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Muscles Don't Have an Off-Season

Bodywork isn't seasonal

It's late fall in the Midwest. The weather is blustery and the horse show season has wound down so I often hear something along these lines lately:

"I'll get my horse back on a regular schedule with you when it's show season."

I internally cringe when I hear these words. Your horse's muscles don't have an off-season. There's no magical switch in your horse's body that flips when the days get shorter to prevent him/her from accruing muscular stress just because you are not actively training for a show.

  • Muscles and fascia accumulate stress outside of riding and competition. Maybe your horse is notorious for rough-housing in the paddock or he's confined to a stall - either way your horse's musculoskeletal system accumulates stress in his/her day-to-day routine. Different stress variables come into play when the weather changes. Your horse's movement can be altered based on the footing - think of how your horse moves about in a frozen paddock to how he/she moves when it's grassy.
  • Do you blanket your horse? Blanketing can decrease movement in your horse's shoulders and lower neck which can lead to decreased motion in other areas of the body (Ormston). Bodywork can help offset this.
  • Your horse's movement in cold weather is affected by changes in muscle contraction and the temperatures' impact on joints. During cold weather, blood flow is concentrated in the body's core to keep vital organs warm which results in reduced blood flow to resting muscles. Cold muscles are biomechanically stiffer than warm muscles (Steelman, 2017). Additionally, cold weather changes the way groups of muscles work together. "Every time a muscle contracts, there is also small contractions of an antagonist muscle to oppose it; this allows a very fine level of control and lets us make precise movements that are appropriate in speed and strength to the task at hand. When muscles are cold, antagonist muscles might be activated more, and this decreases the net amount of movement and changes the way an exercising horse moves" (Steelman, 2017). 
  • Temperatures' impact on joints also affect how your horse moves. Cold temperatures increase the thickness of the synovial joint fluid which makes the joints feel stiff to the horse. Stiff joints can cause other parts of the horse to work harder (Boyd, 2013). For example, a horse's back will need to absorb more force if his/her hock is stiff.

Keep in mind that if you choose to give your horse the winter off, periods of lesser activity lasting longer than a month can weaken deep postural muscles and supporting soft tissue (Ballou, 2014). Following layoffs longer than a month, losses of musculoskeletal strength, bone density and tendon and ligament tonicity can be detected (Ballou, 2014). Once these structures are weakened, they take considerably longer than the cardiovascular system to be re-conditioned.

Similarly, if you remove regular bodywork from your horse's routine for an extended period of time, don't expect every positive change that your equine bodyworker helped make in your horse to last forever. Once you re-introduce bodywork, your practitioner will likely have some "catching up" to do. Bodywork produces the best results when utitilized on a regular schedule and this is one reason why I encourage owners to keep their horse on a maintenance schedule.

Sources:

Ormston, Bill. "Chiropractic Care in the Winter". Holistic Horse. Web. 21 Nov. 2017

Steelman, Samantha. "Conditioning Through the Seasons: Fall and Winter". The Horse. 6 Oct. 2017. Web. 21 Nov. 2017

Ballou, Aristotle Jec. "Conditioning Your Horse During Downtime". Horse Journals. 2014. Web. 21 Nov. 2017

Boyd, Emma. "Effect of Winter on Your Animals Joints". Pegasus Magazine. 19 Feb. 2013. Web. 21 Nov. 2017

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