Protecting Horses From Obesity

Combating Obesity in Horses

Whether the animal is a dog, cat, pig or horse, weight problems can be an issue. Animals that are inactive and overeat get fat. The American Medical Association recently classified obesity for people as a disease. I will leave that debate for others, but obesity in animals is not a disease.

This article  addresses obesity with horses and how to combat it.

It’s Your Fault!

The problem is not the horse—it’s the owner.

  • The “easy keeper” description has evolved as an excuse. It’s true that horses have differences in metabolism. But those differences do not justify why the horse is overweight. I wish I had a nickel every time I have heard “he’s an easy keeper”. In 45 years feeding horses professionally and personally, I have not had one horse that I could not manage their body weight.
  • Owners underestimate or are wrong about an appropriate body weight for their horse. Developing an understanding of Body Condition Scoring (BCS) will reduce those misperceptions.
  • Body fat does not hide conformation faults. It just makes them worse if the faults are mechanically related.
  • Horses must be fed as individuals, not as a group.
  • You are not limited in how your horse is fed if it is at a boarding stable. You are the owner and you must make the adjustments on how your horse is fed.

Exercise Perceptions

  • If a horse is overweight, there is no “magic bullet”. The horse needs to eat less and be exercised. A only horse only eats less if it is fed less. The only way a horse is exercised is if you get-up and ride, lounge or pony.
  • Turning your horse out in a dry lot is not exercise.
  • Horses that are exercised will have more muscle mass. The increased muscle mass will require more energy to maintain that muscle, and therefore burn more calories.

Nutritional Management

  • Horses have different body weights, different muscle to fat ratios, different exercise regimen, different energy requirements and thus are fed different amounts of feed.
  • Make your horse work for his forage:
    • Use double hay nets so that the horse has to navigate the net openings to consume the hay.
    • If the horse is in a large dry lot, spread the hay nets to 3 – 4 places, so that he has to walk to the locations which will also increase feeding time.

Feeding Tips

Horses are fed by body weight and level of activity or production (growing, pregnant, lactating).

  • Feed must be measured by weight—not scoops, coffee cans, flakes, or cups.
  • Low carbohydrate does not parallel low calories.
  • Feed long stem grass hays.
  • Long stem forage increases chewing time, slows down feed consumption, and increases water consumption. Collectively these outcomes will improve the horse’s sense of satiety.
  • Daily hay should not exceed 1.4% of body weight in a weight loss program.
  • 4% of 1,125 lb. horse is 0.014 x 1,125 = 15.75 lbs. (or 15 ¾ lbs.)
  • 15 ¾ lbs. of baled hay is not equivalent to 15 ¾ lbs. of hay pellets. Horses will most likely consume all the hay pellets but with long stem hay there is usually some hay loss. Managing the type of hay feeding will influence whether that hay loss is insignificant, 5, 10, 15 or 20%. Hay loss is $$ loss!
  • Monitor body condition score. If you underestimate or overestimate feeding amounts, BCS changes will be noticeably within 2½ weeks for the average trained eye.
  • Stop feeding alfalfa hay. Alfalfa forage is higher in calories than grass forages, provides less fiber than grass hays, and is consumed quicker. This causes horse owners to feed more so their horse has something to eat.
  • Feed balanced formulas that are formulated to complement the forage portion of your horse’s diet relative to what they do. Contact us if you need help choosing the right feed for your horse.