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The benefits of giving your horse some time off

Equine vet Lucinda Ticehurst examines the benefits of horses having a holiday and the best equine candidates for a spell away from work
The benefits of giving your horse some time off

In some parts of the world, resting horses is termed ‘spelling’: horses going out to pasture for a spell. This is the equivalent of humans going on holiday: a time to refresh mentally as well as repair and recharge physically. I think it is a great term.

Vets are often expected to have a magic wand that fixes all. We don’t. We have many procedures, medications and management plans that can help but sometimes you just can’t beat conservative management with rest and recuperation. There is no substitute. However, we need to make sure this is done in the right way, for the right amount of time, for the right issues and the right individuals.

It is beneficial for most horses to have a large block of time off of at least eight to 12 weeks. All horses will get wear and tear, no matter what discipline they are involved in, and a prolonged holiday allows healing time. When I train my own horses, I am very conscious of the fitness versus fatigue dilemma.

I think that having a ‘resetting’ time allows for the body as a whole to recover and for horses to restart training with minimal fatigue and damage. Those are expected to be very active and under high demand athletically should benefit physically and mentally and be more able to face their next challenge after a break.

The young, developing horse is most in need of regular holidays. These allow growth plates to develop and close at the appropriate time and musculoskeletal maturity and optimum health to be established, as well as enabling them to work out life without constant mental pressure.

Time off or ‘spelling’ is not a good idea for all horses

The older horse will have greater wear and tear, is likely to be carrying old injuries and have a degree of degenerative joint disease that may well have progressed into osteoarthritis. In some cases, maintaining low intensity and high frequency work may be beneficial for keeping the joints mobile. For example, daily light hacking rather than weekly jumping.

Maintaining muscle mass can also sometimes benefit certain injuries too. For instance, sacroiliac pathology becomes more apparent in the unfit animal, often seen when racehorses finish their training and are then rested. Depending on any other injuries, a reduction in work rather than a cessation may be better.

The same would apply to a larger, heavy horse that is prone to early-onset joint disease. Minimal fast and intense work improves longevity alongside muscle maintenance, retaining a good and not excessive bodyweight and frequent shorter rests.

Nor may a prolonged holiday be what the doctor ordered for horses prone to obesity. Decreased metabolic demand through a reduction in exercise could result in weight gain. However, winter can be a great metabolic reset by utilising the colder, harsher weather and drop in grass quality to keep your horse moving and losing some weight. So, a full roughing off situation can work really well. It is nice for horses to be horses and they tolerate bad weather much better than us as their hind gut fermenter acts as a heater.

And then there are those buzzy horses that seem to need constant mental stimulation and may not enjoy time off and end up injuring themselves. Instead of a full holiday they could focus on light hacks or pole work to keep them entertained. However, most horse should settle in the right environment and often thrive in a natural herd environment rather than isolation.

How quickly do horses lose fitness?

There will start to be a drop in fitness from as early as one week of rest but horses don’t truly let themselves down until at least six weeks’ rest when the body is then really able to heal.

If you don't want to completely turn your horse away, how else can you give your horse a 'break' from intense work and competition without losing fitness or making them prone to injury?

Hill work, aqua treadmill, swimming, a change in discipline – these are all ideas to consider. But, for me, you can’t beat a good, long hack over different terrain on a nice loose rein to mentally refresh a horse. Horse walkers are often used to give the horse a leg stretch from a stable without them having to carry a rider. However, these can do the opposite of rest, contributing to repetitive stress injuries that may not be apparent immediately but may well end up shortening your horse’s working career. A horse is very poorly designed to walk in small circles.

There are many reasons why owners and vets might not consider giving a horse a holiday, including a ticking clock on an insurance policy without lifetime cover that limits the time problems can be investigated and possibly treated before becoming excluded. When we advise rest, vets are not shying away from treating your horse but utilising nature’s ‘spell’. And sometimes that is when the magic happens.

Top tips for a safe and efficient ‘spelling’

  • Don’t suddenly turn away a fit horse with a sudden change of diet and routine as this could predispose it to colic. A gradual reduction and change of management would be better.
  • Make sure you surely check your horse daily even if it is not in work: don’t just leave your horse in a field with a rug on. Rugs need to be removed daily.
  • Be prepared to gradually get your horse fit after a holiday: short cuts and over-speedy fitness programmes predispose horses to injury.
  • Facilities need to be suitable.
  • Let the horse be a horse and don’t over rug or over feed.
  • Always seek veterinary advice if you have any concerns.


To find out more about Lucinda, please visit www.ltequinevet.co.uk

About the Author

BSc BVMed Sci Hons BVM BVS MRCVS. Lucinda is an equine vet, born with a passion for horses and helping horse owners.

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