Conditioning Your Horse for the Summer

Would you like to learn more about conditioning your horse for the summer? Review the chat summary to see what our experts discussed in a previous web chat.

Conditioning for the Summer
HorseQuest experts include:

  • Colleen Brady, Purdue University
  • Carey Williams, Rutgers University
  • Ed Johnson , University of Florida
NOTE: This transcript is from an online, live chat. The major topics have been captured in the material below. If you have further questions, please search the eXtension Horses page for more in-depth and detailed information.


Q: When should I start increasing the amount I feed when I start to condition my horse for the summer show season?

A: As you start to increase work intensity or duration, start increasing feed intake to keep up with the energy expenditure; however, it’s also important to maintain the horse’s body condition. If the horse is too fat, then continue at the same level before increasing feed. If the horse is thin, increase the feed intake to increase its weight. Many horses carry more weight than they need from the inactivity of the previous months and may not need much of an increase in feed. If the horse is out of shape, make sure you gradually start bringing him back into work.

Q: What would be a good weight for a horse for summer showing?

A: Body condition scoring is the most effective way to determine if your horse is where it needs to be weight-wise. Check out eXtension’s Horses Body Condition Scoring learning module for additional information. Aim for a body condition score of 5 or 6, then work up to that point.

Q: Isn’t fat a more stable source of energy?

A: Fat is a better energy source in that it doesn’t give that rapid conversion to energy like carbohydrates do. Corn and other high-sugar and high-starch grains convert to energy rapidly, which is why corn is usually referred to as a “hot feed.”

Q: Any thoughts on refined versus unrefined oils?

A: I am not totally familiar with the differences, but I do know corn oil tastes best to horses. Canola oil has a higher level of Omega 3s, and fish oil is the highest in Omega 3s. Rice bran is a good source of fat because it is high in fat, horses love it, and it is high in fiber.

Q: What are your thoughts about high protein supplements?

A: The best quality protein sources are soybean meal and alfalfa. If you have to use a supplement, make sure it is fortified with lysine and threonine. They are amino acids that are limiting in the horse’s diet and need to be the first amino acids supplemented.

Q: How is soybean meal dispersed?

A: Soybean meal is usually available in a flaky form or powder. You can feed it as you would bran or other supplement. The amount of soybean meal added to the horse’s diet depends on the horse. If you feed horses a high-protein hay such as alfalfa, you shouldn’t need soybean meal. However, if you have a very poor-quality hay or are feeding a growing or lactating horse, you will need higher levels of soybean meal.

Q: What about protein levels for a growing horse that is starting training?

A: Yearling horses should have about 14 percent protein in the total diet, which includes hay and grain. Two-year old horses can be fed between 12 percent and 14 percent protein. Weanling horses, however, should be fed between 14 percent to 16 percent protein. When feeding young, growing horses it is best have them on a feed formulated for growth. Many companies have a feed specifically targeted toward growth. Also look for something higher in fat, which will help maintain a consistent growth rate vs. a soluble carbohydrate alternative such as starch.

Q: I understand that horses under stress need more B-vitamins. Can you define what level of stress would require feeding more B-vitamins?

A: It is difficult to pinpoint how much stress warrants supplementation of B-vitamins. In general, a horse should be fine with a good source of quality grass hay. There are supplements available, and B-vitamins are water soluble, so horses do not retain excess B-vitamins in the body like they do fat soluble vitamins; thus, toxicity would not be an issue.

Q: I worry about complete feeds being too high in nonstructural carbohydrates (NSCs). What are your thoughts?

A: Some complete feeds are too high in NSCs. Also, people don’t realize that “complete” means they are not made to be fed with hay, so the mineral profile is more diluted if the recommended levels are not fed. Corn is definitely the enemy when trying to keep NSCs down; so look for feeds with little to no corn.

Q: I have several producers and hobbyists who feed only crimped oats and alfalfa all year long, does this sound OK for an all-year ration?

A: It so happens that a diet of oats and alfalfa is a very good diet for most horses, but it is not one used in some states because of cost. The ration may need some adjustment for young horses, but for most adult horses it works quite well. In this particular ration, there is a nice protein and calcium profile, but it may need another multivitamin and mineral supplement for growing and lactating animals. The multivitamin and mineral supplement will make sure that all the other components are balanced.

Q: Alfalfa is not good for horses with HYPP. Is this correct?

A: HYPP horses need diets low in potassium (K). Oats, corn, and barley, as well as oat hay, are all low in potassium. An article from University of California-Davis says they feed the horses in their HYPP research herd an alfalfa/oat hay mix. Consult a vet for other HYPP medications; as for feed, consider K levels. It would be best to get your hay analyzed for the K levels to be sure how much potassium your horse is getting.

Q: Should I give electrolyte supplements throughout the summer?

