"Oh to be in England, now that April's there," wrote Robert Browning, the celebrated English poet. He was abroad when he penned those words, and in his loneliness he imagined an English countryside where on a spring morning..."the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf round the elm tree bole are in tiny leaf, while the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough..."
Overweight horses need special training regimens to prepare them for athletic competition.
While most horseback riders won't wax quite that poetically eloquent when spring arrives, they, nevertheless, will feel some of the same stirrings. There is a softness to the air, a different smell, awakening sounds, a spongy feel to the earth, the first hint of budding trees, and perhaps a glimmer of green grass. Winter's hold has been broken and spring is arriving.
Geography, of course, has a lot to say about what signs of spring are seen and when they arrive. For the England Browning envisioned, they came in April. For the horse owner in the deep South, they will come much sooner. I well remember hearing the first "peepers"--frogs emerging from the mud in which they had hibernated--in February while living in Kentucky. Conversely, when we lived in Minnesota, we might not hear them until late March or April. Whatever the geographic area, the arrival of spring is an exciting time and, whether we are trail riders or show ring competitors, our springtime thoughts turn to our horses.
We are ready for a new season of fun riding or competing. The question that must be answered at this point is this: How ready are our horses?
In some cases, the answer is that they are kept ready all year long. There are competitors in certain disciplines where horses never get out of shape. All of their horses' health and maintenance needs are tended to on an ongoing basis.
However, for a great many other horse owners, particularly in the northern and western parts of the country, this is not the case. Quite often horses are turned out in the fall and aren't used again until spring. This is especially true of the trail rider. Oh, there are those hardy souls who will add snow-repelling pads and keep riding all winter; but more often than not, winter riding gives way to other winter sports such as television watching or just plain relaxing in front of the fire while our faithful equine companion roams a paddock or pasture.
When spring arrives, it is time to gather up the steed or steeds and find out how much of a spring tune-up is necessary before launching into another season of trail riding or competing. The transitional, or tune-up, period is important. Without it we might cause serious, and even irreparable, damage to our horse.
The degree of attention--or inattention--that has been given to the horse or horses in question during the winter months will have a profound bearing on just how ready they are for the oncoming season and how long a tune-up period is necessary. If there has been good hoof maintenance, parasite control (internal and external), exercise, and appropriate immunizations and sound nutrition, the changeover from a somewhat somnolent existence to an active one can be relatively fast and painless.
This would translate into a short tune-up period.
However, if there has been neglect in any of these areas, we might spend an inordinate amount of time repairing the damage instead of building from a solid foundation.
This would translate into a longer tune-up period.
Defender Of The Foot
Perhaps the part of the equine anatomy that is most neglected during the off-season is the foot. Many horses have their shoes pulled in the fall, are turned out to pasture, and have no hoof work done until the following spring. In some areas, this just might work. In others it won't.
If the horse is in the Rocky Mountain West and is ranging over a pasture that is hard and dry and perhaps even rocky, the barefooted horse might do some natural trimming, just as its wild brethren do. However, if that same horse is roaming a pasture in the South where frequent rains keep the ground soft and spongy, the natural wearing factor won't apply.
A normal hoof will grow at the rate of approximately three-eighths of an inch per month. While that might be an average, there is a vast difference among horses.
The point is that no matter what the geographical area, horses need ongoing hoof care 12 months a year.
In the more arid areas, a key problem that can have a profound effect on the length of the spring tune-up period is hoof dryness. Hoof moisture has a direct bearing on hoof health. A hoof with too little moisture becomes dry and brittle and is prone to cracking and breaking.
There is constant evaporation of moisture from the hoof, and much of this is replaced by the blood and lymph supply within the sensitive inner structure of the hoof. Augmenting this supply are environmental sources, such as damp grass from an early morning dew, muddy areas, or even river or pond water in a horse's pasture.
It is far easier to regulate environmental moisture in the summer than in the winter. Areas that are arid during the summer usually become even more so during the winter months. Quite often added to the equation in the winter is ground that becomes frozen.
Hooves that become dry and brittle because the internal structure is unable to supply required moisture can quickly lead to lameness. If the hoof has gone untrimmed for a long period, there is danger of chunks literally breaking off, sometimes exposing the sensitive inner structure. Obviously, the result will be acute lameness. A lesser danger, but one that also has serious implications, involves cracks in the hoof wall. These can spread to the point where they, too, affect the sensitive inner structure or the all-important coronary band.
When we bring in a horse from pasture in the spring and discover that portions of the hooves are missing or that deep cracks are present, we might be facing a "tune-up period" that can be prolonged. Now, we are in need of special farrier work, perhaps customized shoes and, if the problem involves infection within the sensitive inner structure, it will be necessary to call in a veterinarian.
How much better it would have been if we had kept tabs on the horse's feet and cared for them as needed throughout the winter months.
