If a horse is ingesting more calories than it is burning, it is inevitable that it will increase in weight and become a fat horse, just like a human would. Excess carbohydrates or fats are stored as fat in adipose tissue. Obesity is a real issue in horses, particularly due to the secondary issues it can cause, such as laminitis, Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS), arthritis, heart problems, reduced fertility and respiratory issues.
According to the Blue Cross, obesity in horses and ponies is a welfare problem that is only growing, with The British Horse Society quoting that 50% of horses in the UK are obese, with some native breeds reaching more like 70%. Over thousands of years, horses have evolved and adapted to survive on a fibre-based diet, and in general, do not require the volume of feed given to them by their owners. Hardier breeds of equine are used to making the most of poor quality grazing, such as Shetland ponies. As a result of domestication and the availability of quality grazing, particularly during summer months, forage and concentrate feeds along with milder winters with rugs and stables available means that horses don’t use as much energy to keep warm, so the calories that are being consumed are being stored as fat instead.
How can you monitor weight?
It is important to monitor weight when dealing with a fat horse or pony. Assessing weight and condition can be subjective, so many feed companies and welfare organisations are encouraging the use of other methods such as body condition scoring for a more objective approach. Also known as fat scoring, this assessment of a horse’s overall fat covering takes into account three key areas – neck, body and hindquarters. Each area is scored on a scale using images and descriptions provided by various organisations, such as The British Horse Society. Another useful way of managing weight is to use a weight tape. Although this is not the most accurate method due to different tapes being quite variable, if the same tape is used consistently, it is an effective way to monitor weight gain or weight loss. Furthermore, some feed companies or welfare organisations offer yard visits with a weighbridge, which gives a much more accurate weight than a weigh tape. Try contacting your feed company to see if this is something they can do and perhaps get others on your yard to get involved too
Managing weight loss
If your horse is fed unlimited forage, consider changing this to either providing forage in batches, little and often or use a double layered haynet to promote slower feeding. Do not starve your fat horse though or leave it without any feed for long periods of time as this can cause issues such as colic or ulcers.
A double pronged approach to weight loss will be most effective, using exercise and diet. It is important however, that any weight loss is done gradually, as rapid weight loss can cause further complications.
Activity levels will depend on the horse’s ability to exercise, particularly if there are secondary issues such as lameness, but appropriate exercise should be used in conjunction with these other methods of weight loss. Consider recording everything that your horse eats, including time out in the field alongside how much exercise they do. From there, a plan can be created which works on expending more energy than they are ingesting
Feeding for weight loss
In addition to exercise, it is important to consider what you are feeding a horse or pony that either is already overweight or is prone to be. Restricting grazing, particularly when there is lush grass over the summer, is a great starting point. Don’t forget though that horses shouldn’t be left without feed for long periods of time. If they have restricted grass but remain turned out or are stabled instead, it is worth considering giving them some hay periodically. Treats are significant in an obese horse’s diet – often high in sugar these small morsels can contribute to the fat being stored in their body. Consider feeding fewer treats or some high fibre, low sugar treats instead.
Most horses don’t actually require any additional concentrate or pelleted feeds, particularly during the summer when grass is plentiful, unless they are in a high level of work. Consider using a feed which is more like a forage, such as a soaked mash. This also supports hydration in horses, because interestingly, obese horses are more likely to become dehydrated as they get thirsty less, according to research. This can be a problem as urine becomes more concentrated and it can lead to renal failure as well as cognitive dysfunction.
British Horse Feed’s Speedi-Beet soaks in just ten minutes and can absorb up to 5 times it’s weight in water. It is a soaked feed that is 95% sugar free and is made using only the best quality British Beet Pulp. Speedi-Beet is highly palatable and provides slow-release energy with a prebiotic effect and is also very versatile for a wide range of horses, including those with laminitis or even with dental issues.