Feeding and Fitting Young Horses for Show and Sale, Part Two: Fitting ToolsBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · May 6, 2011
The essentials of fitting show and sale horses really only start with the feed bucket. Hair quality and athletic appearance are crucial if a professional appearance is to be achieved. The exercise program that one uses to get horses fit may be very different from farm to farm and indeed even from horse to horse.
The most useful tool on a sales prep or training operation is a covered round pen (yard). The pen should be a minimum of 15 meters (50 feet) in diameter. The ground surface needs to be very forgiving and absorb concussion effectively. The surface should be a minimum of 6 inches (15 centimeters) deep. If this kind of forgiving surface is used, the occurrence of splints and other exercise-related blemishes is minimized. Even though the preference is for a covered longeing ring, an open-topped round pen can be effective in some parts of the country, especially with a little thought about drainage prior to construction of the pen. It should be pointed out that there are many uses for covered round pens. Mares and foals can spend their first day out of the stall in these structures, especially in inclement weather; they can be used for postsurgical turnouts and turnouts for horses off the track before they go to larger pastures or paddocks; stallions can be exercised in them; and if tanbark is used as a surface, they make excellent breeding sheds.
Once the exercise area is built, design of the exercise program is the next order of business. A free- longeing or loose-line exercise program is popular. It is critical that the person doing the longeing understands the importance of controlling the session. If a longe line is used, it should remain loose and no pressure should be placed on the horse's head. When the head is pulled to the center of the circle, undue pressure is put on the inside leg and there is a much greater chance of popping splints. Horses should be outfitted in protective bandages or splint boots.
It is best to start horses on the longeing program at the walk, but breaking into a jog or trot is not a reason to worry. The initial session will be five minutes duration in each direction. It is crucial that horses be worked the same amount of time in both directions every time that they work. Over a period of a week you can work weanlings up to seven minutes both directions and yearlings up to 10 minutes both directions. Always start in each direction with a minute of walking and then move to a long trot. A square, two-beat trot is safer and easier on the legs than is the canter.
Other possibilities for exercise techniques include hand-walking, ponying, swimming, and using a mechanical walker or treadmill. The traditional method of choice for fitting Thoroughbred yearlings is hand-walking. It appears that often the main fitness achieved using this method occurs in the person doing the walking rather than in the horse. However, there are some horses that for one reason or another cannot take a more rigorous exercise program. You also need to teach a horse to walk so that it strides out while under the watchful eye of the potential purchaser at the sales. Horses are walked from 20 minutes to an hour each at a brisk walk and up and down hills when possible. One positive aspect of hand-walking is that the horses are really taught to lead!
Mechanical horse walkers are becoming popular as they are labor-saving devices that allow the young horses to get more work than if they were hand-walked. One disadvantage of the walker is the tendency for horses that have been fit on a walker to drag along when being led. Treadmills are great tools if used judiciously. Horses can be prepped effectively on the treadmill at the walk and trot and the newer, high-speed treadmills are fairly easy on a horse's legs. When using a treadmill for fitting yearlings or show horses, begin with sessions of five minutes. If the treadmill is adjustable, a 6% incline is appropriate. One observation concerning the use of the treadmill is the tendency for horses to roll their shoulders rather than really breaking cleanly over and bending their knees.
As with any exercise method, one should be alert to changes in the feet and legs that may indicate an impending soundness problem or blemish. Common problems that necessitate reducing workload or backing completely off the exercise program include splints, windgalls, thoroughpins, joint swelling, active physitis, foot soreness, tendonitis, or any signs of lameness. It is essential that horses receiving a great deal of feed be exercised every day. People seem to think that tying-up is strictly a problem affecting performance horses, but there are a significant number of halter horses experience tying-up due to the large starch intakes that are characteristic for these horses and the tendency for people to skip exercise days.
During and after an exercise bout is an ideal time to work on conformational deficits. Horses with thick, cresty necks should be exercised in a neck sweat and then be tied in the stall after exercise for a cooling-out period. The shape of a horse's neck and therefore the balance of a horse can be improved significantly using a sweat. Another quite useful tool for fitting horses is a set of side reins and a surcingle. Horses with thin, weedy necks or ewe necks (horses that appear to have their necks put on upside down, thin on top and thick on the bottom) should be exercised in side reins. This makes the horse arch the neck and can significantly change the appearance of the shoulders and neck. When reins are first used they should be adjusted loosely and only after the horse has worn them a couple of times should they be adjusted more tightly.
Now for the most important and most neglected part of fitting the horse: grooming. If a really good hair coat is to be achieved, horses must be groomed vigorously on a daily basis, although use of some supplements can cut down grooming time. Immediately following exercise is a good time for an initial grooming. If you don't sweat grooming a horse, then you're probably not doing a good job! The best tool for the job is a small, flexible rubber currycomb. The horse should be thoroughly and vigorously curried all over the body and then a medium soft brush should be used followed by a rub rag. Give a horse a bath with plain water daily and use a mild soap once a week. Manes should be washed and unruly manes should be braided or banded to get them to lie down. Tails should not be brushed unless they are completely dry. Usually once a horse is fit the only time the tail is really picked and brushed thoroughly is on the morning of a show. Yearlings and weanlings that are turned out in groups should have their tails treated with something that is unpalatable to other yearlings (e.g., certain anti-cribbing preparations are useful for this). There is nothing that detracts more from the balance and symmetry of a show or sale weanling or yearling than a chewed-off tail.
Regular foot care is also a must for young horses. By convention, Thoroughbred sales horses are shod in front and left barefoot behind with the exception of weanlings, which are sold barefoot and two-year-old in-training horses, which are sold completely shod. Even though biotin, zinc and methionine supplementation may help some horses with bad feet, nothing can take the place of regular trimming.
Preparing a future athlete is incredibly hard work, but it is achievable with superior nutrition and a carefully planned exercise and grooming program.