The old adage of “diet and exercise” for controlling weight is as true today as it always has been, but because we have a better understanding of the inside of a horse than we ever have, there are a few other things to be considered. Most horses respond to changes in calories coming in quickly, putting on and losing weight as their diet changes. Consider yourself lucky if you have a horse that seems to remain in good condition no matter what is fed since there are a large number of horses that are much more difficult to keep at a healthy weight. This is more than just an inconvenience because body condition is a major risk factor in health problems and is worth the effort to get under control.
In this article, we will be discussing the overweight horse and how to approach feeding them. We will begin with the basics and then mention a few “advanced” tips. To begin to understand what your horse needs, start by eliminating all supplements and feed 2 % of their body weight in roughage. This of course requires weighing your horse and the feed. In order to feed a 1000 pound horse, this 2% amounts to 20 pounds of food per day. For most horses this quantity should be Bermuda grass hay or a Bermuda / Alfalfa mix. They should also be allowed access to a salt lick. Obviously there are many variations in metabolism that require us to move from this starting point. If your horse is an easy keeper you should reduce the feed by 10% every 4 weeks and check the weight again. Continue reducing the feed monthly until results are seen by measurement. Once you can document a weight reduction, continue feeding this amount of feed until you reach the desired weight (or better yet – body condition.) Once you have reached the ideal weight, add back 10% in feed and your horse should maintain. Smaller adjustments in between these levels can account for exercise or seasonal changes. Again, until you have reached ideal weight you should not be feeding any supplements unless there is something very specific that he or she needs.
Once you have established the quantity of hay your horse needs, you can replace 10-15% of your calories with a ration balancer such as Purina’s Strategy Healthy Edge. I choose this one frequently because it is well balanced and uses minimal amounts of protein or sugar for its calories. This is a healthier alternative than sweet feeds or high protein feeds that can change the behavior of the horse and cause health problems in the long run. You may also choose a product like Platinum Performance because it has an excellent vitamin and mineral base while also giving the horse a base level of joint support and eliminating the need for an additional hoof supplement. If either Strategy or Platinum Performance contain too many calories for your horse, there are a number of supplements out there that have few calories that will attempt to balance the ration, such as “Vitaflex Accel” or “Select.”
If your horse seems to be unable to lose weight no matter what diet you are feeding, there may be a medical condition to blame. Recent work in the field of metabolism has revealed that some horses are predisposed to problems that lead to weight gain. Most notable are the Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) and Type II Diabetes (similar to the human disorder). In a nut shell these problems arise from incorrect hormone signaling which often comes from fat cells in the body. These cells “recruit” more fat cells and have a strong influence on the body’s metabolism and storage. Other serious conditions may also be to blame, so it’s important to have your horse evaluated by a veterinarian to help guide you in your efforts. Diet and exercise evaluation may lead to blood tests and specific treatments. Physical examination, lab tests and treatments can help define what problem exists and how we can best help the horse to manage its weight.
If you have questions about how to manage your horses weight please call and let us help you in this work. The rewards of a healthy weight are long term and very rewarding when the problem is defined and the outcome successful.