Spring Training

Animals fall out of peak condition during winter

March 2, 2015 (published)


Swaths of the United States resemble the ice planet Hoth right now, but here in California it’s spring: puffy blossoms, mutant grass, and a wispy-cloud-laced cerulean sky. Don’t hate me; we also have no water.

This morning, in deference to spring, I squeezed into running tights and sports bra and reminded myself that my July marathon fee is already paid. It’s been a long hibernation. A mile into my run, two miles seemed impossible – forget that whole 26.2 insanity. After two miles my lungs hurt, my face was flushed, and I was shaky.

While rehydrating, I thought about the dogs I’d seen out for spring walks and about getting horses out of the barn and under saddle after a winter of mud and rain.

Some folks diligently exercise themselves and their animal athletes in all weathers. Many of us, however, happily celebrate what a friend calls the season of Ursus – a time for bear-like hibernation, hunkering down, drinking warm things, and adding layers of...insulation.

Conditioning, temperature, hydration, intensity, duration, warm up, cool down, monitor free exercise.

That is not a grocery list or some interesting neurological glitch. Welcome to the inner workings of my brain. Those are all factors to consider as the weather begins to warm up, or will eventually, and you and your four-legged athletes venture out into the greater world.

Just like humans, animals fall out of peak condition during periods of prolonged rest. The cardiovascular system, muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments, and even coordination need some time to get back into the program. Just because your dog accompanied you on a ten-mile bike ride last October or your horse ran last year’s Tevis, don’t expect them to be ready to pick up where you were when winter hit, just as you're not ready.

You know how 60 degrees sends you running for a sweater in September but stripping off layers in spring? It takes a while for the body to adapt to warmer weather. Even though 70 degrees doesn’t sound like dangerous heat, an animal that’s used to icy winds can get overheated quickly if he has a sudden burst of the spring crazies, especially if he’s still wearing his fuzzy arctic coat. Some of the worst cases of heat stroke I’ve seen in animals have taken place in supposedly mild weather.

Don’t forget that increased exercise necessitates increased water intake. Make sure you’re taking water breaks for yourself and your animals.

Along the lines of gradually getting everyone back into shape, allow plenty of time for warm up and cool down around more intense exercise periods. Gradually increase both intensity and duration – it’s not a good idea to head out for that long run, five-hour trail ride, or agility competition straight out of the winter box, nor should you try breaking any landspeed records in the first few weeks.

Lastly, pay attention to your animals’ level of activity when they’re first turned out on their own to enjoy that sunny day. You are the grownup in this situation; most critters, horses in particular, are toddler-like in their lack of impulse control.

Even if you’re buried in white stuff, spring will come eventually. Be prepared!

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