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Study training response by young Friesian dressage horses

The Friesian horse, with its shiny ebony coat and thick flowing mane, tail, and feathers, has gained popularity recently as a show horse—specifically in dressage. South Africa’s Adelprag Anders, ridden by Chere Berger, wowed audiences in Caen during the Fédération Equestre Internationale’s 2014 Alltech World Equestrian Games as the first Friesian horse to compete at world championship level. Meanwhile, Dutch international dressage rider Peter Spahn has ridden his Friesian stallions for the past decade throughout the world in events and training clinics, and Susan Bouwman-Wind has made an international name for herself training and showing Friesians around the world.

But for all its splendor in the show ring, the Friesian is no “traditional” dressage horse. Neither Warmblood nor draft, the Friesian faces its own particular set of physical challenges in training. Dutch scientists say that doesn’t make it weaker or inferior to typical warmblood dressage horses. Just special.
“Friesian horses need to be managed in a different way when compared to Warmblood horses, with respect to both training and nutrition,” said Cathérine Delesalle, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ECEIM, of the Ghent University Department of Comparative Physiology, in Belgium, and visiting professor at Utrecht University, in The Netherlands.

“Indeed, our research provides a first glimpse at what we call, ‘The Instruction Manual for the Friesian horse,’” she said.
Specifically, Friesian horses need different exercise regimens and durations of warmup at competitions, because they reach fatigue limits faster than Warmbloods do, Delesalle said. These limits are determined by anaerobic thresholds—scientific cut-off points that refer to excessive levels of muscular fatigue as seen in blood’s lactic acid levels.That certainly doesn’t mean Friesian horses are weaker. It just means they have a different way of functioning, Delesalle said.

“Most probably they are not an ‘endurance’ type of horse, but more likely an ‘explosive power’ type of horse, just like the Quarter Horse,” she said. Quarter Horse muscles, she explained, are composed mainly of “fast twitch” muscle fibers, which allow for short bouts of explosive exercise. Friesians could have a similar muscular makeup, but more research is needed to confirm this theory, she added.
In their recent study, Delesalle and her fellow researchers compared an alternative standard exercise test (SET) to that which is usually used in traditional dressage training on Warmbloods. The alternative SET included lower-intensity exercise, mainly via shorter cantering periods alternating with walk and trot. Although the canter periods in the alternative program were not as long as those in the traditional program, the total cantering time was the same.The researchers examined the effects of the traditional and alternative SETs on nine young Friesian dressage horses over a two-month training period. They found that the test horses did better with the alternative SETs, seemingly because Friesians have a “harder time” with the canter. “Our research suggests that canter is a more challenging gait for Friesian horses,” Delesalle said.Their research confirms what some dressage riders have already discovered on their own—that Friesians don’t do as well with long preparation times before competitions, she added.

“The most important remark I’ve heard from dressage riders is that preparations throughout several hours before competition, as is generally performed in Warmblood horses, is a ‘no-go’ for Friesians,” she said. “They need short, intensive preparation just before they enter competition.”
The study is also in line with the research team’s own preliminary work with muscle biopsies and metabolism in Friesians, which showed “important differences” in muscle metabolites in Friesians versus Warmbloods, said Delesalle. “With that respect, we’re not surprised about the findings of our SET test study; they are in line with expectations,” she said.As their research and resulting “instruction manual” on Friesian horses advance, Delesalle said she hopes they can contribute not only to the horses’ performance and the riders’ satisfaction with the breed but also to a better-adjusted sports life for the Friesian.

“Our main goal is support equine welfare,” she said. “The increasing professionalism of different equine sports disciplines entails that an increasing load of training and competition is imposed upon sport horses, both at international competition level and at the level of a growing group of semiprofessional recreational riders.

“It is well-known that improper training and performing competition at a level for which the horse is not ready can lead to sports injuries, as well as poor welfare,” said Delesalle.

The study, “Monitoring training response in young Friesian dressage horses using two different standardised exercise tests (SETs),” was published in BMC Veterinary Research.