A: The need for electrolytes will depend on several conditions and how hard your horse is sweating. What kind of work will he be doing? Electrolytes may be given, but the main thing to do is to make sure your horse has adequate access to a plain white salt block. In general, if the horse has access to plenty of water and a salt block, he should be OK. However, if the horse sweats excessively, he may need supplementation. An option at shows may be to offer plain water and water with an electrolyte, and to let the horse select or use a paste tube to dose him with a specific amount. Unless the horse is sweating significantly, he will not need a daily electrolyte supplement.


Q: Are there any secrets to getting the coat ready for show season when a horse has been out of circulation for a while?

A: If the horse is on a balanced diet, some suggestions would be to protect the hair coat from sun and use a lot of elbow grease with the grooming equipment. Adding fat to the diet will also help the hair coat. This may include corn oil, rice bran, or other formulated fat supp (omega-3’s, etc). Fat is good for the coat in that it creates a smooth and shiny appearance. Show dogs usually are on a higher fat diet as well to achieve the same goal. There are many supplements on the market designed to do this, however, a good diet and rub rags work the best.

If you are adding fat to the horse’s diet, you can start with about 1/4 cup of oil per day (for example) for the first week, then increase to 1/2 cup. You can even go up to a full cup if your horse is not an easy keeper, but make sure to increase it slowly over a period of weeks, and make sure to spread it over a couple of feedings. Remember, fat also has a very high caloric density. This means your horse will get a lot of energy from it, so you can probably decrease the amount of grain it is getting by about a pound per 1/2 cup of oil. We do not recommend high fat for just any horse, mostly exercising horses and those that are not fat.

Q: Is there a temperature rule of thumb for when to be on the lookout for greater chance of dehydration?

A: In terms of measuring dehydration it is best to use the skin pinch test rather than going by a particular temperature. The skin pinch test simply involves grabbing an area of loose skin on the horse’s neck and pulling it away from its body. A hydrated horse’s skin will pop back into place quickly, while the skin of a dehydrated horse will take three or more seconds to return to normal.

Q: In the summer we usually do not work our horses in the hottest part of the day, but we do not have control of this at a show. Should we be working horses in the heat to get them conditioned?

A: Yes. You shouldn’t overdo it, but exercising them to some degree is good. More intense riding should be done in the cooler part of the day. Working outside in the heat will help the horse become acclimated to working in higher temperatures.


Q: How do you cool a horse down safely, especially if overheated, without shocking its system?

A: You will not shock its system using cold/ice water to cool out a horse. We actually just had a horse overheat recently. It was during an exercise test, and she got up to 106.8. We were able to cool the horse down with ice water sponges, with scraping it off and reapplying again. Ice sponges were applied to the neck, inside of the legs, under the abdomen, any any area with thin skin and lots of capillaries. You need to get the blood cooled off so it can circulate through the core of the animal, thus cooling its interior.

Q: When cooling out a horse, is it OK to let it drink water?

A: As you are cooling out the horse, a sip of water as it is walking won’t be a problem. Yes, it is OK for the horse to drink when hot, but control the amount of intake, and break up the drinking into several segments. Don’t let a horse drink its fill. Give it a sip, and then walk, a sip, and walk.

Q: How can I tell if a horse is overheating?

A: Check the horse’s vital signs. If a horse is overheating, then its respiration rate will be higher than its heart rate. Count the horse’s breaths per minute, then count the heart rate per minute. If the horse’s respiration rate remains higher, it is not cooling off; if the horse rapidly goes back to a higher heart rate than respiration rate, it is cooling down. Also check the temperature using a rectal thermometer. If over 105 degrees F, it is reason for concern, especially if it stays over 102 degrees F after 30 minutes of active cooling out.


Q: What would be a good exercise program to muscle up my QH?

A: Trotting is a good way to build muscle. If you have access to hilly terrain, that is even better. Walking your horse up steep hills will build muscles symmetrically on both sides of the body. Remember, however, that you can build muscle only to the horse’s level of genetic potential. In other words, you can’t put more muscle on a horse than he is genetically able. Individual variation accounts for a great deal of muscling patterns in full siblings. A horse that is muscular can’t be made to look like a superstar, though may be more athletic.

Q: When building up a horse’s wind, where is the line between pushing him hard enough to build him up, but not too hard to hinder him?

A: When you are trying to get a horse cardiovascularly fit, it’s important to monitor its respiration and heart rates during recovery from exercise. Just as in building muscle or bone, the animal has to be stressed enough to challenge the system to become more efficient. If you push the horse at a gallop, monitor recovery. A horse should be below 60 in less than 20 minutes. If it takes longer, you need to back off a bit until the horse is recovering faster.

Q: Any quick suggestions on maintaining a fitness baseline for geriatric horses? I have a 23-year-old TB that raced five years and then evented with me for another 12. I would like to help him maintain condition and soundness as long as possible.

A: Keep him busy, but don’t overdo it. Maintain a nutrition program and exercise program. Keep the horse shod properly. If he has some time off, it may take him longer to come back than when he was younger. It is recommended to do lots of long slow distance training until he can slowly add in some intervals. The slower the better with older guys.

-April 2006 – Online Chat Summary