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Virginia Cooperative Extension -
 Knowledge for the CommonWealth

Winter Management of the Performance Horse

Livestock Update, December 2007

Dr. Shea Porr, Northern District Equine Extension Agent, or 540-687-3521 ext 27 and
Dr. Kathleen Greiwe-Crandell, Superintendent, Middleburg Agricultural Research and Extension Center (MARE Center) or 540-687-3521 ext 12

Everyone needs a break now and again, even horses.  This is particularly true if the horse has been under a lot of stress, perhaps by being on an intense showing or training schedule for several months.  Winter is a perfect time to take a break, as frozen ground and sub-freezing temperatures don’t often make for enjoyable riding experiences. 

Breaks in training and/or showing allows for both physical and mental benefits.  Physically, the horse will have time to recover from minor injuries, including strains or muscle soreness, which may have built up over time.  Some horses on heavy show circuits can develop behavioral issues associated with the stress of being on the road and visiting many different places. Allowing them time to just graze, loaf, and be a horse can result in dramatic improvements in both their attitude and performance.  Additionally, taking the horse out of training for the winter allows you the option of letting them grow a winter coat, decreasing the time and expense involved in clipping and blanketing throughout the colder months.  If the horse is still shaggy when the spring shows begin, they can always be clipped at that time.

If your horse will be taking a winter break, keep in mind a few management tips.  First, take a couple weeks to slowly lighten the exercise schedule.  Don’t just take the horse out of training and toss them in a field.  Horses are creatures of habit; they will adapt more easily, both mentally and physically, to schedule changes that are made gradually.  Also, make sure they continue to do at least a little activity, either appropriate turnout or light work.  Self-exercise in a large pasture, particularly if it includes hills, will keep the horse appropriately conditioned throughout the winter months without extra work on your part.

Second, make the appropriate changes to the ration.  Many show horses or those in heavy training are receiving a large amount of grain to provide the necessary calories.  The decreased workload will lessen their need for excessive calories and thus the amount of grain fed should be cut back.  Indeed, this may be a good time to help the overweight horse lose a few pounds.  Increase the amount of hay offered, particularly if the pasture is overgrazed or sparse.  Only supplement grain if calories from the hay aren’t enough for them to maintain an appropriate body condition.

Finally, when you’re ready to start preparing for the next show season, begin gradually increasing the horse’s exercise about 6 weeks before the first show.  Horses do not lose condition nearly as quickly as humans do, but they still need some time to get back into the routine of training and showing.  Your equine companion should be refreshed and ready to tackle the next season of training, trail riding, or showing!

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