You wouldn’t believe it would happen, but some riders will push their horse beyond the limits of its fitness over the Christmas period, with potentially damaging results. Many of us will have our own anecdotes along the lines of the following story.

Out hunting, the rider of a horse that was fairly — if not fully — fit got caught up in the thrill of the chase. She stayed out for hours and ended up with an exhausted, dehydrated horse who developed a colic that rumbled on for two or three days.

There could be any number of similar beasts about to face the same over the Christmas break, as owners enjoy their horses during the break between Christmas and the January return to work.

This is in addition to all those, posibly unclipped, ponies in the middle of their own Christmas rush — the school holidays. Whatever your sport, do bear your horse’s fitness (and your own) in mind.

Keep the exertion relative to the amount of work the horse and you have had over the past six to eight weeks. Bones, joints and muscles need about two months to be able to cope with the stresses of a significant increase in work, and colic and/or chills are a certainty if your post exercise care isn’t done effectively.

Also, anything that’s remotely “buzzy” probably won’t show how tired it is while the adrenaline is pumping. With such horses or ponies, by the time you feel them tire, they really will be exhausted.

Finally, when you go back to work, treat the Christmas horse or pony to a good rest, but on a maintenance diet.

Festive feeding

  • Step up hard feed as workload increases, not before, and do it gradually. Keep the energy content of the feed as low as possible — many horses hunt effectively off a diet of horse and pony cubes
  • Don’t be afraid to offer your horse a drink during the day when hunting or when at a competition
  • Offering a dry haynet or a dried-out net of horsehage on the way home will make a horse more dehydrated, as both draw large amounts of water into the hindgut
  • As soon as you get home start rehydrating your horse. Soaked hay, moist haylage and warm mashes all supplement water intakes
  • Use electrolytes after hard work as horses hunting or competing in winter will still lose important body salts through sweat
  • This feed forum feature was originally published in Horse 7 Hound (25 December ’03)