. A horse may drink a gallon or two within 15 to 30 minutes after a hard workout. When providing water to your horse, make sure it’s room temperature vs. ice cold.
Although water is a large part of hydration, it’s not the only factor. Several minerals (known as electrolytes) such as sodium, chloride, potassium, calcium and magnesium are also lost through sweat. Feeding a good electrolyte, such as Apple-Dex™ or Electro Dex® electrolytes, is imperative to replenishing a horse’s mineral levels. Electrolytes can be added to a daily grain ration, in addition to 2 to 3 oz. of free choice salt. Since electrolytes will encourage drinking, it’s essential that clean water be readily available.
To check your horse’s hydration level, pinch the skin on the neck and watch how long it takes to snap back. The skin should return to normal in about 1 to 2 seconds. If there’s a delay, the horse is already slightly (3-5%) dehydrated. Another way to check for hydration is to press on the horse’s gums and watch the time it takes the spot to return to its normal pink color. Again, the color should return in about 1 to 2 seconds. Monitoring fecal piles can also help detect dehydration. Dry, brittle manure indicates dehydration, whereas mucus-covered manure indicates dehydration plus a slow-moving gut, which can lead to an impaction.
A horse’s respiration will begin to decrease as he calms down and has less of a need for high levels of oxygen, but is also affected by body temperature and overall fitness. As your horse literally “cools down” with his body temperature dropping, his respiratory rate will decrease. A fit horse will cool down and return to normal respiration faster than an overweight or unfit horse. A normal, resting respiratory rate for an adult horse will be between 8 to 15 breaths per minute. Activity and excitement can rapidly increase respiratory rates; it’s common to see between 60 to 100 breaths per minute during regular exercise.
To check your horse’s respiratory rate, you can count flank movements or feel for air movement with a hand gently cupped over a nostril. Count the number of breaths for 30 seconds, then double the total. When counting breaths, be sure to count the inhale and exhale as one breath, not two.
Another step in the cool-down process is to remove heat and metabolic byproducts from the horse’s muscles. Exercise in general, whether a weekend warrior or a competition horse, causes sore, stiff muscles. As with the other areas, fitness plays a role in muscle recovery as well. The muscles of a more conditioned horse will function by aerobic metabolism for a longer period of time, producing less lactic acid and oxidative stress. Once done with your horse’s workout, you should continue to walk your horse for roughly the same amount of time you walked during your warm-up. Walking helps remove the heat and lactic acid from the muscles, as well as assisting heart rate recovery and reducing subsequent muscle soreness. Never stop and stand around or put your horse away directly after exercise; it can cause the muscles to tighten and cramp (i.e. tying-up), which can be a serious condition. Proper conditioning will delay the onset of sore muscles and help reduce recovery time, but all working horses can benefit from proper post-workout muscle care.
One way to help soothe your horse’s sore muscles is to apply a liniment after workout. Liniments are liquids or gels, such as Cool Pack Green Jelly™ liniment, that can be applied to the horse’s body to help with cooling down, stiffness or soreness. They are usually menthol or alcohol-based, which means they increase surface evaporation. Liniments can cool-down or warm-up, so make sure you use a “cooling” liniment after a hard workout.
Liniments can be mixed with water and used as an all-over body brace or applied directly to the horse’s legs or areas of concern. Some liniments are strictly for use without wraps, but others are more effective if applied to the legs, then wrapped. ALWAYS read and follow the manufacturer directions. Some liniments contain stronger ingredients that could lead to burning or blistering if wrapped.
Make sure that your horse’s skin is clean and free of other chemicals before applying a liniment. This is doubly important if you plan to wrap over the liniment. If it’s your first time using a new liniment product, apply it to a small area first and assess for any possible reactions. Some horses will react to specific or strong ingredients – better to treat a small area of reactivity instead of an entire leg or body!
Another note of caution is to stick to equine liniment products and not use homemade or untested solutions. Some of these concoctions may not have consistent ingredients, and their efficacy and method of acting may not have been confirmed.
After a ride, run your hands down your horse’s legs. Look and feel for anything that may be abnormal. It might be as minor as a small nick, but you might feel heat or notice a swelling over a joint. Knowing your horse’s “normal” will help you to immediately spot any changes. There is normally some increased heat after a strenuous workout just from increased blood flow to the area, but this should subside fairly quickly. Luckily, horses have matching pairs of legs so you can always compare one leg to the other if you are unsure of the discrepancy. This is especially helpful if you are detecting a “bounding” digital pulse or feel the hoof may be warmer than normal.
If your horse is under a stringent workout regimen or you feel that your horse could use some extra TLC for his legs, consider cold hosing, using ice boots or applying a poultice, such as Icetight® Poultice. All these options help to cool the limbs, tighten and reduce inflammation.
Cold hosing can be done via running cold water from a hose on the leg for 15 to 20 minutes or equine icing system boots, like Game Ready® System, that circulates cold water through leg boots with active compression. If using ice boots that contain frozen gel packs, make sure to wet the legs with water before applying. This helps to direct cold into the leg tissues. If you have multiple ice boots, consider changing the boot out halfway through the interval (or earlier if the ice packs thaw quickly) to get a more long-lasting effect. Poultices can be used after hosing or alone. If used after hosing, dry off the lower limbs first, then apply the poultice down the cannon bone. Wrap the poulticed leg with plastic or moist brown paper bag, cover with a standing wrap and leave on overnight. The poultice will dry over time, drawing out heat and fluid, and can be removed the next day with soap and water.
Although the cool-down principles hold true for any season, riding in cold weather adds another layer to the cool down process: making sure your horse doesn’t get chilled. Giving your horse an ample warm-up with a slow transition in and out of work will help keep the blood pumping and muscles loose. Wear a cooler or a quarter sheet on your horse for the first 5 to 10 minutes of warm-up and again at the end during the cool-down until his respiration rate is back to normal. This will help to keep his muscles warm and less likely to tighten. If your horse has a long coat, consider body clipping him. Horses with shorter hair won’t sweat as much and will cool down more efficiently. If your horse lives outside and can’t afford a full body clip, consider a trace clip over the areas where he sweats most. In the barn, keep the cooler on your horse until his coat is dry. Horses that are cold can hold tension in their backs or abdomen and may lead to gastric upset.
When planning your cool-down process, whatever the season, it’s best to put it in context to your horse and his needs. A proper cool-down routine is critical to keeping your horse healthy and sound for his desired job.
Apple-Dex, Cool Pack Green Jelly, Electro Dex and Icetight are trademarks of Farnam Companies, Inc.
Game Ready is a registered trademark of CoolSystems, Inc.