COVID-19/SARS-CoV-2 does not infect horses but the lives and welfare of horses are being impacted nonetheless. They are collateral damage in the need to impose social distancing to slow the spread of the virus.
Across the country and around the world, events from sales to races to shows are cancelled. Riding programs in schools are closed. Access to private barns and lessons is limited and staggered in some areas while others have been locked down completely except for staff.
There have been no reports of shortages of basic supplies and horses are having their core care needs met. Exercise and training are another story. With limited people and only so many hours a day, exercise can be greatly curtailed leading to both immediate and potential future issues.
To avoid weight gain and possible digestive upset, the diets of all horses must be adjusted. The following are the average caloric decreases that need to be made depending on the horse’s previous level of activity:
- Light activity: Reduce by 17%
- Moderate activity: Reduce by 28%
- Heavy activity: Reduce by 38%
- Very heavy activity: Reduce by 52%
Those are for horses going from the listed levels of exercise to turnout only. For a different change in activity, subtract the reductions – e.g. from moderate exercise to light = 28% – 17% = 11% reduction in calories.
The easiest way to do this is to reduce everything fed by the same %, so a horse starting with 5 pounds of grain and 15 pounds of hay would go to 4.5 pounds of grain and 13.5 pounds of hay with a 10% reduction. Another option, which keeps the horses happier, is to substitute hay for grain after you calculate the reductions.
Since grain is more calorie dense, instead of a pound of commercial grain mix you can feed 2.5 pounds of hay. In the above example, replacing the 4.5 pounds of grain with hay would give the horse an extra 4.5 x 2.5 = 11.25 pounds of hay! That’s a good bit of diversionary chew time for a bored horse.
For mental health of all horses, the goal should be a bare minimum of 20 minutes of turnout once or twice a day. This is the average amount of time a stallbound horse will spend running, bucking and rolling before settling down.
The loss of regular exercise can have more serious consequences for horses with metabolic syndrome and muscular disorders where exercise is an important part of helping their metabolism function normally. Restricted exercise is also more serious for seniors who can lose muscle mass and develop joint stiffness quickly. Every effort should be made to provide more than minimum turnout or formal lunging for these groups.
Finally, remember that when restrictions are lifted and activities/competitions resume, your horse won’t be as physically ready as he should be if exercise was interrupted. Better to miss a season than risk hurting the horse.
Eleanor Kellon, VMD