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Now that the morning roads are full of 4wds on the school run again, lots of Pony Club ponies are sighing in relief at the return to a quiet life. As it gets darker in the evenings, many horses not destined for the hunting field will also be spending their days in the field.

However, you can’t just turn a horse out after a summer of hard work. Sloth is unhealthy, as well as a bit of a waste. Horses are capable of holding their fitness much better than humans, so once you’ve achieved a level of fitness in a horse, it’s prudent not to let it go, not just physically, but mentally.

At the end of a busy summer, a fit horse has effective heart, lungs and muscles as a result of exercise and conditioning. Bones are stronger and the horse is more supple. The less of this you let go over the next few months, the easier it is to regain once work resumes at half-term or Christmas.

Leading racehorse trainers are aware of this, and their stable stars are often kept in some form of work over the close season.

For horses accustomed to the variety of exercise and competition, a more permanently sedentary life may cause some fractiousness, especially if they continue to be stabled.

Find ways of filling the their day, with forage, stable toys, and the like. Roughed-off horses can obviously be kept out, providing they are well rugged, have shelter and appropriately fed (and you can repair the poaching caused by hooves on wet soil).

With feed, it’s not always a case of cutting out the hard stuff. Of course, as the workload decreases, so does the need for those extra calories to support exercise. But also changing is the quality and quantity of grass and the introduction of some hay or haylage (which contains 20-30% less energy than grass).

These, in conjunction with a drop in temperature, could mean that the horse still loses condition. At the very least, a drastic reduction in feed offered will mean that a vitamin and mineral supplement is required.

Slowing the pace

  • Don’t just stop work and turn out – reduce exercise intensity over a two-to-three week period.
  • Try to keep your horse in some kind of work. Two or three outings per week, where he uses himself (even if all you are doing is keeping him up to the bit) will maintain basic fitness.
  • Make changes to the diet over the same two-to-three week period, monitoring condition and behaviour. Horses maintaining condition in light work will require a low energy feed; those which drop condition will need a conditioning diet.
  • This article first appeared in Horse & Hound (9th September 2004)