Fit or fat?

South Africa traditionally shuts down in December and up until recently, riders have been able to co-ordinate their time on the beach with back-to-back African Horse Sickness (AHS) vaccinations and enforced time off for their horses. New guidelines recommend that both AHS vaccinations should be administered before the end of October, so riders now have to make a conscious decision about whether they should keep their horses active throughout December or give them the time off.

All athletes, equine and human, can benefit from a break in training, but it’s a little more complicated than just going away and leaving your horse to laze about in the paddock for a couple of weeks. Factors that need to be taken into consideration are the length of the proposed lay-off and whether to give your horse a complete break or carry on with some form of exercise. It rather depends on the individual. I had a pony who kept herself entertained by jumping paddock fences while we were away, a Warmblood mare who lost condition and forgot everything she knew in a week, and a Thoroughbred gelding who carried on where he left off after a three-week break!

Advantages

fitness

Should you leave him fit or fat over December?

We demand a lot from our competitive horses, and a relentless schedule of schooling and shows can put them at risk of injury, gastric ulcers, fatigue and behavioural problems. Our hard-working school ponies would equally benefit mentally and physically from time off or a reduction in their workload. Even a short break can be positive, particularly for young horses. It gives them time to assimilate what they’ve been taught and bad habits can be unlearnt. Most horses return to work with enthusiasm and an improved attitude.

Disadvantages

One of my personal main worries when giving a fit horse time off is that he could be silly in the paddock and hurt himself. Other concerns, particularly with a long-term break (more than a month), are:

  • loss of cardiovascular fitness and conditioning.
  • regression in training.
  • loss of strength and flexibility.

A balanced approach

There are some sensible horses who can be taken out of work entirely. They are able to self-exercise in the paddock without coming to any harm, but for the rest a reduced workload with a change in focus allows them to relax mentally while maintaining a basic level of fitness. Older horses particularly should be kept in light work throughout the year as it takes them longer to regain muscle and fitness.

fitnessYou could do something completely different with your horse during his break, like hacking out and building up his hindquarters with hill work. Try another discipline. If you are a showjumper, attempt some cross country, and if you do dressage, try introducing your horse to some low jumping. You might find you have a hidden talent! This will give your horse time to relax and repair tired muscles while enjoying varied, beneficial exercise. A mature horse will not forget his schooling if he is worked lightly two or three times a week in this way.

If you are going away you can consider:
  • lunging
  • sessions on a horse walker.
  • getting a work rider.

Adjust his food

A reduced workload needs to be accompanied by a decrease in food to avoid the risk of colic as well as excess energy. It is important to remember that it will take a week or so for a reduction in your horse’s diet to actually result in lower energy levels. Similarly, you would need to start increasing his food a week before you put him back in full work.

Text: Jan Tucker

The full article appears in the December issue (117) of HQ magazine > Shop now