In which Endurance 101 considers post-ride recovery
Endurance 101 : after the finish line, you aren’t done yet
Congratulations, you’ve finished your first endurance event! Time to kick back with a cold one and socialize a bit with the other riders…right?
Uh, no. Not quite.
Your horse worked hard all day, and you took good care of him on the trail. This is no time to quit watching out for him! When the excitement and adrenaline of the day’s event wear off, your horse may start feeling a little tired and sorry for himself. In most cases, that means he’ll sleep really well through the night. Set him up for success by anticipating his needs for the next few days.
After you finish your finish-line vetcheck, return to your camp and un-tack your noble steed with care, looking for any scrapes, bumps, swellings, rub-marks or other oddities. If the weather allows, sponge his entire body to remove the sweat crust from his hair and skin. Scrape off the excess water, and allow him to dry in the sun if you have any available. If the weather is cool, cover him with a fleece or wool sheet; if the weather is cold, clean him as thoroughly as you can without chilling those hard-working muscles and put a blanket on him.
It’s not necessary to use liniment, but it won’t do any harm. (I love the smell of liniment, don't you?). Avoid applying alcohol-based cleansers to scraped or rubbed hide! Remember that, even if your horse is not normally blanketed at home, an extra layer may be a welcome layer for fatigued muscles.
Make sure he has plenty of food and water available. It’s okay to make his hay “free-choice” at this point, and if he’s a fan of beet pulp, go ahead and fill the bucket full. Equine nutritionists like Susan Garlinghouse, DVM recommend that endurance horses not eat a full grain-meal before a long-distance ride, but some grain after the event is okay. I take a normal grain meal and divide it into three or four portions for ride day, feeding one small portion with breakfast and the others at vetchecks and after the ride.
Wait until he’s stopped stuffing his face to administer a dose of electrolytes. Many horses dislike the taste of electrolytes so much that they’ll quit eating for a while after a dose. If your horse loves to eat, you can sprinkle some electrolytes into the beetpulp if you’ve practiced this ahead of time and know that he will eat it. (If there’s any doubt about how your horse feels about electrolytes, wait until he’s had plenty of food to give him a dose of it.) Keep an eye on the water bucket, also: eating hay encourages horses to drink water, and hydration is a condition devoutly to be desired.
What about alfalfa? There’s a bit of arguing back-and-forth about alfalfa as a feed for endurance horses, but in general after a ride, I throw a few handfuls on top of the hay pile. I tend to think of alfalfa as a “garnish,” like whipped cream and a cherry, rather than a food, like a plate of spaghetti. If you want good information about feeding alfalfa to distance horses, I recommend an article written by Susan Garlinghouse, posted here: http://bit.ly/um0dk8 If your horse seems picky about food after a long day of work, by all means offer a flake of alfalfa to re-ignite the appetite.
If your horse is a picky eater, or seems disinterested in food after an event, seek out some fresh green grass. A horse who is not interested in good grass may be experiencing early symptoms of colic, so if he turns up his nose at grass or alfalfa (especially if he is the kind of horse who normally loves his food), listen with your stethoscope (or your ear) to his gut sounds. If you don’t hear noises that sound like the “scrub” cycle of a clothes washing machine, it’s time to ask for some veterinary advice. Early intervention is the best kind.
Take your horse for a quiet stroll after he’s been back in camp for a few hours. Make a point of visiting all the water tanks, walking slowly enough for your horse to grab a bite of grass every few strides. Stop and talk to people as you meander through the camp. Ask other people about their day, and be ready to talk about yours. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to walk around camp; the important point is that you allow your horse to stretch his legs and un-kink his muscles before he settles down for the night.
Some folks swear by a mud poultice after a long ride to cool the legs, support the tendons, and reduce “stocking up” (puffiness in the lower legs) following exercise. I have never needed to poultice legs thus far, and I can almost always find a deep spot of cool creek water to stand my horse in, or a hose, or even a deep rubber bucket. (Please note that my horse is abnormally tolerant of my strange requests, including a request for her to stand with her hind legs in deep rubber buckets of cool water).
If you would like to apply a poultice, there are excellent instructions posted on Karen Chaton’s blog here: http://enduranceridestuff.com/blog/2011/08/poulticing-wrapping-horse-legs/ She very-correctly cautions that if you haven’t applied leg bandages before, get somebody to teach you to do it properly.
Ice boots are a good alternative to a poultice. Ice boots are strapped on like shipping or splint boots, using Velcro. They are generally filled with gel-packs designed to be frozen and thawed many times; I buy replacement gel-packs inexpensively at the marine supply stores near home that serve sports fisherman.
Some horses like to be fussed over and groomed after a ride, and others prefer to be left alone. The gelding I rode for years was a social butterfly, and would happily follow me everywhere through camp as I did a million little tasks. My current mare prefers to turn her face to the trailer, cock a hip and ignore the rest of the world while she naps. She doesn’t want me to bother her unless I am bringing apples and carrots. Fiddle doesn’t even want to look at her best buddy/pasture-mate when she’s tired; instead, she kicks the hay around so that she can eat with her back facing Hana. Learn what is normal for your horse, and try to abide by his preferences whenever possible.
Before you go to bed for the night, take a quick walk around camp with your horse. Does he seem interested in the activities of others? Does he want to eat grass? Does he try to grab the food on the ground spilled by other horses? Does he stride out eagerly, and will he keep up with you as you stride briskly along? Those are all good things.
The morning after the ride is a repeat of the evening routine. Supply plenty of food and water, run your hands over your horse's body to note any tenderness or swelling, note his eagerness and interest in the activities around you. Take him for a walk to loosen up his muscles. After he’s finished his breakfast, a dose of electrolytes may help him maintain hydration during the trailer ride home.
Break up your camp, and get everything ready to load your horse. Take one more quick walk around camp with your horse and stop at the water tank to give him one more opportunity to drink some water before you leave. Then, load him up and head on home!
If your drive is more than 4 hours, try to stop every 2-3 hours for 15 minutes or so to give your horse a break (these rest breaks can be re-fueling and potty-break stops for you as well!). Offer water or a few bites of sloppy beetpulp, or a handful of carrots and apples. My horses travel with hay bags in the trailer, so they often “eat their way home” from an event, arriving home just a little fatter than when they left for a long weekend of hard riding!
For the next 3 or 4 days, keep a closer-than-usual eye on your faithful steed. Make sure he continues to eat and drink normally. You may want to continue providing electrolyte supplements for a day or two after returning home to encourage your horse to drink plenty of water.
Monitor his enthusiasm for being turned loose in the pasture, and compare his post-ride behavior with his normal behavior. If you see anything that seems abnormal, call your vet and explain what you see. With experience, you will learn how quickly your horse “bounces back” from an event. He may seem a little quieter for a few days, or he may seem especially bossy when he is turned out with his usual herd.
After a few days, you might want to work him lightly, beginning with a short arena session or even a hand-walk down the road. I usually wait a week to ride after a difficult 50-mile ride to return to our normal trail-riding routine; the time off after a shorter event may be shorter depending on the experience level and fitness of the horse.
When I see my horse trotting around the pasture and chasing the goats as she did before we left for the ride, I know it’s time to go back to work.