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Horse Conditioning: Taking off excess weight and getting fit

Last updated: December 7, 2022

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

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Getting your horse fit enough to enjoy a long trail ride or part-take in a riding clinic is essential so that both you and our horse can enjoy the experience. But sometimes, we need to assess the horse’s weight and look at taking the fat off before moving on to any form of conditioning.

Horses that need to lose weight must be placed on a low-calorie-controlled diet that replaces high carbohydrates and sugars with high fiber and high oil diets. Taking off weight and getting a horse fit should be done gradually and over time for the best results.

When you look at horse conditioning, the whole picture, from feeding to workout programs, needs to be looked at. Understanding the benefits of taking off excess weight and gradually getting a horse fit for competitions is vital for the horse’s well-being and for preventing unnecessary injuries.

Picture of a horse on a walking wheel, this is one method we use for horse conditioning,

The Benefits Of Horse Conditioning

Conditioning your horse not only prepares it to be at its peak performance for competitions, but it’s also crucial for the horse’s health and well-being. Conditioning is an ongoing process that pushes the horse to become fitter and increase its stamina and endurance.

  • Reduces Weight
  • Fitness
  • Increased blood and oxygen flow
  • Larger heart muscle
  • Improves heat regulation system
  • Improves health
  • Improves heart rate
  • Reduced lactic acids in the joints
  • Improves bone mass and density
  • Reduces injuries

The importance of correct conditioning of horses results in many benefits. Excess weight is gradually lost, putting less strain on the horse’s joints, ligaments, and bones, reducing the risk of injuries.

Conditioning increases the horse’s fitness with gradual increments in exercise every five days. As a result, the horse’s body has time to get used to the strain and pushes its boundaries further every time.

Fitness increases the blood and oxygen flow, building tiny capillaries in the muscles that help bring oxygenated blood directly to the muscles and tissue to delay fatigue.

This increased network of small veins and capillaries also helps the horse regulate body heat to prevent heat exertion that may result in the horse collapsing.

With the increase of veins, the body can also get rid of waste from the body faster, reducing the lactic acids and joint stiffness.

Conditioning also improves and enlarges the heart muscles, allowing more blood and a stronger flow of blood to be circulated throughout the body. This helps the horse maintain stamina and provides the body with energy through aerobic and anaerobic processes.

Another benefit is the improvement of the horse’s health, reducing the risk of diseases and illnesses. Conditioning improves the horse’s heart rate and the speed at which the horse can recover after a workout.

During conditioning, small stresses on ligaments and bones occur, improving the density and mass of these supporting structures and reducing the risk of injuries and bone fractures.

We turned a couple of horses out after breaking and riding them for 60 days. We typically leave them in a pasture for 60-90 days and then bring them back for more training.

When we brought one back this year, he was fat and unhealthy looking. While our vet was at the barn checking a different horse, I asked the vet to look at the new arrival and tell me what he thought of him.

He thought the horse looked fine and just needed to get on a healthy diet and exercise routine; however, he warned against pushing the horse and recommended patience.

Picture of a two year old thoroughbred horse.

How To Take Off Excess Weight In A Healthy Way

When horses are overweight, they face several health risk factors like laminitis, oxidative stress, insulin and glucose irregularities, and heart conditions to name a few. Therefore, eliminating excess weight should be done slowly and gradually over several months, combining low-caloric food and exercise.


Start a low-strain exercise routine to get your horse active by walking for thirty minutes with a bit of trotting in between. Allow the horse to gradually build up stamina, muscles, and conditioning over a period of time, increasing your workout time every five to seven days.

Try to do different things daily. For example, changing it up by adding a lunging session or going for a trail ride with your horse can significantly affect its fitness as it navigates the terrain.

Reduce Caloric Food Intake

Evaluate the horse’s food and chaff. Then, reduce the protein percentage and split the food into smaller quantities throughout the day.

Horses should ideally eat about one and a half percent of their body weight to maintain a slow and steady weight loss. This includes hay, chaff, and vitamin supplements.

Remember to reduce their food gradually by no more than ten percent over a period of time. Do not cut their food and leave them starving.

Try substituting high starch and sugar chaff for high fiber and high oil foods.

Below is a YouTube video from the University of Minnesota that explains how to care for overweight horses.

YouTube video

Look At Forage

Feed the right type of hay for your overweight horse and ensure to find out its carbohydrates and sugar levels. If your hay is high and sugar and carbs, you can fill a hay net with it and let it soak in water for four hours; this will seep out sugars and carbohydrates from the grass.

Feeding mature hay will provide your horse with a higher fiber content. The higher fiber also helps slow down the rate of feed intake as it takes longer to ferment in the horse’s gut.

Another way to slow down your horse’s ability to empty out its hay net within the hour is to double net with two hay nets. This reduces the holes in the nets and prevents your horse from taking big chomps out, making the hay last longer for them to eat.

Adding Vitamins And Minerals

Supplementing your horse with vitamins and minerals for a well-balanced diet is essential.

