The Benefits of Equine Breathing for Endurance Riding
Clare Hobsley, Equine Breathing
As an endurance rider you are probably interested in issues such as reducing the length of the recovery period, dehydration, tying up, keeping your horse calm at the start of races or rides, improving recovery rates from injury and of course improving stamina and endurance.
A new simple and holistic technique addresses all these concerns and is enjoyed by horses. Equine Breathing is based on accepted principles of physiology. You can for example ask your vet about the Bohr effect and how it can be harnessed to increase respiratory efficiency.
It is a surprise to many people that changing the breathing pattern has an immediate and significant effect on blood chemistry and the physiology of the whole organism. But measurements show that over-breathing for as little as one minute can reduce the amount of oxygen in the brain by 40% and this is just one of many effects on the body as a whole.
Over-breathing triggers are common in our horses' lives and there is no biofeedback mechanism to restore normal breathing once chronic over-breathing sets in, so many horses over-breathe. Horses that over-breathe are compromised in terms of their physiological functioning and therefore do not perform at their potential.
If your horse has no chronic ailments or behavioural problems and their breathing is imperceptible at rest then they may not over-breathe, but their breathing pattern could still be improved by training just like any other aspect of training, to enhance physiological functioning.
So how can Equine Breathing be advantageous to endurance riders?
First, Equine Breathing can be used to help horses recover from chronic conditions such as sweet-itch or mud fever.
Second, Equine Breathing can be used to improve fitness.
Third, Equine Breathing can be used for specific purposes like reducing risk of injury and reducing stress on the day of a ride.
The reason Equine Breathing has so many benefits is that over-breathing leads to depletion of the body's carbon dioxide. Contrary to popular wisdom carbon dioxide is far from being a "waste product"; it is one of the body's main regulators.
Carbon dioxide plays essential roles in the take up and availability of oxygen by the body, regulation of the acid / alkaline (pH) balance of body fluids, ability of smooth muscle (eg blood vessels, airways, gut) to relax, and normal functioning of nerve cells. It is also involved in biochemical pathways involving nearly all minerals, vitamins and enzymes and in the biosynthesis of amino acids, carbohydrates and fats.
Low levels of carbon dioxide caused by over-breathing can therefore impact on a huge range of symptoms or poor physiological functioning.
We can look at some of these in relation to endurance riding.
Reducing recovery period (fitness)
Cells need energy to fulfil their allocated function eg movement (muscle) or thinking (brain). Cells burn fats and carbohydrates by combining them with oxygen to provide energy, carbon dioxide and water. This is a sustainable situation that depends on the cell getting enough oxygen and this is dictated by the levels of carbon dioxide, not oxygen as might be expected.
When air is breathed into the lungs, oxygen in the air attaches to the haemoglobin in the blood and is transported to the tissues. Here under the influence of carbon dioxide, oxygen is released from the haemoglobin and becomes available to the cells. A hard working muscle cell produces plenty of carbon dioxide which facilitates this release of oxygen (the Bohr effect) and enables the cell to continue working aerobically in an elegant positive cycle - the harder the cell works the more carbon dioxide is produced and so the more oxygen is made available.
The blood returns to the lungs and carbon dioxide rapidly dissipates into the air in the alveoli making the haemoglobin receptive to the oxygen in the air and oxygen is taken into the body.
If carbon dioxide levels in the tissues are low (due to over-breathing), oxygen remains fixed on the haemoglobin and is unavailable to the cell. In order to obtain energy the cell has to switch to anaerobic (without oxygen) respiration and produces lactic acid rather than carbon dioxide and water, and only 5% of the energy.
The positive cycle based on carbon dioxide is lost and the cells are compromised in their efficiency. Less energy is produced and the by-product, lactic acid, instead of being useful (as are carbon dioxide and water) is acidic and needs to be detoxified using oxygen which increases the oxygen debt. Build up of lactic acid indicates that damage has occurred due to lack of oxygen. This damage is reversible if the body regains normal carbon dioxide levels.
