Managing Fat and Thin Horses: Forage First

In this series of six articles, we discuss how stable owners can help manage fat and thin horses in their care, starting with the basics of forage.
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fat Paint horse running field

When too many calories are fed—which often is a problem with “loving,” less-knowledgeable owners—easy keepers are prone to weight gain.

In a perfect world, all the horses in one barn would be healthy with the same hay and grain ration, fed at the same amount and at the same time. In the real world, you will never find a one-size-fits-all approach to equine nutrition and feeding. We also know that each owner has his or her own feeding preferences. So, as the advice-giver to your clients, you have to balance what is best for the horses with the owners’ preferences.

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Forage as the Foundation

A horse’s diet can range from 100% pasture/forage to 100% processed feeds. Most horses eat a combination of pasture, hay and grain. The exact ratio of pasture to hay and feed is determined by each horse’s nutritional requirements and the owner’s choices on how to feed.

“Different horses have different needs, and these needs are influenced by age, body weight, body condition, life stage and job,” said Megan Shepherd, DVM, PhD, DACVN (American College of Veterinary Nutrition). She is a clinical assistant professor in nutrition at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine (vetmed.vt.edu/vth/services/nutrition).

Maintaining a target weight is all about calories. When too many calories are fed—which often is a problem with “loving,” less-knowledgeable owners—easy keepers are prone to weight gain. When too few calories are fed—perhaps by uneducated or competitive owners—hard keepers can become too thin.

“Some feeds may have a good amount of calories, but if the feed isn’t very digestible, then those calories won’t be available,” said Clair Thunes, PhD, an independent equine nutritionist based in California (summit-equine.com).

It’s a common perception that protein can be used to provide calories in a horse’s diet. “Protein is rarely lacking in the equine diet, but the quality may be poor, and this can lead to problems building muscle as well as maintaining healthy hooves and coat,” Thunes said.

While protein can supply calories, Thunes cautioned that it should not be relied upon as the primary source.

Managing the needs of fat or thin horses is an ongoing process that requires regular evaluation and modification, something that can be hard for owners who aren’t in the barn on a daily basis. Before adjusting the feeding routine for any horse in your barn, it’s important to assess the horse’s body condition.

“A stable manager should evaluate the horses in their care every couple of weeks to make sure [each] horse’s body weight and body condition are where they need to be,” said Katie Young, PhD, a consulting equine nutritionist with Kentucky Equine Research (KER). You can contact Young at kyoung@ker.com

Look for other articles in this "Managing Fat and Thin Horses" series on StableManagement.com:

  • Body Condition Score
  • Battling the Bulge
  • Too Thin

Check out these equine nutrition books:

Introduction to Horse Nutrition
Equine Applied and Clinical Nutrition
Equine Nutrition and Feeding
Horse Health and Nutrition for Dummies
Understanding Equine Nutrition

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