Managing the Easy Keeper

Despite the term, easy keepers are not uncomplicated horses to manage. Learn how to protect your easy keeper from dangerous conditions such as obesity and laminitis.
Easy keepers are often at risk for obesity and founder. | Getty Images

An “easy keeper” sounds like a simple horse to manage. On the contrary, however, it can be difficult to prevent these animals from becoming too fat or foundering, especially on pasture. Brian Nielsen, PhD, professor of exercise physiology and nutrition in Michigan State University’s Department of Animal Science, in East Lansing, says it’s important to provide these horses with a low-calorie food that satisfies “chew time” and keeps them happy and healthy without adding excess weight.

Feed a Lower-Quality Hay

“Usually, horse owners try to select high-quality hay, but for the easy keeper you want hay with lower levels of protein and calories, such as hay harvested a little too mature,” he explains.

These horses don’t need grain, though some owners feed a little simply because their horses like it. This adds calories and can be detrimental. It’s better to increase the horse’s hay ration (using low-quality hay) and eliminate grain. If you are concerned about your horse getting sufficient vitamins and minerals on hay alone, you can take other steps to make sure he’s getting enough.

“Usually, we don’t worry about vitamins if the horse is eating well, but minerals may need attention,” says Nielsen. “We encourage people to get their hay tested. I was at a meeting where a nutritionist from Germany said there is only one definition of good hay, and that’s hay that’s been analyzed. It doesn’t matter what’s in it. If it’s been analyzed, you know what you need for a supplement, to balance the diet if necessary.

“If you test your hay, you know if there’s a mineral deficiency,” he adds. “This may depend on where you live. You can provide a ration balancer that has minimal impact on calorie levels.”

When feeding lower-quality hay, you can then be confident the horse is getting enough hay to be satisfied and all his necessary nutrients. Many horse owners overfeed or think the horse needs treats, but this is not in an easy keeper’s best interest.

Separate Groups and Grazing Muzzles

If horses live in groups, it’s often better to separate and feed them as individuals, because some horses need more or better-quality hay than others. “It can be hard if there are some horses you need to keep weight off and others need to eat more,” Nielsen says. “You may have to feed them separately or use grazing muzzles on the easy keepers if they are on pasture.”

Some people mow or clip a pasture to keep it short and lush, which can make it higher in protein and energy levels. Remember: The easy keeper needs mature forage. “Even the usual recommendation for fertilizing pasture can be counterproductive,” says Nielsen. You can get creative with electric fence to divide grazing areas and make easy keepers eat the more mature grass. You can also use a grazing muzzle to allow your easy keeper to remain at pasture, exercising and interacting with buddies but not overeating and at risk for founder. These simple tools significantly reduce a horse’s forage intake. You might need to help the horse adjust to wearing a grazing muzzle (for short periods at first), but most adapt quickly.

“We need to limit intake but also keep these horses entertained and happy,” says Nielsen. They are happier at pasture—even if they can’t eat as much as they’d like—than if confined and limited to a certain amount of hay. Activity and interaction with herd members keeps them healthier and happier both mentally and physically.

“There are many (grazing muzzle) styles to choose from,” says Nielsen. “Some might be better for certain horses or situations. A horse wearing a muzzle can’t nip to defend itself if there are hierarchy issues in the group but works well if the horse is dominant; he can’t pick on other horses as viciously.

“Some people think they can simply limit the time a horse is on pasture, but horses can eat a lot of grass quickly; they can graze a full days’ worth of pasture in a short time,” he continues. “This can cause greater problems, especially with lush feed. They overload on sugars and starches all at once instead of spread throughout the day. This may increase risks for founder or insulin resistance. It would be better to use a grazing muzzle.”

Take-Home Message

Easy keepers are not necessarily simple horses to manage, but with special considerations they can thrive in their environment. Limiting their feed and forage intake while maintaining their basic nutrient requirements is crucial, but low calorie feeds, lower quality hay, and grazing muzzles can satisfy a horse’s “chew time” while reducing their calorie intake.






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