Identifying Your Horse’s Work Level

How to Identify Your Horse’s Work Level

It is not uncommon for a horse owner to think that their horse’s workload is higher than it actually is. Identifying the horse’s work level is not an exact science and can be challenging. Overestimating a horse’s workload and then overfeeding will cause the horse to gain weight. Underfeeding causes weight loss. These scenarios emphasize the importance of having the skill to body condition score. What and how much you feed also determines if the horse is adequately and properly fueled. How to Determine What to Feed your Horse is a good starting point with things to consider.

The Four Work Levels Defined

The National Research Council’s 2007 Nutrient Requirements of Horses identifies four work levels, Light, Moderate, Heavy and Very Heavy. These categories can be used to estimate the energy demands above maintenance requirements which are 20, 40, 60 & 90% respectively. There are formulas that will mathematically estimate energy requirements, but that is perhaps more of an academic exercise for most people compared to the nuts & bolts of feeding for performance. For example the formula for a Moderate working horse, DE (Mcal/d) = (0.0333 x BW) x 1.40. DE is Digestible Energy, Mcal is Megacalories and BW is Body Weight in kg (kilograms) not pounds.

The type of events for the NRC categories are listed as:

  • Light: recreational riding, beginning training, show horses (occasional)
  • Moderate: school horses, recreational riding, breaking/training, show horses (frequent), polo, ranch
  • Heavy: ranch work, polo, show horses (very frequent), low-medium level eventing, race training
  • Very Heavy: racing, 3-day eventing

The NRC makes a good effort to categorized workloads but there are a multitude of intangibles that influence energy expenditures. The NRC also provides descriptions for each category relative to number of hours worked and percentage of time worked at walk, trot, and canter. Their listing of event types is generalized and an expanded description of these categories is provided in the table below.

Horses that are maintenance fed are also listed since energy recommendations are in reference to “Above Maintenance”. Also listed in the far right column are the Integrity formulas to consider for each working horse category.


Life Cycle Stage

Integrity Formula

Maintenance Companion, inactive/slightly active adult, retired pleasure/show, aged seniors, “weekend” pleasure Lite
Light Work Light pleasure, pleasure-trail, halter, long-line, horses transitioning to moderate work levels, horses in recovery, working horses during a maintenance interval Lite
Moderate Work Show, equitation, youth competition, hunter on-the-flat, lower level hunter over-fences, lower level endurance, some ranch working-type events, some game horses Adult/Senior
( ↑ fat, add Rice Bran)
Intense Work Ranch work, cutting, barrel, roping, competitive show, competitive endurance, competitive hunter over fences, open jumpers, lower level polo, competitive game horses Performance
Adult/Senior with Rice Bran
Timothy with Rice Bran
Heavy Work Racing, elite 3-day eventer, some open jumpers, elite polo Performance
( ↑ fat, add Rice Bran)

Horses are fed to maintain their bodyweight/conditioning based on how the horse is used. Body Condition Scoring is a useful tool to one’s experience to determine if the feeding program is working.