Management Tips To Reduce Calories for Overweight Horses

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Admit it: Many of us have horses that are a few (or a few hundred) pounds overweight. There are psychological reasons we manage these horses so they gain (or fail to lose) weight. But face it, it's our responsibility as their owners and managers to help them maintain a healthy weight. Here are some management tips from the nutrition experts at Kentucky Equine Research to help you understand why you manage horses so they don't lose weight, and how to avoid those bad management traits.

Recent studies have found that between one-third and two-thirds of horses are overweight or obese. An oversupply of carbohydrate-laden food coupled with a lack of appropriate exercise may have caused the epidemic of porky ponies, and the fix may depend on educating horse owners about better feed management options.

Most horse owners love their equines, and caring equates to feeding in many cases. Too much of this type of care, however, becomes a well-meaning disservice if the horse becomes too heavy. Obesity leads to--or aggravates--many health conditions, including insulin resistance, chronic inflammation, oxidative stress, equine metabolic syndrome, arthritis, laminitis and joint pain.

Horses can pack on too much weight because of one or more factors. Genetics (some breeds and individuals tend to gain weight more easily than others), access to high-quality pasture (horses evolved to graze forage of moderate to low quality), large meals of carbohydrate-rich grain (many horses don’t need these calories) and a lifestyle that involves minimal exercise (hours in the stall, easy access to pasture, no regular training or riding) all promote the accumulation of extra weight.

Examining horse-keeping style may help owners change their management regimen to encourage weight loss. Many habits are “just the way I’ve always done it” instead of being based on what is actually best for the horse. These include:

“I don’t want to starve him.”If you can’t feel your horse’s ribs with light finger pressure, the horse is not starving, regardless of what he tells you when he hears the feed buckets rattling. Check out a body condition score chart to get an idea of what a healthy weight looks like; it may be quite a bit leaner than what you have in mind.

“He loves his pasture time and doesn’t like the drylot.” Pasture time is great, but if he’s eating constantly, that’s not so good. Use a grazing muzzle to restrict intake. Studies have shown that horses that wear a grazing muzzle only part of the time can go into grazing overdrive when the muzzle is removed, consuming just as much grass in a few hours as their unmuzzled pals eat in a full day. Best bet: Leave the muzzle on when the horse is turned out.

“I always bring him in at night.” Overweight equines may benefit from more hours in the pasture, giving them a chance to move around rather than dozing in the stall for eight or more hours out of every 24. Just remember to leave the grazing muzzle on.

“I give him just a tiny handful of grain to keep him from fretting when I feed the other horses.”While that handful is better than a bucket of grain, it’s probably not that little, and a handful once or twice a day adds up to quite a few calories over the weeks and months. Try giving a ration balancer (ask at your feed store) instead of grain.

“I let him eat all the hay he wants, because it’s a natural thing for horses to eat.” Yes, hay is a good thing to feed, but it can also contain a lot of calories. Buy a low-carbohydrate hay (grass rather than alfalfa), taper down to feeding no more than 1% to 1.5% of the obese horse’s body weight in hay per day for horses on hay-only diets (no pasture turnout), and consider soaking the hay for half an hour before feeding to remove some of the soluble carbohydrates. (Editor's Note: Remember to add a ration balancer to make up for the nutrients the horse is missing.)

“My horse actually gets a lot of exercise because I ride almost every day, so he needs grain.”Not all exercise is the same. A horse carrying a rider around the field at a walk isn’t working hard enough to burn many calories, and even an hour of faster gaits is not going to wear out the average horse. If your horse is putting on extra pounds, cut his grain ration in half and weigh him or use a weight tape regularly to see what effect the change brings about. If he’s not losing weight after a few weeks, cut the ration in half again, and stay with this plan until you see results. Maintain good nutrition by using a low-calorie balancer pellet instead of grain. Gradually increase exercise intensity and duration, building up over a period of weeks.

“I changed to a low-carb feed. That should help, right?” Some horses don’t metabolize carbohydrates well, and low-carb feeds were developed to help these horses avoid muscle problems caused by this factor. Most of these feeds, however, are not low-energy because the formulations have replaced grain with high-calorie fat sources. These grain products are just as fattening as traditional horse feeds.

“If I cut way back on my horse’s grass, hay and grain, won’t he get ulcers from having an empty stomach?” It’s true that equine gastric ulcers may be caused or aggravated by many hours without food. However, you don’t have to restrict intake that much. By using a grazing muzzle and offering hay in a slow-feeding device, you can allow near-constant eating at a greatly reduced rate of total intake.

“That sounds like a whole lot of changes!” Yes, that’s true, but if you make these diet and exercise modifications gradually, your horse should stay healthy while losing some of his excess weight. Don’t try to rush the process; a slow and steady loss of pounds is much safer than sudden drastic changes in his daily schedule.