Book Review:  Conditioning Sport Horses

Conditioning Sport Horses by Hilary M. Clayton

c 1991 Sport Horse Publications, Mason, MI, 256 pages

ISBN 0-9695720-0-X

Still referred to by many as the “Bible” of equine conditioning principles, I picked up Clayton’s 1991 work, Conditioning Sport Horses, this past winter as I was beginning to think seriously about the demands of conditioning for long distance riding.  I was worried at first that the book might be a bit dry or too technical for me, a non-scientist, to understand.  However, Clayton is skilled at breaking down complex concepts into manageable pieces and I found it a fairly pleasurable read.

Dr. Hilary Clayton   Photo taken from her promotional poster.
Dr. Hilary Clayton Photo taken from her promotional poster.

Conditioning Sport Horses is divided into three chunks.  Part One looks at the major systems involved in the process of preparing a horse for athletic work and devotes full chapters to the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, energy production, muscles, thermoregulation and fluid and electrolyte balance.  Part Two delves into the “practical aspects of conditioning” and covers concepts such as general conditioning principles, cardiovascular conditioning, strength training, increasing suppleness, and managing these elements in a horse’s overall training program (including using a heart rate monitor and providing adequate nutrition).  Finally, Part Three shows how to use these concepts to prepare a horse for the specific demands of various disciplines; Clayton addresses the traditional sport horse disciplines but also several western sports as well as polo, endurance and chuck wagon racing (!).

These polo ponies show how much a horse will naturally lean onto the inside forelimb and shoulder when turning. Polo is a fast moving sport, requiring speed and agility (Clayton, 1991, p 229).  "Polo3-1-" by Ems (Emanuel Sanchez de la Cerda) - de.wikipedia.org: 18:50, 16. Mär. 2006 .. Ems .. 800×520 (292.111 Bytes) (* Bildbeschreibung: Sal. Oppenheim Cup Finale 2005 * Fotograf/Zeichner: Emanuel Sanchez de la Cerda (~~~) * Datum: 26.06.2005 18:00). Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0de via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Polo3-1-.jpeg#mediaviewer/File:Polo3-1-.jpeg
These polo ponies show how much a horse will naturally lean onto the inside forelimb and shoulder when turning. Polo is a fast moving sport, requiring speed and agility (Clayton, 1991, p 229).
“Polo3-1-” by Ems (Emanuel Sanchez de la Cerda) – de.wikipedia.org: 18:50, 16. Mär. 2006 .. Ems .. 800×520 (292.111 Bytes) (* Bildbeschreibung: Sal. Oppenheim Cup Finale 2005 * Fotograf/Zeichner: Emanuel Sanchez de la Cerda (~~~) * Datum: 26.06.2005 18:00). Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0de via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Polo3-1-.jpeg#mediaviewer/File:Polo3-1-.jpeg

I read this book much like I would a text book, underlining key concepts and passages and pasting sticky notes on others.  Doing so really helped me to dig into the material. While I have studied conditioning concepts in the past, I have never done so with the intensity or scrutiny that I have brought to my work this season, and Clayton’s writing included many important concepts and principles that I am not sure I have truly ever heard before, as well as reminded me of old favorites.

Conditioning Sport Horses, by Hilary M. Clayton (cover).
Conditioning Sport Horses, by Hilary M. Clayton (cover).

For example, we have all been told that we shouldn’t feed our horses immediately following a hard work because the blood supply has been shifted away from the digestive organs.  Clayton includes a graph which shows that during exercise, just over 75% of the cardiac output and distribution of blood flow is shifted to the horse’s muscles, and less than one quarter is dedicated to all of the other organs in the body.  A horse at rest is nearly opposite of these values.  Seeing the ratio so clearly visually depicted really drove the point home (see Clayton, 1991, page 14).

Another relevant question was answered in the chapter on thermoregulation.  Here in New Hampshire, winters can get downright frigid, and the question “when is it too cold to ride” is often raised, in particular in reference to whether or not conditions are safe for the horse.  Clayton settles the point clearly: “Compared with horses exercising at normal temperatures, horses undergoing strenuous exercise at -25* C(-13* F) have no significant changes in heart rate, lactate production, blood gas tensions, gait or lung tissue morphology” (Clayton, 1991, p 70).  So next winter when I choose to not ride when the temps are in the single digits, I will know that it is for me that I am staying in the warmth, not for my horse!

My horse, Carmel, after the New England Blizzard of 2015.
My horse, Carmel, after the New England Blizzard of 2015.

Perhaps one of the most interesting segments of Conditioning the Sport Horse is the section on general conditioning principles.  When most riders think of conditioning, it seems that their minds immediately go to the concept of “sets”; going out and riding at a certain speed or pace for a specific period of time, then allowing the horse to partially recover before completing another round.  I am not sure that riders in non-aerobic disciplines (dressage comes to mind) often think hard about their horse’s “conditioning plan”.  Clayton explains in great detail that the term conditioning encompasses far more than just improving the horse’s cardiovascular capacity; in fact, this system is the fastest one to improve with exercise, while other equally critical systems (such as the musculoskeletal system) lag behind.  If a rider fails to address each of the critical areas of conditioning, their equine athlete’s performance will be compromised (at best) or they will risk injury or breakdown (at worst).

There are three components to the volume of exercise which a horse is in:  intensity, duration and frequency.  Smart riders are able to gradually increase the horse’s capacity in each of these areas, though not in all three at once (Clayton, 1991, 80-81).  Strategically incorporating the various forms of conditioning with these principles will allow for the most consistent and safe increase in athletic capacity.

This book is full of practical and useful tips, everything from  how to make your own electrolytes (3 parts sodium chloride to one part potassium chloride—see page 72) to how to introduce fitness concepts to a green horse in any discipline to feeding strategies for animals in endurance sports which will maximize performance.  In the chapters on specific disciplines, Clayton provides clear and do-able formats for conditioning in each sport, attending to each of the major categories of conditioning.   I learned a lot from reading each chapter, even for those disciplines which are not my specialty.

If you are going to consider yourself a serious student of the correct and conscientious development of the equine athlete, you simply MUST have this book on your shelves.  Read it, underline it, dog ear it, and refer to it regularly as you create a conditioning plan for your athlete— and whether they are a dressage specialist, a reiner, a show jumper, or something else,  your horse will thank you.

5/5 stars

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