Unless you and your horse escape to Florida or somewhere sunny for winter shows, you’ve probably let his work effort and diet slack a little. He might be eating more round bales outside, a little too much grain, and might have had a bit of a winter vacation. As spring looms, it is time to get back into shape!

Ramping up exercise for the show season requires a slow and steady increase in work intensity, frequency, and duration to give those muscles, joints, tendons, and ligaments some time to adjust and eventually strengthen. The diet will also need some adjusting as we go from perhaps a lower level of work to show-shape condition.

Balancing Exercise with Caloric Intake

As a horse gets back into shape and starts working harder (or more frequently or for longer durations) the energy – or calories – he expends is also going to start increasing. If you did not change his diet, the increased energy expenditure would cause your horse to use his reserves (fat) for fuel and he would lose weight. This might be somewhat desirable if he’s developed a little extra blubber for warmth, but eventually you’ll need to start adding some more energy into his diet.

The best way to gauge how many additional calories he needs is to monitor body condition score. This will get easier to do as his winter coat is shed, but feeling the horse along his ribs, shoulder blades, tailhead, hips, and back area will tell you how much fat (vs. fur) he has. We like most sport horses to be in good condition, such that you can feel his ribs but not see them if he were clipped. This type of body condition score would be considered about a 5 on the 1-9 Henneke scale, where 1 is emaciated and 9 is grossly obese.

If your horse starts losing too much weight and condition, you’ll need to start increasing the calories accordingly. This can be done by offering some additional hay, higher-quality hay, or other high-fibre feeds such as beet pulp or rice bran. If more calories are needed, vegetable oil is a good source.

You may also consider increasing any commercial feed that is offered, as there will be small increases in the requirements for additional nutrients as workload increases. Protein, calcium, phosphorus, and other mineral and vitamin needs will increase as well, and these can be met with increasing the amount of grain mix that is offered. Remember that protein requirements don’t increase on the same scale as calorie needs do with increasing work; protein requirements – even for hard-working horses – are typically easily met with good quality hay and concentrate.

Electrolyte requirements will go up as workload – and therefore heat production – increases. Horses will sweat when worked, even in the cold (it just evaporates before you see the wetness). So as work effort increases, adding in some additional electrolytes, most notably sodium and chloride – salt, as potassium is usually plentiful in forages – is warranted.

Changing Season, Changing Feed Quality

It should be noted that as the spring sets in, the feed available will change. Hay from last season will be lower quality than it was at the start of winter, as many nutrients leach out over storage time. But the horse may also have some new access to spring grass that is plentiful in vitamins such as E and A. The blue skies will also allow the ‘sunshine’ vitamin, D, to be produced by the skin more readily. Fresh pasture can also be a good source of protein, but can also be rich in sugars that could be problematic for horses that have had laminitis previously or are overweight.

Monitoring your horse’s body condition is an easy way to track his energetic status caused by increased exercise or differences in available feeds. Other nutrient needs will also change, and the spring is always a good time to call in a nutritionist to get your horse’s year off to a good start.