Farm Ireland

Wednesday 21 February 2018

Getting ship shape and prepared for the winter

Implementing a horse fitness programme will help your animal shed the pounds gained from a summer of gorging

Exercise sessions will keep horses in shape
Exercise sessions will keep horses in shape
Caitriona Murphy

Caitriona Murphy

In complete contrast to recent years, 2010 has provided an exceptionally good summer for horses. Sunshine and balmy temperatures drove on grass growth, which meant horses had to spend very little energy keeping themselves warm.

Horses who were turned out for the summer after a winter's feeding started to thrive in early summer and continued to thrive right up to the rain last week. Some of these horses are now overweight.

For owners who plan to work their horses over the winter, a serious fitness programme is required to bring these animals back down to normal or working weight.

My own personal 'Equine Fat Camp' opened for business two weeks ago. Four pudgy hunting horses were retrieved from their summer grazing and installed in a paddock where, much to their disappointment, the rations are not of the holiday variety.

The first step was to get an accurate idea of each horse's bodyweight. This was to help calculate the correct amount of ration to feed, monitor any weight loss or gain and ensure that the correct dosage of medication and wormers was being used.


When you see a horse or pony everyday it can be difficult to identify changes in condition by eye alone, so the most accurate method of weighing your horse, according to the British Horse Society (BHS), is on an equine-specific weighbridge.

However, these facilities are not widely available so a practical solution could be to use a public weighbridge, more often used for weighing loaded trucks or grain trailers.

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In order to weigh your horse, first drive your vehicle and horsebox or lorry onto the weighbridge with the horse inside. Next, unload the horse and drive back onto the weighbridge to weigh the vehicle and empty horsebox. Subtract the second weight from the first to get your horse's weight.

If a weighbridge is not available, many owners use a weigh tape to calculate the horse's weight.

Available from tack shops or veterinary stores, weight tapes usually come in two sizes -- pony (14.2hh and under) and horse (14.2hh and over) -- and cost just a few euro.

The tape should be placed over the lowest point of the withers, passing around the horse as close to the elbow as possible. The tape should be pulled firmly around the horse but not so that it dents the flesh.

The tape will be on a slight diagonal angle when in the correct position. The tape should not be placed in the same position as you would a girth.

Stand your horse square on a flat surface and wait until he/she relaxes to get an accurate measurement.

Keep a regular record of your horse's weight. That way you will notice any changes in weight far more quickly than you could by eye.

Make sure you use the tape at the same time of day, as a horse's weight will fluctuate over a 24-hour period.

Equine experts at the Irish Horse Welfare Trust (IHWT) warn that the excess weight carried by an overweight horse causes several negative effects, including:

  • Increased stress on the heart and lungs;
  • Obesity, strongly correlated with laminitis;
  • More strain on joints and limbs;
  • Less efficient cooling of body temperatures;
  • Fat build-up around organs, which interferes with normal functions;
  • Greater lethargy and more easily fatigued.

So what can owners do if their horse puts on too much weight?

According to the IHWT, the first step is to design a feeding plan that will reduce calorie intake, and plan a regular exercise programme. However, the experts warn that any equine weight-loss plan must be implemented gradually so that you don't stress your horse.

When you increase the amount of exercise, you increase your horse's metabolic rate, which will burn more calories. When you shift to a lower calorie diet, your horse will use its fat reserves as fuel.

However, you must be sure that the reduced feeding plan provides all the required nutrients. A mineral/nutrient supplement may be required.

The following are some weight-loss tips from the IHWT:

Feed type

Feed fibre-based feeds and check you are feeding your horse appropriately. If you are in any doubt, ask an expert. Some feed companies offer a service where the appropriate feeds and amounts required for your horse can be calculated. This can act as a guideline for you.

Hay can be soaked for 12 hours using fresh water every time to reduce its calorie content.

Many concentrate feeds have a high sugar content, which means more calories. Feeds such as Lo-Cal Balancer from Baileys Horse Feeds offer all the vitamin and nutrient requirements without the risk of adding sugar to the diet.

Feed size

Weigh your feed and find a container that exactly fits the amount you should be giving. It is very easy for half a scoop to turn into three-quarters or more.

Feed changes

If you are reducing the amount of food you would normally feed your horse, make gradual changes in both the type and amount of feed. Reduce rations by no more than 10pc over a seven- to 10-day period.

Grass intake

Control grass intake but do not crash diet. Horses are naturally grazing animals. So if you find that you need to reduce grass intake, it is vital to make sure that they eat enough bulk. Otherwise you may increase the risk of stereotypical behaviours, and your horse may become more prone to gastric ulcers and colic.

Remember, horses need a steady supply of food to keep them healthy. Strip grazing will encourage your horse to move around more to look for its food, thus using up energy while grazing.


If your horse is overweight, consider whether your horse really does need a rug. Under natural conditions, horses' coats are waterproof. They also generate heat from the inside out through the digestion of fibre. Heavier-type horses will often do well if they are not rugged. For the finer horses, a lighter-weight rug may be more suitable. Always introduce any changes gradually over a period of a few weeks.


Before the horse starts exercise, it should be checked over to make sure it is in good health. Get its teeth and feet attended to by the dentist and farrier. Make sure the horse's vaccinations are up to date and he/she is wormed on a regular basis.

A fitness programme depends on numerous factors such as age, temperament, soundness, present condition and the required fitness level.

However, most fitness plans are based on a six- to eight-week plan that begins with walking exercise only. The amount of time spent walking is gradually increased until the horse is walking for 45-50 minutes on the flat.

Hill work in walk is introduced in week two, and periods of trotting can be interspersed with walks in weeks two and three.

Canter work is introduced after about four weeks when the horse is working for an hour to an hour-and-a-half a day.

Schooling sessions can begin in week five and, by week six, the horse should be able to work in walk, trot and canter for about one-third of the riding time each.

Walking helps to warm up and cool down muscles and allows a break between faster working sessions. Trot work helps to improve muscle tone, while canter work improves the cardiovascular system.

Remember that the horse's feeding will need to be changed as he/she becomes fitter and requires more energy for work. The feeding level should be based on what energy is required and other factors such as temperament and body type.

Managing bodyweight and getting a horse fit is very much dependent on the individual animal, so don't be afraid to tailor the weight loss and exercise regime to suit each particular horse.

Irish Independent