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How can we keep our horse fit during the winter?

16 December 2020Author : Oriane Grandjean

The cold weather has arrived and in a few days’ time we'll really be in winter. That's why we are asking this December Question of the Month - how can we keep our horse fit during the winter? In order to answer this question which is uppermost in many riders’ minds, we spoke to Dr. Charles Barre. Dr. Barre has been an independent equine nutrition consultant since 2006 and he is responsible for the Food Commission of the French Association of Equine Veterinarians (AVEF). To speak on behalf of the riders, we invited the Italian rider Giulia Martinengo Marquet.

Dr. Charles Barre

When we asked Charles Barre what needs to be changed in a horse's diet during the winter, he answered by asking whether a real change in work is planned: "If you really reduce a horse's work load, if the paddocks are no longer practicable, you will obviously have to reduce the calorie intake, but not hay!" This is often forgotten because hay, while not the core of a business, is the basis of a horse's diet. The most important factor in keeping a horse fit is the quality of the forage and the way it is fed. This is what makes it all worthwhile. It is also a thorny question for the nutritionist who explains that this is one of the reasons why he gets up every morning: "Riders and the people who care for horses have to learn to trust each other again. In an ideal world, they are the people who determine how much work they are going to ask his horse to do and choose the calories they are going to give. It's a balance. If you distribute too many calories for the required work, you put some in reserve so the horse gains fat. If you do not distribute sufficient, then the horse will lose weight. When you change the work rhythm, you have to readjust this balance, and give less calories if you are expending less." Winter does not necessarily mean lighter work: "If you go from a competition season to a season where you are no longer going to jump, but you are going to try to build up your horse for the next season, for example by encouraging trotting uphill or more intense ground work, the amount of calories between summer and winter does not necessarily have to be reduced. On the other hand, if there really is a reduced work load, don't hesitate to reduce the intake," said the nutritionist. "If calories are removed, the priority has to be on concentrated feed, not on hay. The quantity of hay is a diamond that we must preserve for our horse’s health."

The secret to monitoring a horse’s shape? Keep your eyes open: "We look at the condition of the horse. You have to monitor them, but not necessarily on a daily basis. Decisions are not made on a day-by-day basis. The period that interests me most is between a fortnight and a month. In an ideal world, the rider should say to himself once a month: "All right, my horse is in this condition, how do I want it to be in a month? We make a bet, increase, decrease or change nothing, and then we take stock the following month. Even if we made a mistake, it's not too serious, because we can adapt the rations for the next check." In his daily work, the nutritionist soon came to the conclusion that it was the grooms who often had the sharpest sense of observation: "They really know how to observe a horse. If the riders and grooms work together to think about feeding the horse according to the work it's going to be asked, that's ideal." And as Dr. Charles Barre sums up: "It's the people's thinking that makes the difference in the end."

Giulia Martinengo Marquet

We first met Giulia Martinengo Marquet in 2019 for a major report (read it here). She is a member of the first Italian team and that same year she achieved superb tour results during the Europeans in Rotterdam. She told us about her method for keeping her horses fit during the winter break: "I make a big distinction between young or new mounts and experienced horses. The experienced horses get a real break of one month to six weeks. They don't see a single pole, not even one on the ground. On the other hand, I want to keep them in shape because I think stopping them completely is worse than anything else. I try to vary the work as much as possible so that they can keep their spirits up. When the conditions allow it, they go into the meadow as much as possible. If that's not possible, I let them free in the riding arena so they can roll around and relax. While I don't usually need to pay attention to the clock, I keep an eye on it in the winter, because I want to make sure I'm still working them long enough. When riding in an arena, you tend to do less work, especially if the arena is not very big. I often extend my work time with a ride at the beginning or end of the session. On the other hand, for young horses or horses that have just joined my stable, I take advantage of this quieter period to work more intensely. It is the perfect opportunity to focus on precise exercises and make them progress quickly. Nevertheless, for the more experienced horses, I make sure that they get out and move around a lot during this period. For the older horses, it is also a good time to pay attention to their welfare. For example, you can take more time with the osteopath. Mash is also provided more often because they tend to drink less in winter but this is no big secret, you have to stay basic." With Italy not having secured a place in the next Olympic Games, Giulia Martinengo Marquet is focusing her winter work on the 2021 European Championships. Our bet is that she’ll be one of the riders to follow next season!

Photo credit: Clément Grandjean

AuthorOriane Grandjean