Reduce Grazing

Horses are trickle grazers grazing throughout the day. Allowing them free range on the new sweet grass patch for the season gives you little control over how much they eat.

Turn them out in bare paddocks to prevent overgrazing with hay nets in opposite corners to mimic grazing patterns and to give them some exercise.

Another option is finding a good quality grazing muzzle that can reduce the intake of grazing by eighty percent. I recommend GREENGUARD Grazing Muzzle, it’s expensive, but it’s better than the others.

Picture of a young horse heading to the training track for conditioning.

Getting Your Horse Fit For Competition

Getting your horse fit for competitions is discipline-specific. Still, the basics are the same for most horses; each horse is an individual, so training can vary from horse to horse.

Building a training program with your instructor is a great starting point to ensure you meet your goals for when the competition season starts. Each disciple will have their own exercise target to get the horse fit for their specific event.

However, here are five things any horse can do to get fitter before competing.

Lunging And Long Reining

Lunging is a great way to build up a horse’s fitness level. However, because lunging is done on a circle, it can prove to be quite strenuous on the horse. So remember to lung on a big circle in trot work, with plenty of walking rests in between, and keep your sessions to thirty minutes or less.

Long reining is another excellent way to train the horse without putting weight on its back. This allows you to do more flexing and lateral work, getting the horse out of the circles.

Trail Rides

Although trail rides sound more like a pleasure ride than a workout, you can use the change of scenery as a training aid. Use trail rides to get the horse accustomed to obstacles and conditions outside his comfort zone.

Trail rides are a great way to increase the horse’s stamina by doing a lot of gait changes between trotting and walking to rest before picking up the trot again.

You can increase your sessions and the duration of trot work as the horse becomes fitter. Eventually, you can incorporate some canter as well to increase his stamina.

Incorporate Hill Work

Incorporating hill work into the horse’s workout can be a great way to build muscle and increase fitness.

Start with gentle slopes at a walk, gently increasing the speed and gait before repeating the steps with each steeper hill you find.

Just as going up a hill is a great way to work and build muscle and increase strength. In addition, downhills have their own benefits in working different parts of the horse.

Interval Training

Eventers often apply interval training, but any horse can benefit from this type of workout.

Interval training replaces your standard workout with short bursts of highly intense periods of canter followed by walking and stretching rest periods. As the horse becomes fitter, increase the canter sessions and reduce the rest periods.

Ground Polls And Cavalettis

Even dressage horses can benefit from some ground poles or small Cavalettis to encourage the lifting of the legs. This also works for different muscle groups.

Apart from the physical benefit, it also helps with coordination and provides the horse with alternate exercises that keep its mind focused.

Picture of a fit horse,

Supplements And Nutrition For Horses In Training

Training horses need five essential nutrients to perform and maintain their condition: energy, protein, minerals and vitamins, salt, and water.

If a horse has reached the desired weight and is in training, it should be fed approximately two percent of its body weight to maintain a healthy weight. This ratio should be split up over the day with a minimum of two feedings of concentrates divided between morning and afternoon.

Extra vitamins and minerals are not needed when a horse is provided with good grazing or green forage. Salt should be freely available to the horse to replenish electrolytes lost during sweating and exercise.

A healthy diet should supply all your horse’s needs. However, there are individual horses that benefit from supplements. We are feeding our underweight horse a weight-gain supplement called Farnam Weight Builder. It is a good brand, but there are quite a few good options.

Ways To Reduce The Risk Of Injury While Horse Conditioning

You need to know and understand certain things to reduce the risk of injuries while conditioning your horse and getting ready for competitions.

Correctly Fitting Tack And Saddle

Before you start riding, you should have your tack checked and evaluated on the horse by a professional saddle fitter. Making sure your saddle fits will help condition the horse and prevent the horse from pain and resistance.

Warm Up And Cool Down

Just like humans, horses should be given a warm-up period to loosen the muscles, stretch and warm up tendons and ligaments before being asked to go straight into a high-intensity workout.

Cool-downs are just as important. They allow the horse to stretch and loosen muscles that have contracted. Again, it provides them a chance to recover after the workout, reducing their heart rate and letting their breathing return to normal.

We use polar heart monitors on horses; this allows us to document their heart rates when working and also how long it takes to cool down. If a horse’s heart rate stays above 50 bpm for more than 15-20 minutes after strenuous exercise, he’s out of shape, and you may need to contact a vet and cut back on his training.

Create A Conditioning Program

Conditioning takes time and needs to be gradually increased as the horse’s fitness increases. Setting up a program and monitoring your horse’s progress will give you the information you need to know whether to increase the workload or continue at the same level.

Increasing the workload on a horse that cannot handle the extra stress or is not fit enough to handle the extra work can have grave consequences. Start by walking your horse thirty minutes a day, three times a week for a month. If you notice improvement add 10 minutes of trotting and gradually increase its workload.


Getting your horse into shape is fundamental for its health and well-being. Get rid of excess weight with a well-balanced diet and exercise program before conditioning your horse to be ready for competitions. Each horse should be treated as an individual, and his nutrition and fitness program should be tailored to his needs.