Herbs to help your horse’s fitness programme

If your horse has been having a long winter holiday, now’s the time to start that fitness programme for you both. James Hart explains how herbs can help

Physical fitness is really nothing more complex than being in a good state of general health so that you and your horse can achieve your physical goals. To achieve this, you need physiological fitness; an optimally functioning metabolism, good cardiovascular fitness, flexibility, and muscle fitness.  

The other half of fitness is harder to define but can be thought of as mental fitness; balance, coordination and familiarity with the challenges that the sport may throw at you. There are a range of herbs that can help at various stages in getting fit and helping in competition.

Starting from scratch

Before starting with an exercise regime it’s important to make sure that your horse is healthy and therefore able to do what you ask. The various systems of the body are interlinked and interdependent but overall, if the immune system is challenged his performance will always be under par. Getting back into work can also be stressful which tends to depress immune function.

Ataptogens are the herbalists’ approach to stress. So, in constructing a formula to help ease the journey back to fitness, we should look at immune support and an adaptogen. Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea) is the prime immune herb and it combines well with Siberian ginseng (Eleuthrococcus senticosus) which has both immune-supporting and adaptogenic actions. 

Echinacea flower and essential oil (Image: IStock)

Some horses will enjoy training to begin with, but then get grumpy and unco-operative when muscles and joints ache, fun turns to work, and the novelty of the attention wears off. Hypericum (Hypericum perforatum) helps to overcome this mental block, but it can take a day or so to have effect.

Experience and knowledge of your horse will help you decide if it is necessary, but we always use hypericum for a week before starting back in work so the issue doesn’t arise. After about six weeks, you can reduce and wean them off it.

One of the most useful performance and fitness supporting herbs is schisandra (Schisandra chinensis). It has been shown to increase human endurance and reduce fatigue in racehorses and show jumping horses. Research suggests that it improves the efficiency and ‘biological age’ of cells.

Organic dried Schisandra berries (image:istock)

In a randomised, double-blind, crossover stud, race horses were given either schisandra or a placebo 30 minutes before an eight-minute race over 5.6km, while the jumping horses were taken over a 700m obstacle course with 12 jumps. In both cases, the horses who had received schisandra had improved times as well as lower heart rates and respiratory frequencies, increased plasma glucose and decreased lactate levels. The effects were more marked in the race horses.

The authors of this study suggested that schisandra caused lower synthesis of lactate in muscle under anaerobic condition and improve lactate clearance by the liver. 

If we bring all of the discussion together we have so far included in our ‘start up’ formula the herbs echinacea, Siberian ginseng, hypericum and schisandra; a formula using equal proportions of each at a 1:2 strength extract will provide each of the herbs in a sufficient therapeutic dose. If too many herbs are included in a formula, the dose can become too big, or you run the risk of the constituents not being at an effective therapeutic level.

For a 500-600kg horse, 20 ml twice a day would be an adequate dose of this formula, and I’d start it a week before you begin your serious training.

Combatting stiffness

If you and your horse are unfit after winter you need to start gently for the good of you both. Don’t forget he has to carry you, so if you’re a bit stiff and sore after a ride he will be more so.

Devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) will help you both. It is a broad spectrum anti-inflammatory that has a similar mode of action to ‘bute, but it doesn’t have the same side effects (and additionally, is not banned for use in competition).  If your horse is prone to muscle soreness it would be worth giving him Devil’s claw for a few days before you start training, otherwise it is really only necessary to use it as symptoms arise.  If you find your horse is getting very stiff or sore after a session you can give him a dose of between 20 and 40ml. This is quite a high dose but in an acute situation it is appropriate.

Once the fitness level starts to rise you may find it worthwhile to support the learning process with bacopa (Bacopa monniera). It is an Indian herb that is traditionally used as a brain tonic to enhance memory development, learning, and concentration. We have used it to help training in dressage horses with great effect. 

Bacopa is a traditional Indian brain tonic which helps with concentration

Easy does it 

It doesn’t matter what your horse’s level of fitness was when you stopped riding. By the end of three months of inactivity, all conditioning in your horse is essentially lost, and you’re starting at ground zero.

Arthritic joints or old tendon and ligament problems may stiffen up during periods of inactivity. Even sound, healthy adult horses should be gradually eased back into full work.
The basics of bringing your horse back to regular work are pretty much common sense. But before you even start, has your horse been seen by a farrier recently? Long, overgrown feet are a handicap any horse can do without, and can cause pain, lameness and a loss of balance.

A horse who hasn’t seen much action over the winter can be just as excited about going out on that first ride as you are. Don’t mistake this eagerness for fitness, and don’t assume that the horse won’t do more than he is physically conditioned to do, especially if he is a thoroughbred.

Overdoing it when you start to ride again runs the risk of causing problems that can take far longer to correct than the time invested in preventing them would have taken. Muscular aches and pains are not something you can see easily, but they will show themselves as back and gait stiffness, sluggishness, poor attitude toward work (who can blame the horse?), and even the development of vices such as nappiness and rearing. Behaviours rooted in pain really aren’t training issues, but if misinterpreted as such, they can lead to battles that can ruin your whole riding season.

So, little and often is the key to easing your horse back into work. A half hour brisk walk is plenty for the first day, with a couple of minutes’ trotting in the middle. Then you can increase the walking phase by five minutes every few days, and gradually build up the trotting periods both in frequency and duration.

Ease your horse back into work over a period of weeks and months

Once your horse is comfortable with 45 minutes mixed walking and trotting, add some short bursts of canter to your ride.

If your horse is very young (under five) or very old, you’ll need to take even more care. Youngsters starting out have never been really fit, and are still in the process of strengthening their ligaments, tendons, bones and joints as they continue to grow.

Exercise helps this process, but until their structures have reached maturity, young horses are easily injured.

However, young muscles and lungs can be conditioned quite quickly, which means a young horse can overload his skeleton before actually showing signs of fatigue.

This is why lots of long, slow rides are the best foundation for young horses.

Older horses may have arthritic joints and old injuries to contend with, but regular slow exercise will help them retain their flexibility and endurance.

  • This article was first published in the September 2014 issue of NZ Horse & Pony