This article originally appeared in the Las Cruces Bulletin on Nov. 20, 2015
In the wild, a horse would be in near constant motion — foraging for food, finding water and running from predators. His body is designed to be in motion. In a natural condition, he might sleep only four hours out of 24. Herd mates would take turns watching over sleeping companions.
When we place a horse in a stall or small pen, we take away his ability to move extensively and this can be quite detrimental to his health over time. The equine hoof is a small, complex structure that actually pumps blood back up the leg when the horse is in motion. Muscle movement keeps the lymph flowing and the lymphatic system operating, which moves toxins through the body toward elimination.
Heart and lungs require exercise to remain functioning properly. If we restrict the horse’s natural movement, we will need to provide other ways to exercise him and keep him healthy.
Simple turn out in a large field can create exercise, especially if this is with a group of other horses. A single horse in turn out might simply stand around, so I like to put his water at the far end and, if I feed him there, make three or four piles of hay spread out over the entire field.
If a horse is ridden regularly, he should get some good exercise from it. Long, stretching walks on the trail are one of the most beneficial forms of riding. This is especially true if there are up and down hill parts on the ride.
Longeing is a form of exercise and training in which the horse circles the handler on a long rope — called a longe line — attached to the head collar or halter, working equally in each direction. The handler uses a longe whip (we like to call them “wands”) as an extension of her arm to point at the horse’s body and either send him forward around the circle by pointing at his haunches or send him further out into the circle by pointing at his shoulder.
Some horse people free longe horses in a round pen without a line attached to the horse. If this exercise is accomplished without aggressively chasing the horse, it can be a training aid as well as a form of needed exercise.
The horse that has a chance to move around on a daily basis is more dependable under saddle and less likely to “let off steam” at the sight of another horse running or a blowing plastic bag.
Exercise also promotes what we call “gut motility” in the horse, meaning, it keeps things moving through the horse’s digestive system. Horses are prone to episodes of colic — which can become deadly — when their digestion slows or they do not drink enough water. Exercise encourages water consumption and the movement keeps the intestines active.
Some of us who have more than one horse can ride out on the trail on a steady mount while leading (it is called “ponying”) another horse. This exercises two at once, but the rider must be experienced and the ridden horse must be very calm.
There are a lot of options for keeping a horse moving. The important thing is just do it, just keep the exercise as a priority. The horse in motion is a horse that can be healthy, both physically and mentally.
Horses need to keep in motion in order to be healthy. Regular exercise keeps the horse’s lymphatic system moving and improves “gut motility,” which can prevent colic.
Photo by Katharine Lark Chrisley