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Cool-Down Periods Important To Horses After Physical Exertion

By Donald Stotts

STILLWATER - Cooling down after strenuous exercise or physical exertion is as good advice for horses as for humans, according to an Oklahoma State University animal scientist.

The general objective of a cool-down period is to decrease the post-exercise stress level, assist in treatment of minor stress injury and decrease the level of fatigue, said Dave Freeman, Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service equine specialist.

"Cool-down activities might be similar to the work performed in competition but less intense, or use different methods such as walkers, rub downs and rinsing," Freeman said.

Freeman said in addition to its traditional uses in regards to recovery from exercise, cooling down is also a critical component of more modern techniques such as interval training.

Interval training entails successive bouts of work that are at or near competitive levels. In order to enhance performance, these bouts must be separated with relief intervals. These relief intervals (60 percent of maximum heart rate obtained during the work interval) are cool-down periods.

"Allowing the body to partially recover from a single bout, and then repeating a heavy workload bout has been shown to be an effective conditioning technique," Freeman said.

However, problems have occurred when horses were not allowed enough relief period, or when the horse was overly stressed in subsequent bouts.

"Excessive stress results in injury and breakdown," Freeman said. "That's part of the reason why most competitive events require cool-down periods."

Specifically, there are several benefits in cooling down a horse. Research has shown that horses walked or trotted following exercise have faster clearance of blood lactate than horses left standing, thus increasing the rate of recovery.

Large amounts of heat build up during work. This heat must be released from the horse's body through respiration and sweat. Heat loss through sweat requires convection and evaporation. Walking a hot horse guards against placing it in an area void of air flow. Air flow is vitally important for convection of heat off the body.

Mild movement of the feet and legs after intense exercise may assist circulation in the lower leg. Horses left standing after exercise may have increased swelling around the lower leg joints.

Cool-down periods allow trainers to monitor the horse's soundness and response to the previous stress of performance. Heart rates, respiration rates, sweat rates and gait analysis are indicators of the degree of recovery.

Freeman said the specific effects of cool-down periods have not been studied sufficiently in equines to make many general recommendations.

"There are diverse differences in the types of exercise that horses are subjected to, and research studies with human athletes have shown that the benefits of warm-up and cool-down sessions are specific to exercise type," Freeman said.

Additionally, there are differences in the needs of healthy horses and of those requiring therapy from athletic injury.

"As with most management principles, the length and type of cool-down periods will depend on the individual needs of the horse in question; trial, error and experience will design the program," Freeman said.

General recommendations include:

Similar to warming up, cool-down procedures are more important to reduce heat stress when heat and humidity are high.

Shade, slow movement and air flow will aid in cooling down the horse. After the animal's heart rate has dropped to near resting values, a cool water rinse will assist in reducing body temperature.

Cool-down procedures will depend on the amount of work, the environmental conditions and the individual horse.

Recording expected responses will help identify abnormalities, possibly early enough to prevent serious injury. If nothing else, manually recording the heart rate by feeling the pulse during recovery will help refine cool-down procedures.

"Monitor signs of excessive stress," Freeman said. "Abnormally high heart rates, abnormal stride mechanics and swelling of joints are warning indicators during warm-up and cool-down sessions."

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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