Horses can be just as prone to putting on weight as people can and it can be equally hard to get it off again.
It is natural for horses and ponies to put on weight over summer when food is plentiful and this is supposed to sustain them throughout the cold winter months when, in the wild, they would naturally lose any extra weight due to food scarcity. However we rug, shelter and continue to feed our domestic equines which is great for poor doers but which means that some go into the next season carrying too much weight.
So even though it can be difficult to assess how much weight a horse has gained when you see him every day you must nevertheless pay careful attention to how much he eats, particularly when it comes to fresh, lush grass, to ensure he doesn’t become obese and develop problems like laminitis.
A special note for owners of donkeys or mules
Experts at the Blue Cross have pointed out that although donkeys and mules are affected by obesity in the same way as horses and ponies they are more sensitive to problems caused by over-dieting. They advise therefore that owners should consult a specialist vet for advice before putting their animal on any kind of weight loss programme.
Horses are designed to eat constantly
The horse’s digestive system is designed to function on a constant supply of fibrous material which works to push out gas bubbles that form during the process of digestion and fermentation. If a horse is given less food to eat the accumulated gas can cause painful distension of the gut and colic. Withholding feed can also lead to hyperlipidaemia (high cholesterol). Another unwanted consequence of reducing the food supply could be the development of stereotypical behaviour like crib-biting, weaving or wind-sucking, all of which could be a by-product of excessive acidity in the gut due to reduced chewing. If a horse is not chewing he is not producing the saliva needed to neutralise any acidity. Ulcers and general discomfort can result from excess acidity; just one of the reasons to ensure your horse has a constant supply of chewable fibre.
Develop a regular weight reduction strategy
If your horse is a good doer you will definitely have something of a challenge on your hands when it comes to formulating a weight reduction and maintenance plan. Unlike humans, who can lose weight by simply not eating for a while, a horse should never be starved but should be given a constant supply, at least every few hours, of gut-healthy fibre and essential nutrients which can be provided by feeding pelleted vitamin and mineral supplements. For weight loss you should not give below 1.5% of the fibre ration or for weight maintenance aim for no less than 2-2.5%.
When a horse is on grass it is almost impossible to monitor his intake so you should consider alternatives like strip grazing or using a grazing muzzle to significantly reduce intake. If using a grazing muzzle for the first time start him off with short periods and gradually increase the time the horse wears it. Don’t leave it on all the time though and supervise him until you’re sure he accepts the muzzle without problems.
Forage as an alternative source of fibre
If you’re restricting access to grass you will need to give fibre in other ways. Hay is a good alternative source of fibre but it has fewer nutrients so it is advisable to also feed a pelleted balancer. These are a good way of providing the right nutritional balance of protein, essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals but without excess calories and are designed to be given in small quantities, either on their own or with a low calorie chaff. The amino acids in these are essential for the building and maintenance of good bone, muscle and hair plus a decent quality balancer will contain ‘digestive enhancers’ such as yeast culture and prebiotic. As these are meant to be fed in small quantities, typically around 100g per 100kg of bodyweight, their starch content is nothing to worry about. And if you are worrying whether or not you should feed your horse a handful of mix or cubes you should consider that these provide too few vitamins and minerals with too many calories.
If you favour hay forage as an alternative fibre source it is advised that you have it analysed to determine the levels of water-soluble carbohydrate (WSC) and starch, to assess its suitability for your horse. Ideally this should show a WSC level of less than 10%. You could use courser hay which is naturally lower in WSC but soaking it for 12-16 hours should reduce the content. However be aware that this can reduce the palatability and in warm weather can increase fermentation or bacterial growth.
Keep tabs on weight loss progress
As any vet will tell you it’s important to know a horse’s exact weight in order to measure accurate dosages of worming drugs. It’s difficult to measure weight-loss progress by sight alone so you should ideally have a weigh-tape handy if you don’t have access to a weighbridge. Use this at the same time every day, ideally weekly, and try to take a reading as the horse exhales for accuracy. If the horse is on grass part-time make sure you take a measurement reading before he goes out to graze.
Another way of assessing his weight is by actually feeling for fat deposits, a more effective method than simply looking at him. The easiest way to assess fat levels is by dividing the horse into three parts to determine his fat score – the neck and shoulders, the middle and the hindquarters. You can then work out an average score. If you are not sure how to do this then take a look at the Blue Cross and World Horse Welfare websites where you can find excellent instructions.
The importance of exercise
As any human dieter knows, the best way to lose weight and keep it off is by eating less and exercising more. And by putting your horse through an exercise programme you are sure to benefit just as much as he will. However it is advised that you build up any exercise routine carefully and gradually and work within the limits of the horse’s fitness level to avoid injury to him. If the horse is unable to be ridden you can always devise a series of in-hand exercises, either walking out on a long rein at a fairly brisk pace – if he can take it – or do some lunge work.
Whatever you decide to do, take advice from your vet before working the animal especially if he is very overweight or otherwise unfit and particularly if he has had laminitis or is under veterinary supervision for any reason. Remember that slow and steady consistency will bring the best results for you and your horse.