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Feeding the overweight horse

Marcia Hathaway, PhD, University of Minnesota; and Ron Genrick, Assurance Feeds

We are continually reminded that too many of us are overweight. We are told that we need to alter our diets and get on an exercise program. The same can be said about many of our horses. In their natural environment, horses searched for grass 14 to 18 hours each day. When domesticated, they worked hard as beasts of burden. Today, many of our horses are allowed to graze in pastures, offered hay free choice, or energy rich grain while not “working”.

How do you know if your horse is too fat? One good way is to use the Henneke Body Condition Scoring System. The system utilizes body condition scores (BCS) ranging from 1 to 9. A BCS of 5 is in the middle and most desirable. The system points out 9 areas of emphasis, with a description for each of the 9 BCS. This chart is available on many websites using the keywords “henneke body condition scoring system.”

One way to bring about weight loss is to reduce caloric intake. Another is to “burn” it off by increasing the workload. Neither alone is as effective as a combination of the two.

One way to bring about weight loss is to reduce caloric intake. Another is to “burn” it off by increasing the workload. Neither alone is as effective as a combination of the two. If caloric reduction is used to drop weight, the horse's metabolism will respond by becoming more efficient and use calories that would otherwise not be utilized. As with humans, once the desired weight loss is attained and the horse receives normal maintenance calories, it will continue to be more efficient and may start to put the weight back on. The same is true of increasing the workload; when the weight is “burned off” and the horse returns to the former workload, the pounds may return.

The long-lasting and more effective weight loss program is to reduce the caloric intake and add light work. The caloric intake can be reduced by limiting grazing time with a grazing muzzle or dry lot, and eliminating or reducing grain. Changing from alfalfa to grass hay or to a more mature hay will also reduce calories. Light work might be described as “visible sweat” 3 to 5 days per week for ½ to 1 hour per day. A 7 day light exercise program “burns” almost 6 times more calories each day than 7 days of no exercise. This is similar to the calories in 4 to 5 pounds of grass hay or 2 to 2.5 pounds of grain. If the overweight horse was at maintenance, this combination of exercise and calorie reduction will result in a weight loss of 0.5 to 0.75 pounds each day, a healthy weight loss. Weigh tapes are available to help track weight loss. These tapes are not always reliable, but will give an indication of the loss.

Withholding calories from the overweight horse may result in an inadequate intake of trace minerals and vitamins; therefore, supplementation of these nutrients may be necessary. Consultation with your equine nutritionist is advised.

Feed reduction and exercise should be increased slowly. The horse's digestive tract needs time to adjust to diet changes (especially forage), and the muscles need time to adjust to the new work load. At least two weeks should be allowed for the change in diet, and a similar time for the increased work.

Broodmares require special consideration; weight reduction should not be attempted after 150 days into gestation through 90 days of lactation. Be sure your horse is healthy enough for the diet and exercise change. Consult with your veterinarian about issues, such as laminitis, that might interfere with the increased exercise. Some diseases and health issues, such as equine metabolic syndrome and Cushing's disease may be the cause of obesity; each of these conditions requires a special diet and weight loss program.

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