Maintaining Horse Health and Fitness

 March 2021

Maintaining your horse’s health and fitness is an important factor when embarking on their fitness journey, throughout the programme, and once the desired level of fitness has been achieved. Horses can be subject to setbacks and injury, however through careful management and consideration we can prevent these incidences occuring and help our horses reach and remain at their peak level of fitness.

Hoof/Farriery Care

Keeping up with regular visits as recommended by your farrier is important in both shod and un-shod horses. This is vital to maintaining fitness as it ensures any changes or abnormalities can be detected and ultimately helps to maintain soundness.



If you have any concerns speak to your farrier so they can help to make an assessment. If your horse is showing signs of lameness contact your vet for further support.

If you are bringing your horse back into work and their shoes were previously removed due to a reduction in exercise, speak to your farrier about putting the shoes back on your horse before work begins. Monitor how your horse is coping and if you have any concerns contact your farrier.

Feeding

Many leisure horses do perfectly well on a high forage, low sugar and starch diet with an additional balancer or vitamin and mineral supplement.

It’s unlikely that you will need to adjust this as your horse’s workload increases, but it will depend on their individual requirements. There may be circumstances where additional concentrate feeds are needed, for example if they struggle to keep weight on. Discuss your horse’s individual requirements with a qualified nutritionist who can advise you by producing a tailored feeding plan.

It can be difficult to notice small changes in your horse’s weight when you see them every day. Weigh tapes are a useful tool to monitor weight changes in your horse. Getting hands-on by fat scoring is also helpful to monitor your horse’s body condition. This will enable you to react to changes in your horse’s weight by adjusting their management gradually, for example if they start to gain excess weight. As well as this, fat-scroing will also help you to notice visual signs of improved fitness in your horse. You will likely see changes in their body shape and improved muscle definition, as fitness develops.

 

Following a session of intense exercise (sustained canter work, cross country training) your horse may become quite sweaty. To help replace the elements lost in your horse’s sweat, feeding an electrolyte supplement can be really beneficial especially through the summer months.

To help reduce the risk of colic it is important to gradually change your horse’s routine and diet over a minimum of 10-14 days.

It is important to ensure your horse’s dental health check is kept up to date by using a vet or qualified Equine Dental Technician.

Behaviour

It is important to note any behavioural changes, as this could indicate they may not be coping with the current workload, not coping with their environment (for example if they have restricted turnout), inappropriate feeding (for example too much sugar intake) or are in pain. Horses are prey animals so can hide their pain really well. Where possible we would recommend observing your horse remotely or from a distance as research has shown that horses will reduce pain behaviour when the care giver is present1.

When assessing ridden work, it is important to recognise behavioural changes as this could be due to a number of causes including problems with an ill-fitting saddle or bridle, the fitting and/or choice of the bit, inappropriate diet or the horse is in pain. Behaviours could include; resistance to the bridle, changing leads regularly in canter, unwillingness to go forward, head tossing, bucking, rearing or showing signs of discomfort when the saddle is being put on. Some signs may be much more subtle such as tilting their head, clamping their tail, or repeatedly opening their mouth.



Know what is normal for your horse and if you notice any behavioural changes, ensure that routine care such as teeth and tack fitting checks are all up-to-date, speak to your nutritionist and if there are no improvements do not delay discussing these signs with your vet to help identify if there are any pain-related issues.

Do not confuse eagerness for fitness. Like us, our horses may be keen and eager to get out and about. This eagerness will get the adrenaline pumping and can make the horse appear to be fitter than they actually are.

Tack Fit

Ensuring your horse’s tack fits correctly is vital, a poorly fitting saddle can cause prolonged pain and discomfort, rubs or sores, which can have a detrimental effect on your horse’s ability to work. Think of us wearing a shoe that doesn’t fit correctly, we often compensate by walking in a slightly different way. The same could apply to the saddle fit of your horse.

If your horse has been out of work consider how their weight and muscle development is likely to have changed. Even small changes can have an influence on how well their saddle now fits.



It is strongly advised to have the horse’s saddle fit checked by a qualified saddler before bringing the horse back into work. A series of short videos that introduces some of the key elements of saddle fitting, provided by The Society of Master Saddlers, are available to view here.

At the end of your fitness programme, it is ideal for the saddle fit to be checked again as your horse can change shape through developing muscle and weight loss.
Make sure your tack is clean and supple. Ensure all boots, bandages and saddlecloths are also clean and free of grime and sweat. Dirty tack can result in sores and/or rubs.

Varied Work

This allows you to work different regions of the horse’s body without overloading one particular area or system. Include variation in the intensity of work you do with your horse, for example, schedule in easier days such as a steady hack to encourage your horse to stretch.

Warming Up and Cooling Down

Warming up and cooling down are an essential part of the process, whether we are bringing our horses back into work, or just on a day to day bases.

They are essential to keep the horse fit and muscle tone elastic and prevent injuries to tendons and ligaments. It can also prevent conditions such as azoturia (painful muscle cramps) and colic.

Warming up

Warming up focuses the horse’s mind and gets them thinking about the job they’re about to do. It raises the heart rate, which boosts circulation and increases the oxygen flow to the muscles. This increases elasticity and flexibility. There are no hard and fast rules, but you will need to bear in mind the weather, ground conditions, temperament of the horse, and whether the horse is stabled or ridden from the field. Those horses being ridden from the stable will need a longer time to warm up.

Cooling Down

The cooling down process is equally as important. Again, it prevents injuries occurring, azoturia setting in, and allows the horse a chance to process what they have just done and return to a normal state of mind.

Cooling down brings the heart rate down which draws the lactic acid away from the muscles and reduces the risk of inflammation in the muscles (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). Gradually bring the horse back down the paces, then walk until their respiration rate has recovered.



Aftercare

The following are some important aspects of aftercare for your horse and should be considered everytime you ride:

  • Wash or brush off any sweat marks. Check for saddle rubs, girth galls and bit rubs.
  • Check legs for heat and swelling.
  • Pick out feet and if wearing shoes, check they are still secure.
  • Keep walking your horse if they are still breathing heavily. NEVER put a hot, blowing horse (see video below) back in a stable and just leave it. This is not good horse welfare as it can cause massive complications such as overheating, azoturia, or colic.



References

1) Torcivia, C. & McDonnell, S. (2021) Equine Discomfort Ethogram. Animals. 11(2), 580.

 

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