Your horse just had a fabulous workout, got really sweaty, and used up a lot of energy. Now what does he want you to do?

A) Put him back in his stall or paddock and say, “Good job, Buck. Lunch’ll be ready in an hour.”

B) Load him up in the trailer and head for home, where plenty of food and water is waiting for him.

C) Feed and water him right away, and give him plenty of time to finish his food.

Italian researchers say that while many riders tend to practice the first two techniques, it might be time to switch to the final option in order to keep their horses happiest.

“Horses should eat and drink after intense exercise and racing, but in reality most horses fast and travel before a race and receive food when they come back home,” said Barbara Padalino, PhD, researcher at the University of Bari Aldo Moro Veterinary School, in Bari, Italy. “Or, in some stables, feeding time is scheduled and not in accordance with the training plan,” she added. “The caretaker feeds all animal at the same time. So the horse that raced at 11 a.m. must wait until 1 p.m. for food!”

In her study Padalino and fellow researchers followed 12 Standardbred harness racing mares for two months as they performed basic training (essentially, a control group), sprint training, and racing. After exercise the horses returned to their individual stalls, and the researchers evaluated the mares’ physical parameters (heart rate, respiratory rate, and rectal temperature) and behavior. The team observed the latter for four hours over several intervals following exercise.

They found that these horses, which were in good health, returned to normal physical parameters within an hour after exercise. If mares raced or performed intense (sprint) exercise, they spent most of the first hour eating and drinking and rarely lay down or rested. In the following hour the horses urinated frequently (probably because of all the intense drinking in the first hour, Padalino said), and after that they rested. There were no signs of depression or unwanted behavior such as cribbing, which indicates that the horses were “well adapted” to their situation. However, Padalino added, the frequent presence of humans interacting with the horses (grooming, cleaning, feeding, etc.) and the horses’ young age (between 3 and 5 years old) might have made the horses less likely to be “bored” or develop bad habits.

This study provides a basis for what owners should expect in healthy, content sport horses after exercise, Padalino said. Scientists call this an “ethogram”—a list of typical, expected behaviors and physical parameters that define what’s “normal” for horses in certain situations. As such, Padalino said it’s clear that exercised horses should be allowed to eat and drink immediately after cooling down in order to restore the lost water and energy. If that doesn’t fit your stable’s organization, she added, it’s time for your organization to evolve.

“To improve welfare, we should try to adapt horse management to the horse’s behavioral needs and not to the humans’ needs,” she told The Horse.

Likewise, if a horse isn’t interested in eating or drinking after intense exercise, there could be something amiss. “Watch the animal after exercise,” she said. “Frequently there’s a lot of attention to horses before exercise or a race or competition, but not after”

Strenuous exercise and racing are more likely to lead to health problems than just light exercise, she said, so it’s particularly important to watch horses after an intense workout.

“Any abnormal behavior after strenuous exercise could be a red flag for a possible risk,” Padalino said. “We should always observe our animals, but it is really important after intense exercise.”

The study, “The Effect of Different Types of Physical Exercise on the Behavioural and Physiological Parameters of Standardbred Horses Housed in Single Stalls,” was published in Veterinary Medicine International.