‘but my horse is in work.’

We hear this a lot.

Let’s take a closer look at what ‘work’ really is. Though we’ll start from the right place.



activity requiring physical effort, carried out to sustain or improve health and fitness.

Movement = Exercise.


Before we even begin to look at any extra exercise you are giving your horse, we are going to consider all ‘MOVEMENT’ first. This is crucial, and I’ll explain why once we’ve done some maths.

Horses in their natural environment will often travel 10 to 20 miles per day, just for food and water. They have been recorded travelling much further distances over difficult terrain. Though we’ll look at one study to find a benchmark. (The first one Google brought up)

Monitoring distances travelled by horses using GPS tracking collars

(BA Hampson,a * JM Morton,a PC Mills,a MG Trotter,b DW Lambb and CC Pollitta)


This study found domestic horses contained in a good size paddock (smallest being 2 acres) travelled 7.5km per day. Wild horses in a natural environment travelled 17.9km per day. Almost 2 and a half times the distance of the domestic horses, and over varying terrain including hills. – Its worth also noting the feral horses were not grazing paddock grass. They were browsing and foraging on a broad variety of low calorie fibre. Grasses, bark, legumes, twigs seeds etc

Here’s the crucial point. What this tells us is very important for our horses health and I want you to remember this if you wonder why it’s so hard to keep the weight off your horse.

When considering workload, if your horse is kept in a paddock – or worse still contained in a stable for long periods of time, they already have a deficit in the movement they require. In a track race, your horse is 250m behind everyone else at the blocks! You would potentially need to ensure they get an extra 10k of travel per day, (or equivalent exercise) to even be at the same starting point of the horse who looks fabulous nibbling twigs and stalky grasses all day.

This means if your horse is in light work, they are still not getting the exercise they were designed for. I use the word ‘designed’ intentionally here, because the horse is simple creature, perfectly designed to eat and move almost constantly. In their natural environment, be that a Welsh hill side an Irish marsh land or a Scottish mountain – they are experts at getting the balance right with calories in versus calories out. The seasonal weight fluctuations keep the metabolism in tune, to make the most of what little they find in winter and accommodate for the excess they find in summer. Our domesticated horses are still made this way. If we interfere with this balance, we MUST compensate for that with diet and exercise. If we do not compensate, the horse WILL suffer physically and psychologically. This is inevitable, and I believe this is the reason we are seeing a welfare crisis in equine obesity.

Movement is critical to the horse’s health and wellbeing. When considering workload, if your domesticated horse is already restricted in their paddock or stable, they are starting with a huge disadvantage.

I felt it was important to explain this as we receive a lot of questions about weight control and laminitis prevention and the subject of workload often comes up. Just as we see owners often underscore their horses when body fat scoring, we also see owners overestimate the amount of work their horses are getting. Often the daily natural movement doesn’t even meet the need to exhibit normal behavioural patterns. – Which by the way is part of the Animal Welfare Act 2006.

When we consider the workload of any particular horse, we must first consider the general management of that horse. Does the horse have free movement at home? If not, then we need to factor this in.

So now you have a better idea of where your horse is starting from, lets now consider the exercise we give them. Have a read through these categories and think about where your horse is.


Very Light Work.

Horses who hack out or are ridden lightly once or twice a week. This will cover most weekend hacking horses. The workload of these horses is unlikely to have any effect on weight control. (However, all exercise has a positive effect on your horse’s insulin sensitivity, so keep it going!)


Light Work.

Horses who work four or five times a week. Hacking or schooling for up to an hour with low jumping. Occasional RC level shows and lessons. These horses still don’t cover the mileage of their wild relatives, and a 100% forage diet is sufficient to provide the energy levels required. It’s this level which many owners misunderstand. Without prolonged fast work or muscle conditioning this workload should not require extra feed and it is only light work.


Medium work.

Horses in medium work may be schooling / fittening 5 times a week with additional competitions every week or two at a higher more technical and demanding level than RC. (E.g. BE Novice – jumping tracks over 1m) Also covers horses who hack for fitness with 30% of the work at canter and gallop with regular full days hunting or endurance riding. Introducing fast work at prolonged periods. At this level we are starting to put extra demands on the horse and asking for work which requires more energy. Not until this level of work do horses exceed the energy requirement of their wild relatives.


Hard work.

Horses in hard work may be working 6 days a week, up to 2 hours a day intensive schooling or fittening with 1 hour or more per week very fast work spread across work sessions. (Or equivalent intensive extreme work for dressage horses) These horses may be jumping at higher BS or BE levels with extra demands on their muscles and joints. These horses may be Racehorses, high level Endurance or Eventers. Horses regularly jumping tracks over 1.30m Also includes hunters who cover large distances for fitness and hunt twice a week.



Now, be honest with yourself. Where would you put your horse? Are you feeding appropriate to workload? Most often we find this means adjusting the feed down to the workload, not up. Remember where your horse is starting from. Are they already in exercise deficit?



Ellen Chapman

Trickle Net Founder