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Warming Up Horses Before Competition Good Practice

By Donald Stotts

STILLWATER - While little data is available about the specific benefits of warming up horses before strenuous physical activity, it still probably is sound management for athletic equines, according to an Oklahoma State University animal scientist.

Some horse owners prefer low-intensity warm-up sessions, while others prefer to mimic actual work used in competitions, said Dave Freeman, Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service equine specialist.

"Low-intensity warm-ups might consist of stretching and suppling exercises such as counter bends, two-tracking and flexing maneuvers," Freeman said. "Examples of high-intensity sessions would be spinning and stopping a reiner, or galloping before a race."

Freeman said some horse managers prefer to concentrate more on mental than on physical preparedness; others use passive methods such as heat lamps and rub downs.

Regardless of the method, the objectives of warming up the horse are to increase performance ability and reduce injury.

"Truthfully, little is known as to the specific benefits of warming up horses before exercise," Freeman said. "While more research has been done on humans, even human exercise physiologists are divided in their opinions as to its benefits."

Freeman said research with human athletes suggests that warming up can improve running speed, flexibility and strength of movement in some parts of the body. However, reaction time to a stimulus does not appear to be affected.

While speed in sprints and distance runs may be improved, agility is not.

"Limited research in horses suggests that performance improvement by a warm-up session may result from increased energy availability and use," Freeman said. "The research suggests most benefits are to horses performing aerobic-type work."

There are several ways that warming up might increase the performance of a horse. Freeman said much of the discussion must be based on evidence from practices substantiated by trainers because there have been few research studies performed in this area.

"Research has shown five minutes of work at 60-70 percent maximum (heart rates above 160 to 170 beats per minute) elicits the spleen to dump red blood cells into circulation," Freeman said.

Red blood cells transport oxygen to the muscle, where oxygen can be used for pathways that require it for the breakdown of energy-containing compounds. However, the spleen is controlled by the endocrine system.

"The spleen may contract from sheer anticipation of performance," Freeman said. "Thus, workload may not be necessary to elicit the response of increased blood cells into the blood."

Research has shown horses undergoing warm-up sessions may have increased utilization of fatty acids, thus producing less lactic acid in the subsequent work.

"Fatty acids require energy pathways dependent on the availability of oxygen," Freeman said. "Fatty acids are used primarily for submaximal work where the horse maintains heart rates below 150 to 160 beats per minute."

With more intense work, glucose is used as the fuel source because oxygen-dependent pathways cannot produce enough energy as quickly as needed. Glucose can be broken down in the absence of oxygen, but when it is, the by-product is lactic acid. Lactic acid is a strong acid that has been implicated with fatigue.

"Increasing the temperature of muscle a few degrees by warming up may decrease the viscosity in the muscle contractile unit, increase the rate of oxygen exchange and increase the speed of chemical reactions that are part of energy-supplying pathways," Freeman said.

Low-intensity exercise increases temperature slightly. Freeman said the result may be faster contraction speed in the muscle.

"Oxygen consumption increases more rapidly at the start of exercise when there has been a warm up; this increase may enhance aerobic metabolism," he said. "In humans, strenuous exercise without a warm-up period has been shown to induce abnormal heart beats."

Freeman said mild stretching may benefit range of movement by increasing the elasticity of tendons and ligaments around the joints, especially in horses with past injury in a joint area.

"The result may be increased stride extension and gait coordination," he said. "Conversely, inadequate warm-ups may increase muscle strain."

Passive heat applications (heat lamps) may assist in loosening a stiff joint or reduce inflammation on surface areas of the body. However, an application of cold, such as a cool water rinse, may benefit the circulatory function.

"Cold causes peripheral vasoconstriction, and possibly a reflex vasodilatation within the muscle; these increase the amount of blood available for active tissues," Freeman said. In addition, horses may need warm-up sessions for psychological preparation similar to what humans do when they concentrate on an impending performance.

"Horses respond to consistency and repetition in training; a warm-up may provide a cue for mental preparedness of an impending performance," Freeman said. "As such, warming up may have a large training effect in events which depend largely on agility, such as reining and speed events."

Freeman said one of the most important values of warm-up periods is as a "pre-test" period to determine a horse's soundness before maximum effort is required. Gait analysis, attitude and heart rates are valuable indicators of performance readiness.

"Although there is no research that can specifically identify the benefits of warm-ups, there is enough evidence to suggest warm-ups provide injury preventive and performance benefits," Freeman said. "Alternatively, there should be little disadvantage if warm-ups are short enough so as not to promote fatigue."

The bottom line: horses should be warmed up prior to engaging in strenuous physical activity.


We would like to take this opportunity to thank Oklahoma State University for allowing us to provide you with this information.


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