Show Ponies: Keeping Them Fit Not Fat

Charlotte Stanley BVSc MRCVS shares her top tips for getting your animal in optimal show condition ahead of the competition season.

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As the showing discipline evolved, the stigma that the ‘fattest’ animal wins became very much a reality. Fortunately, show organisers, judges and competitors are becoming more conscious of animal welfare, we now look to campaign for the ‘fit not fat’. Charlotte Stanley BVSc MRCVS shares her top tips for getting your animal in optimal show condition ahead of the competition season.

Preparation Is Key

Many think that you can drag your horse/pony out the field two weeks before the season starts; but for us preparation starts months ahead of time. Developing muscle and condition takes much longer than simply ‘banging on the weight’. Plan your season way in advance and allow yourself months not weeks to get your steed into the desired condition.

Fitness First

At affiliated and county shows the rings can be quite some size and the initial go rounds can be lengthy ensuring the judge has chance to look at all of the competitors. It is very frustrating to be pulled to the top of the line only to find your mount is too tired to perform the individual showpiece to the best of their ability. Show horses need to be fit and have good stamina, a class can be won
or lost based on the quality of a gallop; carrying too many extra pounds will most certainly make life more difficult for them.

Hacking is a very effective way to improve your horse/pony’s fitness. Exercising over a lengthened period of time helps to build up muscle and strength. To get the most out of hacking, use it as a form of interval training – where it is safe to do so include short bursts of higher intensity work such as trotting or cantering. Finding routes with hills will also be of benefit, helping to develop the gluteal muscles to get that desirable ‘peachy bum’.

Strengthening The Core

In order for show animals to ‘ping’ around the ring they need to engage their core. Strengthening the abdominal muscles will make it easier for them to transfer their weight onto the hindquarters. Engaging the hind end will make them lighter in front, giving a much more finished picture and giving the judge that armchair ride.

Exercises to improve core strength include:

  • Tummy Lifts – apply pressure using your hands on the midline where your horse’s girth would sit and hold for 10-15 seconds. This should encourage them to raise their backs and hold in their abdominal muscles (similar to doing a sit up in humans).
  • Carrot Stretches – using carrots or treats as incentives encourage your horse/pony to stretch towards their flanks without moving their feet. This will help to stretch and strengthen over the lumbar back (behind the saddle area).

Building Up Topline

Topline is a group of muscles that runs from the poll, down the neck then over the back and rump and is often referred to when talking about show condition; however it is often confused with cresty necks and fat pads over the loin. All horses have to build up topline – they don’t achieve it by sitting in a field or eating lots of concentrate. Topline is developed over time with the correct training both on the lunge and ridden.

Working the horse long and low is a tried and tested way to build topline. Training aids, such as the pessoa, when fitted correctly can assist in encouraging this long and low frame, engaging the hindquarters and improve topline.

Trotting poles are also a great tool for developing muscle. Not only do they encourage the horse to use his hindquarters to propel themselves through the poles but they also ask the horse to reach into the contact as they look at the poles on the floor. Start with the poles relatively close together and as your horse becomes more athletic increase to the distance between the poles.

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