Exercising Horses for Weight Loss

Some horses cannot exercise at a high intensity due to chronic lameness such as founder. For these horses, even hand walking can help improve overall metabolism.

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Editor's Note: For more information, see "Exercise's Health Benefits for Horses" on TheHorse.com.

Exercise is particularly important for equine weight management. Often, owners want to see an increase in muscle development in addition to an overall decrease in fat coverage. There are many myths about feeding extra protein or various supplements to “build muscle,” but if it were that easy, every person would have a lean stomach with “abs of steel.”

To build muscle, a horse (or person) must exercise and stress the muscles such that they adapt and get bigger to accommodate the stress. One of the key principles of exercise training is “overload” in that muscle must be pushed beyond its normal limits to effect changes. This overload can come from increasing the frequency of the workouts, the duration of the workouts, or the intensity of the workouts. Mind you, there is often a fine line between not enough work and too much work. Your veterinarian can help you decide how much exercise is suitable for your horse.

A trick for increasing workload for your horse without overdoing things is to “cross-train.” Maybe do some hill work one day, some “sprints” another (10-second intervals at higher intensities, even at a trot if your usual ride is only at the walk), or even just a long hack through the woods. If you find you don’t have the time for a full ride, try lunging your horse two times per day, rather than once. Remember, as with feeding, all changes, including an increase in exercise training, should be introduced slowly. If an owner doesn’t have time to ride, another rider or trainer should be sought to help exercise the horse.

When working exercise into the overall equation of “calories in” vs. “calories out,” we need to estimate how many calories are being burned. In general, higher intensities of work (trotting, cantering, hill work) will burn more calories per minute, but these intensities may not be maintained for long periods of time. One way to estimate the intensity of a workout is to monitor the heart rate. Equine heart rate monitors are readily available and can be worn while riding; some models can store information and track progress. As work intensifies, heart rate will increase. It should be noted however, that as a horse becomes fitter, his heart becomes more efficient and may be lower at a given work intensity after training compared to before training. Research has found that when the heart rate is 60 beats per minute (as it is at a walk), 24 kcal are burned per minute. Therefore, walking your horse for 30 min will burn 0.7 Mcal. A heart rate of 90 beats per minute (approximately a light trot) will burn 56 kcal per minute; 120 beats per minute (fast trot or slow canter) will burn 99 kcal/minute; 150 beats per minute will burn 158 kcal/min; and 180 beats per minute will burn 230 kcal/min (NRC Nutrient Requirements of Horses, 2007). Using a heart rate monitor and adding up the calories can help you estimate your horse’s caloric requirements more accurately and adjust the caloric intake as required (for weight gain, maintenance, or loss).

A common problem for the owners of obese horses is that many of these horses are also lazy. This makes it particularly difficult to give them a hard workout. Many owners, therefore, look to nutritional changes or supplements to increase the “spirit” level of their horse (remember to avoid using the term energy, as energy refers to calories). Unfortunately, there are no products available to increase the motivation for a horse to be more active during a ride. Some owners look to feeding sweet feeds or other starch and sugar feeds in an effort to get the sugar rush associated with it. But remember that these sugar rushes are followed by a crash, and the potential risks associated with high starch and sugar intake (colic, metabolic issues) decrease the value of these feeds. And logically, offering an obese person a chocolate bar is not an encouragement to get off the couch and onto a treadmill. The best way to counteract a lazy horse is to get it fitter, through regular exercise. As horses lose weight, they will be able put more effort into the exercise and less into just carrying around their excess weight.

Based on temperament and probably genetics, some horses are just lazier than others. This may make getting them to work difficult and also may make them prone to gain weight. Careful management and exercise training regimes will help these horses be the best athletes they can be.

Obviously there are going to be some horses that cannot exercise due to chronic lameness such as founder. However, these horses should still be able to walk (if not, euthanasia might be the only humane option). If they can walk, even hand walking (or walking with a rider on board) can help improve overall metabolism. These horses should also be housed in dry lots so they can get some free exercise (walking around the lot) but no additional feed from pasture.

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