Equine Breathing reduces the volume of air breathed which enables carbon dioxide levels to build back up. The more carbon dioxide is available the longer the cells can keep going on aerobic (oxygen based) respiration rather than having to switch to damaging and less efficient anaerobic respiration. Horses with better breathing (and therefore higher levels of carbon dioxide) will be able to maintain aerobic respiration for longer than horses with poor breathing (lower levels of carbon dioxide) during strenuous exercise and will therefore recover more quickly.
Other factors contribute to increased fitness. Carbon dioxide is a smooth muscle relaxant so at high levels of carbon dioxide the airways and the blood vessels of the circulatory system are able to relax and dilate, allowing efficient distribution of oxygen and nutrients such as glucose. Low levels of carbon dioxide are responsible for constriction of the airways and the blood vessels and consequent starving of the cells of oxygen and nutrients.
A horse that is breathing less volume of air than its competitor will lose less moisture with each breath and will therefore retain its water levels better.
Leading Buteyko specialist and nurse Jill McGowan has run two marathons with her mouth taped so that she could only breathe through her nose. This significantly decreases the amount of air breathed. Despite taking no fluid during the race she had a pee straight afterwards and was not thirsty or dehydrated on either occasion.
I have observed that horses that start Equine Breathing sweat less than their owners expect in given activities.
Many of you will have already made the connection that the longer a horse is able to stay off anaerobic respiration, the less lactic acid is produced and the less likely the muscles are to tie up.
Carbon dioxide is the main buffer for maintaining the body fluids at the correct pH level. At low carbon dioxide levels the blood becomes more alkaline; this disrupts the calcium ion balance and increases the likelihood of spasm, fatigue and pain in muscles cells. This effect also increases the likelihood of injury to tendons, ligaments and joints as the muscle is unable to respond appropriately to unexpected jarring and so on.
Stress is an over-breathing trigger. Horses that become nervous or anxious before a ride will over-breathe. This causes a release of adrenaline and an increase in heart rate. Adrenaline production generates feelings of anxiety and stimulates increased breathing which further decreases carbon dioxide levels.2 As we have seen, maintaining normal carbon dioxide levels is especially important at the start of a ride because performance depends on oxygen and nutrient availability and pH which are all dependant on carbon dioxide.
Reducing the breathing at times of stress breaks the vicious cycle of adrenaline production and depletion of carbon dioxide and enables the horse to calm down. More oxygen and nutrients reach the brain and the horse is able to focus attention calmly on the job in hand.
Horses that have practised regular Equine Breathing will be more likely to quickly pop into the anabolic state (the relaxed, recuperative and healing state as opposed to the adrenalised flight or fight state) because their body will be "expecting" the changes that arise as the carbon dioxide levels start to recover.
Using Equine Breathing
A regular program of Equine Breathing will help your horse to heal any chronic problems and increase carbon dioxide levels towards the normal level. So they will start the ride with a more efficient respiratory system and other physiological benefits such as improved muscle function.
On the day of the ride Equine Breathing can help in specific ways as follows.
Calming horse and rider
Equine Breathing can be used at the start of preparations for the day of the ride, for example in travelling and arriving in new surroundings. Doing Equine Breathing is calming for the rider and of course handling a calm and attentive horse is much less stressful than handling one that is anxious and inattentive.
Competitors find that they have a more enjoyable day at competitions when they have the ability to help keep their horse (and themselves) calm and focused.
Equine Breathing can be used to help prepare the muscles. Reducing the breathing builds up carbon dioxide. This enables muscle cells to increase their aerobic respiration, which produces heat and carbon dioxide. The muscle cells are literally warmed up and well prepared to respire and work efficiently in the arduous times ahead.
Equine Breathing can be used to slow down the respiration rate and pulse before vet gates or post-ride vetting.
After the ride it can be used to help the horse's body deal more efficiently, through increased circulation and aerobic respiration etc, with the effects of exertion including any possible strains or injuries.
1 A Brief Overview Of The Chemistry Of Respiration And The Breathing Heart Wave Peter M. Litchfield, Ph.D. in California Biofeedback. Vol. 19, No. 1 (Spring 2003)
2 Hyperventilation and Cardiac Symptoms PG Nixon FRCP in International Medicine for the Specialist vol 10 no. 12 1989
This article is for educational purposes only and does not replace veterinary advice or treatment.