Excess weight and lack of exercise negatively affect both horse and rider in many ways - and if your horse has become less fit, you maybe haven’t been riding as regularly as you’d like to.
There are many reasons why our horses may have dropped their level of fitness, but the key to improving is always to take it steady, make a realistic plan, and not push for rapid improvements.
Do not confuse eagerness for fitness! Like us, our horses may be keen to get out and about. This eagerness will get the adrenaline pumping and can make the horse appear to be fitter than they are. Assess what level of work your horse is in and develop their individual fitness programme accordingly.
The journey doesn’t end when your horse has reached their optimum state of fitness, as giving thought to how to manage and maintain that healthy level of fitness is important. As well as ensuring regular aerobic exercise, you might consider some other factors that also make a significant contribution to your horse’s fitness and health, and will help to reduce the incidence of setbacks and injury.
Maintaining a schedule of farrier visits is enormously important in both shod and un-shod horses. Farriery underpins a horse’s fitness, and regular professional hoof care ensures that any changes or abnormalities can be detected early.
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 before work begins. Monitor how your horse is coping and contact your farrier with any concerns.
Many leisure horses in work do perfectly well on a high forage, low sugar and starch diet with an additional balancer or vitamin and mineral supplement.
There may be circumstances where additional concentrate feeds are needed - for example, if your horse is struggling to keep weight on. Discuss your horse’s individual requirements with a qualified nutritionist who can advise you by producing a tailored feeding plan. 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 can be difficult to notice small changes in your horse’s weight when you see them every day, so make sure you are regularly monitoring their condition. As well as this, fat-scoring 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 beneficial, especially through the summer months.
It’s important to know what is normal for your horse, as behavioural changes may indicate pain. Horses are prey animals and have evolved to be very good at hiding any difficulties and pain from potential predators, so always consult your vet if you can’t confidently eliminate pain as a reason for changed behaviour.
Ensure that your horse’s dental check is up-to-date.
Changes may also indicate that your horse isn’t coping well for some reason. This might be related to:
- Their current workload
- Their environment (e.g. restricted turnout)
- Inappropriate feeding (e.g. too much sugar intake)
- Ill-fitting saddle, bridle or bit
Some examples of changed behaviours are resistance to the bridle, evading contact, changing leads regularly in canter, unwillingness to go forward, head tossing, bucking, rearing, or showing signs of discomfort when being tacked up. Watch out for more subtle signs such as head tilting, tail clamping, or repeatedly opening their mouth.
Remember that your horse will alter shape as their level of fitness changes, and they will need their saddle checking before you embark on a fitness programme, as a poorly fitting saddle can cause prolonged pain and discomfort. Ensure saddle fit is checked regularly on an ongoing basis, as even small changes in fitness can have a big influence on how well a saddle fits.