Back to Work

After a long winter, everyone is out of shape. Here's how to whip the horses and the barn back into peak condition.

You’ve been busy and winter has melted away. Now, as the days get longer, it’s time to start thinking about preparing the horses in your care for the fuller work days of spring and summer. From pasture care to sore muscles, here are a few tips on safely transitioning your barn and its occupants.


As we know, horses fed hay through the winter cannot suddenly be turned out to pasture all day. But, is there anything that can be done to ease the transition? Yes, says Dr. Ronald Emond of Candlewood Equine, LLC in Bridgewater, Conn. “Understanding what happens as grass grows in the spring can determine when and for how long you allow horses to graze. Fructans (types of sugars) are present in both grass and hay and they have been linked to triggering laminitis episodes in horses, particularly those that are insulin resistant. These are easy keepers with cresty necks and high amounts of fat. The fructan content goes up very high when the grass grows rapidly, so in the spring, if you get heavy rain, be careful because that’s when the grass will start growing fast.”

Photosynthesis also plays a part in fructan production, continues Dr. Emond. “The fructan content is highest when the plant undergoes photosynthesis, and the most active time for this is early in the morning. Therefore, you’d want to keep horses off green grass in the morning. Late afternoon, and even early evening, would be a much better time to introduce horses to pasture.”

Grass can actually be tested to check the levels of sugars and starches, notes Dr. Jenifer Nadeau, the equine extension specialist at the University of Connecticut. “You simply cut off the parts that the horses would eat, never lower then they’d graze. Take random samples from around the pasture and send it off to a forage analysis lab. The tests will tell you how much sugar, starch, protein, and energy are in your grass. You can take that analysis to your feed company and get a grain that complements your grass. Be sure to analyze the grass at different times of the year, starting in April or May, as the levels can be quite variable depending on the weather.”

Grass needs a sufficient time to establish itself prior to being subjected to horses. “You really want the grass to have six to eight inches of initial growth,” notes Dr. Nadeau. “The reason is that the grass will then have good root formation. When horses graze, they crop the grass close to the soil, and this will pull the grass out by the root if the plant hasn’t been able to establish itself. Never allow horses on pasture when the grass is below three to four inches, as that is the absolute minimum length.”

Deworm your horses 10 to 14 days prior to turning them out so they don’t carry a heavy worm burden onto the new pasture. It usually takes three to four days to kill the parasites, but some can take a bit longer and you certainly don’t want horses to be shedding worm eggs when they are turned out.

How long it takes to build a horse up to staying out on pasture varies greatly depending on the individual horse. Easy keepers need more time to adjust than those that are hard to keep weight on. Other variables include how many horses will be competing for the grass and the plant growth in the pasture. General guidelines are 30 minutes the first day, and then increasing that time by 30 minutes per day.

Finally, notes Dr. Emond, “Many people turn their horses out in a ring or other dirt area and keep them out all day, from the first day they’re turned out. But research has shown that there are certain weeds that are very high in fructans. So if you have a lot of weeds, say along a fence line, then your horses are still in danger from getting too much sugar.”


Your lesson program was scaled back for the winter months, but now it’s time to get those 20 horses ready for a full schedule. How do you do it without straining their muscles? “If your horse is blowing after a workout then he needs more aerobic work,” explains Dr. Nadeau. “Before getting back to work, check the horse’s resting heart rate; it should be less than 42 beats per minute. Under moderate work, the heart rate should be 75 to 100 beats per minute, while it can jump to more than 200 beats per minute for heavy work.

“After a workout, the horse should recover to less than 60 beats per minute within 10 to 15 minutes. If it takes the horse 30 to 45 minutes for its heart rate to drop, then that’s a poor recovery. If after 10 to 15 minutes they’ve recovered to 44 to 52 beats per minute, then their work level can be increased. If the rate is more than 72 beats per minute, then it means they’ve been worked too hard.”

It takes about a month for a horse to show aerobic and cardiovascular improvements once a workout plan is underway. “Start with lower speed and longer distance three to five days a week,” says Dr. Nadeau. “You should take one day off every three or four days so they don’t get fatigued. If they do, it will cause pain and they won’t want to work. Exercise them at about 135 to 155 beats per minute for optimum conditioning, that’s about 60 to 80 percent of their maximum heart rate. You’ll see fitness improving as their recovery rate improves. Once the recovery rate is good, then you can increase the level of the exercise either by increasing the duration, intensity, speed, or distance, but only increase one at a time.”

Another type of conditioning, interval training, where you do short, intense workouts, is a good method to alternate with the above. Interval training is anaerobic work where the horse can’t rely solely on oxygen to fuel the muscles. Periods of intense training are interspersed with periods of rest in which the horse is allowed to return to its resting heart rate in order to gradually increase the strength of the horse, especially its muscular and respiratory system. For interval training, you want to increase the heart rate to 180 to 200 beats per minute, but be careful not to exceed two minutes in duration for this. Then go back to a trot until the heart rate is 100 beats per minute. To do this, you’d gallop the horse on the flat or make it do a long trot up a hill. It should be exercise-specific.”

Don’t overlook the warm-up and cool down, cautions Dr. Nadeau. “It’s particularly important with horses that are out of shape. They should walk for five minutes, then trot for five minutes before moving on to something more demanding. It will raise the body temperature and increase the blood flow to the working muscles while also loosening up the muscles and tendons and improving the range of motion. It also helps them to dissipate heat better so they don’t get so sweaty. The cool down should be five minutes of trotting followed by five minutes of walking. This helps remove the lactic acid from the muscles and will minimize stiffness and soreness.”


There is not much you can do to lessen the amount of time needed for a horse to shed its winter coat. “Shedding is a melatonin-triggered response through the brain,” says Dr. Emond, “which is directly related to the amount of daylight the horse is exposed to. You could add five hours of extra light beginning January 1, but it would take approximately sixty days for the lighting to take effect. It’s not going to do a lot.”

Interestingly, blanketing a horse can slow the shedding process. Although the light needed to trigger shedding is received through the horse’s eye, there seems to be an effect light has on the body that is not yet understood. Perhaps the blanket blocks the weather the horse needs to trigger shedding. Regardless of the reason, be aware that blanketed horses may grow less of a winter coat but not shed out as quickly.


It’s cold, it’s hot, the weather can’t seem to make up its mind. With blanketed horses, deciding when to remove that extra-heavy blanket is a personal choice, guided by experience. Research has shown that a horse is most comfortable at an ambient temperature of 50º Fahrenheit. Make your decisions accordingly.

If several people are involved in blanketing, consider using a chart such as that used by Grandview Stables in Columbia, Conn. (see sidebar). That way, the horses will have consistent blanketing.

Spring is a busy time in the equine world as horses and humans are able to spend more time outdoors. Following the above guidelines will help ease that transition and keep your horses comfortable and physically fit for a full season of work and play.






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