As already mentioned, the hoof keeps growing on a year-round basis. The wise thing is to determine what is a normal trimming time for an individual horse and have the farrier adhere to a prescribed schedule throughout the year.
And, if we are faced with the problem of dry, brittle hoofs, it would be wise to consult a veterinarian. Is something lacking in the horse's diet that might be a part of the problem? Are there products that can be applied to the hoof to provide external moisture? Can you change the environment somewhat and cause a change in the hoof?
If you have stayed on top of the situation throughout the winter, it is unlikely that hoof problems will extend the tune-up period. The only question before the house then will involve whether you should have the horse shod before you begin a riding program. The activity in which the horse is to be involved will be a deciding factor. For that, your best consultant is the farrier who has been caring for your horse's feet on an ongoing basis. By now, he or she will have a good reading on hoof quality and will know what should be recommended for a particular endeavor.
Thus, this phase of the tune-up is only a matter of minutes or hours--the time it takes to trim or apply shoes.
Watcher Of The Weight
Earlier, nutrition was mentioned in connection with hoof growth. Good nutrition can have a positive effect on hoof size and growth and obviously is highly important to the horse's overall well-being. This does not mean that the horse must end the winter in an obese condition. Conversely, it also does not mean that the horse should prepare for a new season of activity when emaciated.
Once again, the level of care provided during the winter will have a definite effect on this phase of the tune-up period. The well-fed horse will round into working condition quite quickly, while the ill-fed horse will require a much longer period before being able to perform at the same level.
As with so many things involving horses, the correct amount of feed to be given depends on the individual horse. The important thing is that horses be fed by weight, not by "coffee can" or a certain number of flakes of hay. There is a vast difference in weight of hay, often on a bale by bale basis, and there is a difference in the weight of grain and concentrates. A flake of grass hay, for example, might be twice as large as a flake of alfalfa and yet weigh less. A two-pound coffee can of shelled or cracked corn will be heavier than a coffee can of oats. (For more information on proper feeding of your horse see past articles in the monthly Nutrition column.)
What we should remember is that horses are grazing creatures whose digestive tracts are designed to handle small quantities of food on an ongoing basis. During the winter, when there is no grass, we should attempt to mimic this process by feeding the horses several times a day, rather than tossing them the day's supply in the morning and not feeding them again until the next day.
Horses also are creatures of habit. If they are fed regularly at 7 a.m., noon, and 6 p.m., they quickly will adapt to that schedule and will be waiting for their food. Horses which are fed on an erratic schedule, especially those which remain in box stalls throughout the day, can develop bad habits, such as digging, kicking, or raking their teeth on stall walls.
As with farrier work, if we have had the horse on a proper nutritional diet all winter, the nutritional tune-up period will be quite brief. We might need only increase the nutritional level as the workload advances.
On the other hand, if the horse's ribs are showing and he is lethargic, we face a time-consuming period of recovery before we can get on with utilization of the animal. The recovery period can be time-consuming because there is no rapid turnaround when we are dealing with a horse's rate of gain in body weight and condition. We can't suddenly pour on the grain and alfalfa hay for the thin horse which has been subsisting on dry grass or poor-quality hay and see an immediate change.
Quite to the contrary. Such a dramatic change in a feeding program can bring on colic or laminitis. The thin horse requires a gradual change in nutrition over a period of time.
Researchers at Texas A&M University are strong advocates of feeding by weights and of monitoring a horse's condition by body score.
A general rule of thumb, says D. Douglas Householder, PhD, of Texas A&M, is never to feed more than 0.75% of a horse's body weight in concentrate at any one feeding. For example, he explains, a 1,000 pound horse should never be fed more than 7.5 pounds of concentrate at any one feeding. The key involves the words "at any one feeding." Horses at work and mares with foals at side might require more concentrate than the 0.75% of body weight, but when that is the case, the concentrate should be fed more than once per day.
How do we know whether we have an appropriate nutritional program during the winter months? Frequent observation is the first step. We must do more than give the horse a casual glance. It often is difficult to tell the horse's true body condition when the horse is sporting a heavy, fluffy growth of hair. We need to rub our hands over the horse's body and feel for flesh tone. Do we get a distinct feel of ribs under that long, shaggy coat? If so, we need to increase the nutritional level.
We need also to be cognizant of the quantity and quality of feed the horse is ingesting. We might, for example, have a group of horses on a winter pasture that has been saved for just that purpose. We look at it daily and it appears that there is grass present. Just a glance isn't enough. The pasture should be walked. Horses are picky eaters. They don't like to consume grass where feces have been deposited. Thus, we might be looking at a pasture that appears to have a plentiful grass supply, only to find upon closer examination that much of it is in little islands around piles of manure and the horses are passing it by.
Hay quality also is highly important. Green, leafy hay is a must. On the average, a 1,000 pound horse will require about 15 pounds of good-quality hay per day.
Texas A&M researchers, as we mentioned, make use of a scoring system as advanced by the National Research Council. The scores range from 1 through 9, with the lowest score being a horse in an emaciated condition and the highest score being a horse that is obese.
