Ask The Vet: Exercise and Training Management

Courtesy of AAEP

Question: When you start with a horse that is in descent shape, how much daily training is enough to keep them that way? Am I better off long trotting for muscles or cantering for lung or a mixture?

Answer: I think four days a week of work are a minimun to keep a horse in shape. I think one also must vary the work to practice skill drills in your sport, long slow conditioning and sprint conditioning. Every trainer has their favorite mix and varies it for each horse. I think the skill drills should be about 20 minutes.

The sprint workouts should last about two minutes with recovery then repeat. A heart rate monitor is very useful for this part so that you can boost the heart rate up (100) then let it recover (40) then boost it up again. These workouts should last about 20 minutes also. The long slow distance work should last up to two hours once a week depending on the sport you are preparing the horse for.

Question: My OTTB gelding recently started limping on both front legs, noticably worse after hoof trimming. My veterinarian thinks the farrier took off too much toe causing strain to the deep flexor tendons. (To me, my horse shows the signs of navicular disease.) He is turned out every day but I have not ridden him in two months. Would excerise benefit or hinder him and when should I start him back? Our disipline is “mixed”, both western and English. Thank you in advance.

Answer: I was not clear if your horse was shod or barefoot? It is possible that he is just “footsore”  after a close trimming and needs to grow more foot or toughen up what he has. Is he sensitive to hoof testers in one part of the foot? Is he less tender on soft footing? Is he less tender as he gets further away from the time of trimming? The tendons could be ultrasounded to determine if they were indeed strained. A simple lateral radiograph of the foot on a block could tell you if he had sufficient sole to protect the pedal bone. The sole should be as deep as the dorsal wall of the foot.

Question: At what age should one begin a regular training program?

Answer: A regular training program should begin after birth with handling and practice with all procedures that we want horses to be comfortable with such as picking up feet and leading and standing. The earlier and more consistent this handling is, the better every step in the training will be. There are studies that show that a 2-year-old does benefit from short (2 minutes or less) intervals of fast work that give the legs a wake up call about their future duties. I feel that the best training is a gradual progression from ground handling to long-lining and ponying to riding. The training sessions should be short (maximum 20 minutes) and positive. I do not believe that the horse’s bone and ligament and tendon structure is strong enough for full work until they are 5-years-old. I also believe that the more gradual and stepwise the training, the better prepared the horse’s body will be for the work we want it to do.

Question: My question is about exercise and hay…so I hope it fits in the category. My family competes in speed events and my husband follows the race horse rule of no hay before running. My question is: Is it better to let them have free access to hay before exercise or competition or not? Common sense tells me that since ulcers are so prevalent in competition horses that it would be wise to keep hay going through their stomach. My husband dislikes this idea since they are trying to run a race on a full belly. What are your recommendations?

Answer: I think that the hay in the belly to avoid ulcers trumps the lighter load might go faster reasoning. To truly lighten the load, hay would have to be withheld overnight and that plus transportation and strange environment does lead to ulcers. I am not aware of any research showing that withholding hay makes a horse faster.

Question: Is it preferable to have a yearling turned out with other yearlings or just as well to turn him out with an older gelding? Will he get the right exercise and social activity?

Answer:Two yearlings will play and give each other exercise better than an older gelding unless he is very energetic. It is important for safety sake to have the horses evenly matched in size and temperment so that one cannot bully another. No hind shoes is another rule of mine. I have seen the turnout be successful either way and there is benefit to having a mature horse teach the rules of socialization to a youngster. Either option could be successful if the right personalities and pasture are available.

Question: I have a 9-year-old Paint mare (with weight issues despite my serious effort at keeping her trim) that has tied up on me three times in the past two years. We live in Northern Nevada, and when we have freezing temperatures and heavy snow/ice on the ground, she doesn’t get worked. Any suggestions to maintain her condition without risking another “tying up” episode?

Answer: Fat is the safest source of calories for a horse that  has a history of tying up. Low carbohydrates are also important for avoiding tying up and weight gain. Alfalfa cubes and corn oil is one example of a diet to reduce tying up but there are also commercial diets available.