| Now for this week's tips
Obesity Is No
Better For Horses Than It Is For Humans
Obesity in horses and ponies is a growing welfare problem and many
are being allowed to become overweight to the point where they are
susceptible to painful medical problems such as laminitis. Ponies in
particular have evolved to survive on a fibre-based diet on rough
plains and usually do not need the volume of feed we offer.
Perfect weight and condition
No two horses are exactly alike in shape, size and type. Their
breeding, history and recent general management all affect their
body condition, no matter how easily or not they tend to gain
weight. The perfect weight is best measured by considering the
horse’s overall fitness and body condition.
All horses and ponies should be managed with a combination of the
appropriate type and quantity of feed, good general health
management and regular, suitable exercise (even if they are not in
ridden work). This is particularly important for those horses and
ponies that are “good feeders” those that put on weight rapidly
regardless of how meagre the grazing or feed ration appears to be.
Assessing weight and condition
It is a good idea to use a weigh-tape weekly (measured around the
horse’s girth, where a roller or surcingle would normally fit).
Record the weight so that the diet can be adjusted accordingly. So
you and the horse could both have a weighing-in session! While
weigh-tapes are not always accurate at assessing the exact weight,
and may differ between brands, if the same tape is used each time
then any weight loss or gain will be comparable with previous
records. After all, it is the changes in weight gain and weight loss
that are important, combined with the horse’s physical health,
well-being and body condition.
It is essential a horse’s physical body condition be monitored
weekly. Check the animal’s crest (take a look at the definition
below if you aren’t sure where it is) and, if it is large and hard,
there is a problem and the diet needs to be looked at immediately.
Also, take the horse off the grass until it softens. Check the loins
as they should be no more than level across the spine. If looked at
from behind, the horse should be rounded but should not have a dip
or “W” shape across the pelvis; the ribs should be easily felt.
Definition: The crest is the topline of the neck. Ideally the crest
should be a gentle convex curve from the poll to the withers. On a
very fat horse the crest can be very thick, and almost seem to flop
over. On a very thin horse the crest will be straight and thin. Some
breeds like Morgans, Arabians, some warmbloods and draft horses and
ponies have a more distinctively crest than breeds like Quarter
Horses and Thoroughbreds.
A condition score can be given to different places on the horse’s
body to help monitor weight. These are usually the pelvis, loins,
ribs and neck. Scores run on a scale from one to five. One is
“emaciated”, three is in “good condition” and five is “obese”. Half
points can be used to help with accuracy.
Gradual weight loss programme
Excess body condition or fat, is unnecessary and undesirable,
raising concerns for the long-term health and well-being of the
horse. This is especially so if the animal is subject to excessive
fluctuations in weight or remains in a fat condition long term (this
is called yo-yoing weight in humans and is proven to be very
unhealthy in the long term). It can take several months to return to
a normal weight and good body condition. Fat deposits laid down for
some time, and those which are hard to the touch are the most
difficult to shift.
Weight gain is often made worse in “resting” horses (companions,
retired or otherwise out of work) as a result of the lack of
appropriate exercise (which is not adequately provided by
free-ranging on good pasture) combined with an
ad-hoc intake of forage required for maintenance. Also, remember
that seasonal changes in pasture conditions can occur ahead of a
change in management practices.
All weight loss programs should be undertaken in conjunction with
veterinary advice and be appropriate to an individual horse. Any
possible underlying conditions for unexplained weight gain should be
considered and ruled out before commencing a program to actually
lose weight. Horses suffering from laminitis should be treated and
managed under veterinary supervision.
Managing nutritional intake
Weight gain occurs if a horse’s nutritional intake is greater than
the physical energy demand. Therefore, in order to lose weight, the
nutritional intake must be reduced and/or the physical energy
demands increased. A balanced approach to exercise and diet is
Veterinary advice should be sought to rule out any health factors
that could be causing or contributing to a weight gain problem, and
to seek advice on a suitable weight management program.
Weight loss must be gradual as serious health risks can arise from
weight loss that is incorrectly managed. A horse must never be put
onto a starvation diet any more than a human should. The diet must
be amended and balanced with increased physical activity.
Ideally, horses should be fed one to one and a half, per cent of
their normal healthy (target) body weight during the weight loss
period. This is slightly below the normal maintenance level of
approximately two to two and a half per cent of desired body weight.
The horse should be restricted to a corral area where it has freedom
of movement and ready access to fresh water and shelter. The ration
should be high-fiber based, of clean, moderate nutritional value
hay, which may be combined with a proportion of feed-quality straw
to bulk it out.
This ration should be sub divided into frequent small feeds and
offered in several piles to encourage the horse to move around,
emulating foraging. Small mess hay nets increase consumption time
and may be hung at a low level to allow a more natural “grazing”
head carriage. Salt or mineral blocks should be available, but
preferably, not molasses loaded varieties.
Where appropriate, to ensure the individual’s mental well-being, a
horse may be permitted a limited daily period of access to sparse
pasture, or normal pasture with a grazing muzzle. These must be
fitted correctly and worn only for a limited period – a high degree
of supervision is recommended.
As part of the ration calculation, any time spent grazing must be
considered as part of the nutritional intake and the “fed” ration
amended accordingly. However, this can be difficult to determine
accurately and may have an impact on the effectiveness of the weight
Exercise and increasing physical activity
Appropriate exercise is essential for all horses, but levels of
activity must increase gradually without stressing an unfit horse.
For a sound and otherwise healthy horse, exercise is one of the best
means of assisting weight loss and improving physical health and
fitness. If the horse is physically capable of working, then regular
exercise should form an active part of the weight loss program.
A horse can be exercised in-hand, ridden or loose. Exercising a
horse daily in two shorter sessions rather than one long session
helps increase the benefit without straining the animal, and also
maintains interest and variety throughout the day. As a horse’s
recovery time following activity improves, so can the intensity and
duration of exercise in the subsequent sessions.
Additionally, time spent grooming a horse can be both mentally and
physically stimulating for the animal, promoting good general
well-being. Equine companionship and interaction is also important.
Preventing future weight gain
Once a horse has returned to a good, healthy condition, its
essential to take measures to ensure that the desired weight and
condition are maintained and future weight gain avoided. Adopt a
sensible management regime that ensures a horse has a suitable
balanced diet with plenty of fiber and appropriate exercise.
Prevention is better than cure, and the aim of management should be
to prevent weight gain at its first signs by adapting the management
regime rather than having to take more dramatic action once an
animal has reached an excessive weight.
A horse turned out permanently on good grazing with limited, active
exercise is at equal risk of weight gain as a horse fed a high
concentrate diet and confined for long periods. Weight needs to be
kept in check throughout the year with all horses being managed by a
combination of sensible rationing, a balanced high-fiber diet and
regular exercise, appropriate to their needs and capabilities.
All horse keepers have a responsibility to keep animals in good
health and at a healthy weight suited to the individual. By revising
management and incorporating exercise with a fiber-based diet,
access to suitable mixed herbage pasture and the company of other
horses of a like condition and regime, horses can be kept happy,
healthy and trim.