Reducing the Impact – Wendy Schaeffer
Training & Management with Wendy Schaeffer
Article by Cat Walker, Brindisi Equine Therapy
Olympian and Equine Physiotherapist, Wendy Schaeffer, brings a unique perspective to horse management. With a stable of horses ranging from elite eventing and showjumping stars, to those just commencing their careers, the challenge at Sunburst Equestrian is to produce the best while minimising the impact of elite equestrian sport on soundness.
How does your physiotherapy background influence the training of your horses?
Well, to begin with the younger horses, it’s developing their bodies and a bit of a bodybuilding thing, to [manage] what they’re going to do long term. Obviously, we’re taking into account their skeletal maturity at the time – young warmbloods aren’t going to be fully grown and have their growth plates fused until they’re between 5 and 7 years old (depending on which part of the body).
So, keeping that in mind, we work our horses quite a lot on our hills, walking and trotting to develop muscle strength. [With] the hill work, you get the intensity of the workload, without necessarily the same sort of mileage, but a lot of the training is done on the dressage arena, working on the flat. It teaches the horse how to carry itself better, and puts it in a better position to look after its body.
What kinds of exercises are you doing with the young horses on the dressage arena, to work with their immaturity and individual weaknesses?[It all starts] at a fairly similar basic level, teaching them how to hold and carry their bodies. So, simple transitions, both through the paces – walk, trot, canter – and then within the pace itself. I suppose it’s simple things that we teach them – stop, go, turn and yield are the four basic pillars, it’s controlling their bodies within that. Lateral work as well, it helps them to hold, and cross over and so forth, so that’s more demand on their posture. With the younger horses, we are working in a slightly longer, lower frame, and you’re expecting them to carry themselves for a smaller percentage of time, versus the older horses that we’re hoping to train to hold their body in a much more collected frame, and do more engaged exercises.
With eventing and showjumping, you’re covering every aspect of every discipline! What are some of the common physical problems that you come across in horses through each of those disciplines, particularly in eventing?
The demands we’ve placed on their bodies are quite high, and obviously, we could argue that the horses weren’t really designed to do what we do with them! But, you know, they’re amazing animals, there’s definitely no doubt about that. Basically, it’s getting joint degeneration of fetlocks and hocks, those are the main things.
I suppose with the galloping injuries, there’s always a risk of tendon strains, jumping is more suspensory ligaments and so forth, so there’s a range of different structures that are going to be under greater stress at the higher levels. It’s really just trying to manage the horse, often through those injuries… Trying to avoid them is the ideal place to start, but sometimes we just have to accept that they’re going to be injured, and rehab them through all that…
Obviously, the better the horse is learning to carry and hold its body, the better the balance it’s able to be ridden in, and the more it’s protecting itself. It also depends on their conformation a bit too, some horses are more likely to break than others.
How would you change the work routine of a horse with conformation faults, to cater for that?
Potentially, you might not work the horses so hard – say they’ve got some hock issues or something, maybe they don’t do so much work on the hills, or you vary parts of their program. Sometimes it’s a reality of where we live too, we can take them down to the beach and gallop… But to an extent they have to be able to work within the program that you’re able to provide, and unfortunately, reality is that some horses are not going to stand up quite as well to it as others, and will need a different job or a different role.
For those horses that do make it to the top level of competition though, then it’s certainly protecting them, looking after them, it’s a matter of the horse being sound enough, primarily, and then being fit enough too, so there’s a balance with how much work they do. It’s about the horse’s welfare, really, and preserving them at that top level of competition.
What are you doing in your management program to look after their soundness and their longevity?
Certainly, the Activo Med rug comes into place there…
We mainly use it post-work to help the horse recover from the exertions it’s had that day, so it can help with blood flow and all the circulatory issues at the peripheral level, and then specifically looking at the tight muscles that have just done all that hard work.
I think the horses [mainly need to work at developing] postural strength to gallop, and all of that… So, pretty much every day, they’re required to do that to a certain level, they’ve got to be able to carry the rider…