Conditioning the Pasture Pet

Conditioning is a major part of the horse’s skill training regime, which is usually what I talk about here. An understanding of how muscles work is essential to being able to train and use a horse without causing injury. This is a summary of basic, necessary, scientific information.

In order to keep the training program interesting for the horse as it is taken from pasture and very light exercise and put to work, indoor and outdoor arenas can be used as well as trails. The trails provide varied terrain to assist with balance and muscular development under saddle as well as higher speed exercises, and the arenas can provide technical development opportunities in a more enclosed area, while also limiting the speed achieved (Clayton, 1991).

Investing in a heart rate monitor may be useful in assessing the progress of the training program during exercise as well as before and after, but it is not necessary to the success of the program. Other assessment methods may be used: measuring heart and belly girth; assessing Body Condition Score (BCS) weekly (Goer, 2010); and recording the animal’s heart rate before and after exercise. These values should be documented after every session, along with details of the exercise session (Clayton, 1991).

In order to maintain weight and provide fuel for the motor units, a horse in moderate work needs to be provided with 3.375 to 4.5 Mcal per day more than the maintenance requirements of that horse (Harris, 1997). Moderate work can be defined as aerobic work with a heart rate in the range of 100 to 160 beats per minute (bpm), which is equivalent to trotting or slow cantering in most horses (Clayton, 1991). Other texts define it as 30-40% of the horse’s VO2max (Jose-Cunilleras and Hinchcliff, 2003).

During equine exercise, lipids never provide all of the energy required for muscular movement; the percentage of contribution from each of triglycerides, glycogen, and glucose changes (Jose-Cunilleras and Hinchcliff, 2003). However, energy production from lipid oxidation peaks during prolonged exercise (60-90 minutes long) at 35% of the horse’s VO2max (Jose-Cunilleras and Hinchcliff, 2003); therefore, the Long Slow Distance conditioning method will be essential to the program (Clayton, 1991). Exercise should increase weekly, starting at three 30 minute exercise sessions per week (Goer, 2010). Each week, the duration will be increased to achieve progressive levels of fitness (Clayton, 1991) and utilize more fat stores (Jose-Cunilleras and Hinchcliff, 2003). Providing the animal with space for self-exercise will also further the weight loss program.

If weight loss is necessary (assessed through BCS), veterinary support will be required during this program to ensure that the horse’s welfare is not compromised during dietary restriction (NRC, 2007; Porr, 2009). Consultation with a veterinarian will likely result in the horse receiving 1.5-2% of its ideal body weight in nutrition (NRC 2007), thereby reducing carbohydrate intake and increasing fat utilization. Fat stores 9 kcal per gram of lipid (Lindinger and Ecker, 2014)! Management changes such as removing access to grain and supplying free choice hay in a slow-feeding net to provide added interest and prolong the time spent feeding will mitigate the welfare concerns created by the program (Getty, undated). The hay must also be tested to ensure adequate nutritional support, and a dietary balancer added if the hay is insufficient (Porr, 2009). Protein must always be provided at maintenance levels in a restricted diet to prevent metabolization of muscle mass (Dugdale et al, 2010).


To summarize:

  • Make sure you talk with your vet.
  • If you don’t know how to balance a horse’s diet, find a nutritionist. Feed companies usually offer nutritionist services for free.
  • Exercise is so important in reducing weight, but it has to be the right kind at the right intensity for the right duration.
  • Do some research.

The Horsegentler


Clayton, H. (1991) Conditioning Sport Horses. Sport Horse Publications, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (Canada). ISBN: 0-9695720-0-X

Dugdale, A; Curtis, G; Cripps, P; Harris, P; Argo, C. (2010) Effect of dietary restriction on body condition, composition and welfare of overweight and obese pony mares. Equine Veterinary Journal, 42(7): 600-610. doi: 10.1111/j.2042-3306.2010.00110.x.

Getty, JM. (undated) Restricting Forage is Incredibly Stressful; Choose a different method to help your horse lose weight. Getty Equine Nutrition. Accessed June 6, 2016 from:

Goer, RJ. (2010) Nutrition and Exercise in the Management of Horses and Ponies at High Risk for Laminitis. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 30(9):463-470.

Harris, P. (1997) Energy sources and requirements of the exercising horse. Annual Review of Nutrition, 17:185-210.

Jose-Cunilleras, E and Hinchcliff, KW. (2003) Carbohydrate metabolism in exercising horses. Equine and Comparative Exercise Physiology, 1(1):23-32.

Lindinger, M and Ecker, G. (2014) Equine Exercise Physiology Course Manual. University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario (Canada).

National Research Council. (2007) Nutrient Requirements of Horses. Sixth Revised Edition. The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C. ISBN-10: 0-309-10212-X

Porr, S. (2009) Managing Horses Prone to Obesity. Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia State University. Accessed January 26, 2017 from:


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