Feeding The Overweight Horse
Regardless of the animal, dog, cat, Grevy zebra, horse or human, if there is a need for weight loss then the amount of feed needs to be reduced and the activity needs to be increased. It is a seemingly simple strategy, but it is easier said than done.
There are medical issues that may cause your horse to become overweight. There are also nutritional management reasons, such as the dominant gelding housed with a group. Additionally there are deliberate reasons, such as preparing a horse for halter or sales. There are reproductive reasons, such as improving conception and reducing the number of heat periods per conception. There are warm & fuzzy reasons such as the satisfaction people receive from feeding their horse. Lastly, there are educational reasons, such as not really knowing how to feed a horse. Even though we know that fat athletes are compromised when competing, we may not realize that fat stallions may have reduced fertility, and fat ponies seem more susceptible to founder. Regardless of the reasons for overweight and obese horses, the fundamentals for weight reduction are easy to understand, but sometimes difficult to implement. To control body weight, there must be a plan and there must be tools for assessment.
Hopefully by now you have started using the condition scoring system. Being able to evaluate if your horse is too skinny, too fat, or just right is the first step. Information and examples are available in Dr. Bray’s Corner. Monthly body weight records are very useful and easily accomplished with the weight tape.
Identify Production Level
What does your horse do for a living? Is he a companion animal who basically lives in a 12’ X 20’ paddock, a large dry lot, or small pasture? Is she a brood mare or pregnant? If she is pregnant, how far along? Is he a riding horse? How frequently and how long do you ride? What percentage of the exercise bouts were a walk, trot and canter? For working animals, this information allows one to estimate the energy demands and group the workout into categories of light, moderate, moderate-intense, or intense.
Current Diet & Feed Selection
How many pounds of forages, concentrations, and/or commodities are consumed per day? What is the fiber content of the commercial mixes that are fed? What feed ingredients of the commercial mix are in the highest quantity? Understanding feed label information will help you differentiate between feedstuffs or mixes that primarily provide a source of energy, protein, or fiber. Information on feed labels is available in Dr. Bray’s Corner.
The easiest approach is to increase the exercise while maintaining the current feeding program. Decreasing the amount of feed is another approach. Do not forget the ground rules in feeding forages. Those rules can be found in Dr. Bray’s Corner.
Feed the hay at 1.4% of target body weight and not current body weight. Long-stem hay requires more effort by the horse to consume compared to pellets and cubes, particularly if the hay is not fed in one location. Feed your horse in the paddock and spread the hay in two or three different feeding areas (but, not on the ground). This strategy will force the horse to walk to each feeding station as well as reduce their rate of consumption. Because horses usually consume all of the processed forages fed, do not substitute hay pellets or cubes for long-stem hay on a pound for pound basis. Start feeding about 10% less processed forages and monitor body condition changes.
There can be a place for feeding hay cubes to overweight horses. Large hay cubes (not alfalfa) can be soaked in water to form a gruel that delivers volume, fiber, and lower energy values.
Other forage management strategies include feeding only grass hays. Alfalfa is higher in energy and protein and frequently is over fed. Alfalfa, a leafy, fine-stem hay, is more readily consumed than most of the grass hays. You can also make hay nets from canvas bags with smaller openings. Perhaps an easier option is to insert one-hay net into another, which will narrow the openings for horses to grab a bite of hay. Beet pulp is a popular commodity and as a soluble fiber source attracts water thus providing more volume in the lumen of the gut. Beet pulp is major ingredient in the Integrity product line.
Pasture time needs to be limited for overweight horses. Take advantage of the fresh forage as a source of fiber, energy and nutrients by controlling the amount of grazing time.
Turnout fields for self-exercise horses are not of much value. Granted, the larger area may force them to walk as they quench their curiosity, but controlled exercise is better. If he is not ridden very much, then pony the horse along side one of your riding horses. If you do not have a spare and like to walk, take him with you. Increasing the pace during exercise will obviously help burn calories.
Total feed intake for horses in a weight reduction program will approximate 1.4 – 1.75% of body weight. Do not forget the minimum forage intake of 1.4% BW for maintenance horses. You may be able to feed higher levels depending on the type of work or production level. If you are uncertain, visit with your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist.
Feeding one pound of Integrity Lite will provide not only a source of vitamins and minerals but also approximately 1/2 pound of the “soluble fiber” sources, beet pulp and soy-hulls. Even though your horse needs to take off a few pounds, he still needs a balance diet.