Feeding Horses Based on Work Level

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Credit: Thinkstock What level of exercise is your horse and how does that relate to obesity and feeding?

Credit: Thinkstock What level of exercise is your horse and how does that relate to obesity and feeding?

Obesity has become one of the biggest health- and welfare-related issues in the equine community in many developed nations worldwide. Current estimates suggest that 25–50% of horses are overweight or obese.

“Obesity has become so common that to some owners it seems normal for horses to be overweight or obese, and with some breeds it is thought that horses only look ‘good’ when they carry excessive fat cover,” said Kathleen Crandell, PhD, a nutritionist at Kentucky Equine Research.

The vast majority of people, horse lovers or not, readily recognize that extremely thin horses are either sick or starving and need help. In fact, the perils of having a pudgy pony or horse are equally important as having a horse that is too skinny. Some health concerns associated with obesity include:

  • Decreased insulin sensitivity, insulin resistance
  • Equine metabolic syndrome
  • Laminitis
  • Respiratory compromise
  • Some strangulating colics (e.g., fatty tumors wrapping around the intestines);
  • Added stress to the musculoskeletal system, potentially exacerbating signs of osteoarthritis
  • Decreased exercise tolerance
  • Impaired fertility, and
  • Increased misbehavior

Two important ways to fight fat are 1) owner acceptance that equine obesity exists and is important to avoid; and 2) instituting ways to routinely monitor body weight or condition (through body condition scoring, for example). Another method owners might consider is accurate assessment of how much work a horse is actually doing and how much it needs to be fed to meet real energy needs.

“The 2007 National Research Council book, Nutrient Requirements of Horses, Sixth Revised Edition, clearly describes various workloads. According to that publication and other experts, most horses involved in light work, and some in moderate, can thrive off forage and the minimum quantity of fortified feed suggested by the manufacturer,” said Crandell.

When evaluating a horse’s diet, which is recommended approximately every 6-8 weeks or after any major change in work or management, consider what category of work a horse best fits using these descriptions:

Light exercise: 1–3 hours of exercise per week (40% walk, 50% trot, 10% canter). Examples: recreational riding, starting a training program, some show horses.

Moderate exercise: 3–5 hours per week (30% walk, 55% trot, 10% canter, 5% low jumping, cutting, etc.). Examples: school horses, recreational riding, show horses, polo, ranch work.

Heavy work: 4–5 hours per week (20% walk, 50% trot, 15% canter, 15% gallop, jumping, etc.). Examples: ranch work, polo, frequently showing horses, low-level eventing, race training.

Very heavy: variable hours per week. Examples: racing, endurance, elite three-day event horses.

If a horse is in the light and medium categories, and sometimes even heavy, additional concentrates above levels recommended by the manufacturer may not be necessary to either achieve or maintain a healthy weight.

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