Keeping Horses Healthy - Over Weight Horses

Les Rees

Keeping horses healthy during the season of prolific growth can be a very demanding time for horse owners especially when they are prone to putting on huge reserves of fat. Over time it can lead to many problems and subsequent damage that can have devastating and long lasting consequences causing hormonal aberrations particularly relating to Equine Metabolic Syndrome.

It's common for people to think that the horse is a bit plump without acknowledging exactly how much weight the horse is carrying because fat gain is a gradual process and you get used to what you're seeing.

How to gauge an overweight horse:

  • If you can't feel the ribs beneath the flesh
  • A channel along the top of the horses back (often referred to as a rain channel)
  • A fat crested neck
  • Girth sinking into the flesh when tightened
  • Lack of definition of the bony landmarks
  • Fat accumulation around the tops of the hind legs
  • Use a weight tape to assess the condition score of your horse

Dietary management:
A lot of people think that it's OK to take their obese horses and put them into a yard and leave them all day without anything to eat. NEVER DO THIS! Horses are trickle feeders and as such need to eat on a continual basis. The trick to diet is to ensure that the horse only gets access to the foods that are good for them. High roughage based hay and chaff is useful but you need to choose forage that is suitable for the feeding of a fat horse. It is important to understand that starvation through severe calorie restriction is a metabolic stressor, especially in cases where a fat horse develops elevated levels of triglycerides or storage fats (hyperlipemia syndrome), leading to liver failure and slow metabolic rates.

  • Feed horses separately to avoid dominant horses from stealing feed.
  • Put a Himalayan salt lick into the feed bowl to slow down the speed of eating.
  • Use grazing muzzles and slow feeder hay nets
  • Restrict of calorie intake
  • Use high roughage feed
  • Remove grain based mixes from diet to reduce starch and sugar intake
  • Avoid concentrate feeds that are carbohydrate rich, they elicit surges in blood glucose causing insulin levels to peak. Obese horses are often insulin-resistant as surges in blood glucose have associated risks of developing laminitis.
  • Restrict grazing time in paddocks. Having abundant pasture is not necessarily a good thing particularly for fat horses. Pasture grasses can be high in sugar, starch and fructans (nonstructural carbohydrates) especially during high/rapid growth periods and also when the grasses are stressed from frost, drought or having been overgrazed. The safest times to graze are between pre-dawn and 1-2 hours after the sun has risen. After that they can be moved to a shaded area and given access to low sugar hay, a salt lick and fresh water.

Exercise plays an important factor in reducing and keeping the weight down - If you can't ride you can play with your horse either at liberty or by inventing games to play that involves exercise. Lunging, trotting over poles and small jumps, ride one and lead the other or even taking a horse for a walk helps. It's important that we change things around to keep the horse interested and not isolated in a small yard all day feeling lonely and miserable. Just like us, equines are social beings and as such we need company and something to relieve boredom.

On our property we have set up a Jenny Craig paddock for our ponies allowing them limited access to the main paddocks during the high growth period. We also have some good hills that helps keep them fit and we deliberately have their water in the yard so that they have to wander down several times a day for a drink. We also feed our Laminitis Mix to help them through this period.

It takes time and commitment but if you care about their welfare, you'll get back far more than you put in!

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