Make the Most of Your Horse`s Winter Break

Like any athlete, your competition horse feels the effects of intense competition, constant travel and changes in diet. These stresses take their toll in assorted aches and pains, if not actual injuries, possible weight loss, flagging performance and a weakened immunity. Few horses can take these taxing schedules year round. Somewhere along the line you have to let up a bit.

Tincture of time is essential in any approach to soreness. If your horse has a soundness problem, the treatment will dictate how much time he has off and how much exercise he should get during that time. Most horses will also benefit from a period without shoes, even if it’s only a few weeks. It’s kind of like when you come home and kick your shoes off after a hard day.

Even if your horse doesn’t have a lameness, he may have low-grade aches and pains you’re not aware of until you get back on him after a rest period and see how much more eager he is and how freely he moves.

Rest also allows the horse to “refuel” and recover from the effect chronic stress has on his hormonal systems. The horse that had trouble holding his weight during the campaign will usually recover quickly when rested, even on less grain.

All this sounds like basic common sense, of course, until you add the questions of how long the rest period should be.

Time Makes A Difference
A well-conditioned horse has developed an increased blood volume that ensures hard-working muscles have a good blood supply, which results in lower working heart rates and quicker recoveries — all important measures of a horse’s overall conditioning. Even a four-week rest can abolish this effect, and it may take two weeks or more for your horse to recover. Fortunately, these rates are also the quickest for him to recover.

Lay offs longer than four weeks begin to affect the heart, lung and muscle function and conditioning. The degree of loss depends somewhat on the horse’s age and history. A mature adult horse with years of intensive conditioning will lose conditioning more slowly than a young horse that hasn’t been competed much. However, the losses for both are still considerable.

Regular exercise is a potent anabolic stimulus, keeps the heart-efficient muscles in a protein-building mode and encourages joint health, as long as the joints aren’t overstressed. With age, however, hormonal changes tip the scales away from this bodybuilding type of metabolism and in favor of such things as loss of muscle bulk. With an older horse, you may not be able to completely reverse the effects of a long lay off.

Feeding The Horse On A Lay Up
The horse that’s no longer working hard obviously doesn’t require as many calories, but he still needs a high-quality diet with adequate protein and the correct mineral levels.??Cutting back on grain is a good way to control calories, but if you’re using a fortified grain mix, you lose those vitamins and minerals as well.

Free-choice grass hay with about 4 lbs./day of alfalfa (hay, cubes or pellets) will meet most horses’ protein and calorie needs, although you may also need to feed a vitamin-mineral supplement as well.

The supplement we like best to provide the good fit for a wide variety of hays is the Triple Crown protein/mineral pelleted supplement ( or 800/451-9916).??It comes in two protein levels. Choose the 12% protein, if feeding alfalfa. Use the 30% protein, if you’re feeding only grass hay.

If the horse isn’t holding his weight well, or regaining, on hay alone, try boosting his digestive efficiency for hay with Ration Plus ( or at 800/728-4667).??You can also add back a reasonable amount of a balanced grain mix (start with 2 to 5 lbs./day), or try a mixture of beet pulp and bran if you don’t want to use grain.

A mixture of 2 lbs. of beet pulp with 4 oz. of rice bran — not calcium-added rice bran — or 6 oz. of wheat bran gives a feeding balanced in major minerals and with as many calories as 2 lbs. of oats.

Add 1 to 2 oz. per day of plain salt, or iodized table salt as an iodine source to support thyroid function, to his feed or give free-choice salt. Complete the diet with a vitamin E and selenium supplement to provide a minimum of 2 mg/day of selenium and you’re set.

Bottom Line
The longer the lay off, the longer it will take your horse to regain his conditioning. Unless lameness issues call for specific restrictions, the horse is better off with three to four weeks or so of pasture loafing with his shoes off and minimal stall confinement. Stall confinement is deadly to conditioning. When you’re ready to bring him back, resume a light exercise schedule of daily or every-other-day formal exercise and gradually build up to competitive intensity.

Also With This Article
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