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How does a horse’s body cope with a reduced workload?

  • Cardiovascular and muscular systems – a reduced capacity to utilise and deliver oxygen to muscles. This means that warm-up and cool-down periods must be adapted to suit the revised workload. In addition, work must be significantly reduced, as the muscles could become damaged.
  • Bones, tendons and ligaments – a reduction in size and strength. Hard, fast work must be reduced as fitness decreases, or limb injuries could occur.
  • Nervous system – slower neuro-muscular coordination. The horse now tires more quickly, potentially resulting in over-reaching or stumbling.What do these effects mean in practical terms?
    Most riders will want to maintain a basic level of fitness over the autumn and winter, as letting the horse down completely following a high level of fitness is not always ideal – the horse’s systems will function better in the long term if they are not subjected to a ‘stop-start’ regime.

    In addition, as the horse becomes older, it will take longer to build up his fitness levels each season. Furthermore, a basic level of fitness will promote general wellbeing and keep the horse’s systems ticking over, also staving off illness by helping to keep the immune system stronger.

    In order to decrease the fitness levels of a horse in hard work consistently, therefore, you should reduce his workload gradually over four to six weeks.

    You should aim to get down to two or three light schooling or hacking sessions a week at the end of the detraining period. Generally speaking, this is an ideal maintenance level, providing he is also getting sufficient exercise in the field.

    Energy levels
    The digestive system is complex, utilising food and converting it into fuel for exercise, and providing a horse’s tissues with essential nutrients for general health, growth and well-being.

    If a horse has been in hard work throughout the summer, he will probably have been given food with high digestible energy, which may have included higher concentrations of cereals.

    As he winds down his fitness levels, his feeding regime should be adapted to include higher concentrations of fibre, to ensure good digestion and maintain body temperature, and lower concentrations of energy-producing concentrates.

    According to the The Horse Nutrition Bible by Ruth Bishop, published by David and Charles, the average 15.2hh horse in light work (gentle schooling and hacking) weighing 525kg (1157lb), needs 10.5kg or 23lb of feed daily – around 2 per cent of his bodyweight.

    Forage takes up 70 to 100 per cent of the feed ration. This is in comparison to the book’s recommended 40:60 ratio of concentrates to forage respectively, if the horse is in hard work. (The calculation is worked out as 525kg x 2% = 10.5kg. To make your own estimation, divide your horse’s weight in kg by 100 and then multiply by two).

    In the same way that the horse’s ration was gradually developed at the beginning of the year within a fittening regime, the concentrate, or cereal, ration needs to be slowly reduced and the forage ration increased during detraining.

    This will give the digestive system time to adjust to the new feeding ratios and the different requirements of the horse’s systems, such as the need to keep warm as the temperature cools.

    What to feed your horse
    The forage section of the diet can consist of various types of fibre, such as haylage and hay, and bagged products, such as chaff and fibre mixes. Grass may keep a horse occupied in the field and will keep his digestion ticking over through continual chewing, but it will offer little nutritional value throughout the winter months.

    Therefore, good quality, dust-free forage is vital in order to maintain a healthy digestive system. The process of digesting fibre also creates more internal heat than the equivalent amount of concentrates – this is important when the body is trying to warm up in cool weather rather than cool down to combat heat and thermal stress.

    Dietary additions, such as oil, can boost immunity and general health and are useful for horses who are still working and need a basic level of energy without starch, the chief carbohydrate store in cereal grains. Fat is an efficient energy source and provides more than twice as much energy as carbohydrates.

    Opinion varies as to which type of oil is best, although vegetable oil, linseed oil, soya oil and cod liver oil are popular choices. A rough guideline is to build up to feeding around two tablespoons of oil daily for general health and well-being, or two teacups for energy, if the horse is in light to medium work.

    However, the best option is to follow the manufacturer’s or nutritionist’s advice.
    In addition, unmolassed sugar beet pulp, the fibrous material that remains after sugar is extracted from beet, is good for maintaining condition and also provides slow-release energy. Its digestible energy content is greater than hay but is less than cereal, so it is a useful feed for the working horse.

    Over the four- to six-week detraining period, simply adjust the horse’s current ratios gradually, giving him at least two feeds a day. Consider feeding a digestive aid, such as a probiotic or yeast supplement, to promote a healthy digestive tract throughout the change (see Feeding Miracles, September issue). Ask your vet, nutritionist or feed manufacturer for advice on your horse’s individual requirements during this period.

  • This feature was first published in full in HORSE (October 04), on sale now.

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