Tack n' Talk

Online Equestrian Resource

Recognizing Equine Fatigue

Fatigue may manifest itself in different ways depending on what it is we are asking of the horse. It is different from exhaustion, which can result in an inability for a horse even to take another step.

During hard exercise a horse’s adrenalin level is around 10 times higher than our own. Adrenalin can help mask pain and allow a horse to push itself harder than may be beneficial to its welfare.

For this reason, it is important that we recognise the signs of fatigue and know how to delay its onset through appropriate riding.

General signs of fatigue

• A slowing of pace

• Decreased responsiveness to the aids

• An unwillingness or inability to increase speed or change gait

• Loss of motivation

• Reduced coordination (for example, stumbling/losing balance/wandering)

• Increased frequency of brushing or overreaching

• Increased frequency of changes in lead in canter and gallop

• Increased head and neck movement

• Increased breathing effort

• Hitting obstacles

Discipline-specific fatigue

The showjumper: Many horses will begin to develop some degree of fatigue by the end of a showjumping round.

The higher the jumps and the shorter the time between them, the sooner fatigue will start to occur. It may be expressed as something as subtle as just touching a pole.

The endurance horse: In endurance, there are no complicated movements nor explosive efforts and a moderate pace is maintained for a long period.

Fatigue is likely to be due to a depletion of glycogen (energy) stores, electrolyte loss, dehydration and a component of central fatigue. It may take many hours to develop.

Endurance horses have been shown to become more asymmetric (imbalanced) and one-sided during competition, which is almost certainly a manifestation of fatigue in both horse and rider.

The dressage horse: In dressage, fatigue may occur during a specific movement or gradually over a period of time. A horse whose limbs initially achieve good height in piaffe, but gradually becomes lower and lower in his step, is probably fatiguing.

Similarly, a horse that achieves a nine for an extended trot at the start of a test, but only six for the same movement at the end, may do so because of the onset of fatigue.

The eventer: Fatigue during a cross-country round is the most complex to understand. A prolonged period of cantering, slowing down for jumps, accelerating after jumps, plus the hills and turns all make the amount of effort a horse puts in highly variable.

Good riders are able to ride smoothly and delay the onset of fatigue.

A horse going cross-country may experience fatigue to the extent that it is able to continue to run at the required pace between jumps, but is unable to generate sufficient force to clear the next obstacle. This is because running and jumping involve different fibres within the muscles.

Horse and Hound February 2010

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