A horse with a score of 1 has a back that is prominent, ribs that are very prominent at mid-barrel, a neck that is extremely thin, plus shoulder, withers, and tailhead that are very prominent.
Perhaps the ideal score for a horse which would need only a short spring tune-up period would be one which carries a score of 5. At that score, the horse would have a back that was level, but had no crease; ribs that could not be seen, nor easily felt; a neck that blended smoothly into the shoulder; a shoulder that blended smoothly into the body; a withers that had a rounded appearance, and a tailhead that showed moderate fat.
On the far end of the scale would be the obese horse which carries a 9 for a body condition score. The back would show an obvious crease; the ribs couldn't be felt; there would be patchy fat over the barrel; the neck would be bulging with fat as would the shoulder, withers, and tailhead.
The horse with a score of 5 would be one ready for immediate training. The other two would need much more time. We already have discussed what would be required with the emaciated horse before it was ready for work. The obese horse likely could be brought along faster, but care would have to be taken. Too much exercise before the excess poundage was dropped could cause myriad problems--all the way from sore muscles and tendons to laminitis.
It would be far better to learn how to score a horse's condition and to maintain the optimum score with a good feeding program throughout the winter.
Coach Of The Condition
Almost as important as good nutrition is ongoing exercise throughout the winter if we are to keep the tune-up period at a minimum. For many horses, this isn't a problem as they are roaming in a spacious pasture or paddock. For others, it can be a serious problem. I am referring to the horse which spends most of its time in a box stall.
A horse needs exercise for a number of reasons. Lack of exercise reduces circulation to all muscles, including the smooth muscles of the intestines. This means that food might remain in the intestines longer than normal, and the result could be impaction colic.
Regular exercise also helps the horse overcome boredom. A bored horse can pick up bad habits, such as stall weaving or cribbing, that will remain with it for life.
Again, the amount of exercise it receives during the winter will have a definite bearing on how long the spring tune-up period lasts. The horse which has been exercised regularly will be one whose muscles quickly will acclimate to an accelerated rate of activity. Within days, you will be riding at a rate where you will be ready to begin serious training for the season ahead. On the other hand, the horse whose muscles are weak and flaccid will require long periods of walking and slow jogs before it is in shape to speed up the pace.
Protector From Parasites
Earlier we talked about running your hands over the horse's body to determine condition. Another important purpose is served by that procedure--the detection of problems that might be caused by external parasites.
Nowhere is this more important than in warm, humid climates. One condition that we had to battle with some frequency when living in Kentucky was "rain rot." The condition, scientifically known as dermatophilosis, is a fungal infection that produces "bumps" on the skin. When rubbed, the "bumps" might come free in the form of scabs with a small, hairless spot of skin showing. The condition seems to flourish where there is a lot of rain and horses go into the winter months carrying a heavy coat.
Placing a saddle on the back of a horse so afflicted obviously would cause some serious problems. If we bring our horse into the spring tune-up period with rain rot, we are going to be facing some down time until medication can solve the problem.
There are a number of other external problems from mites and lice that can afflict the horse in winter and lengthen our spring tune-up time. The best approach is ongoing surveillance and immediate treatment, with advice from a veterinarian, when a problem rears its head.
Keeper Of The Coat
If we have done our job correctly, we will enter the spring season with a horse that is healthy and with four sound feet. That being the case, we can just climb aboard and start riding pell-mell across country, right?
Even the healthiest of horses should enter the new season of work gradually.
First of all, we must be aware that the horse has not yet shed its heavy coat. Even the lightest of workouts might cause it to break into a sweat that will require a lengthy cool-out period. The horse's hair is designed to shield it from the cold during the winter. However, it only can do this when it is dry and fluffed out. When wet and plastered against the skin, the hair has almost no insulating value. Therefore, if we go for a spring ride, then turn our sweating horse out to pasture with a chill wind blowing, its hair will be unable to do its job of insulation and the horse can face some serious health problems.
What is needed at this juncture is a light blanket that will protect the horse from chilling while the hair is drying out.
Manager Of The Muscles
We must be conscious that even though the horse has received adequate exercise during the winter, its muscles are not in optimum condition. Heading out on a 20-mile trail ride or working a horse hard in a cutting pen or over jumps at this point could cause serious damage.
This is also the time for some serious hands-on monitoring of tendons when we have finished riding. Take time to palpate each limb slowly, feeling for any sign of swelling or inflammation that is an indication you are pushing too hard.
There should be nothing abrupt about this spring tune-up period. It should be a slow and gradual process that allows the horse to round into working condition without being stressed physically or mentally. Common sense is the key ingredient.
If we use common sense in caring for our horses during the winter and preparing them gradually turning our spring tune-up period, we, like the poet, will be ready, "After April, when May follows..."
About the Author
Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.
POLL: Managing Working Horses