Equine Obesity

Equines come in many shapes and sizes, but regardless of appearance, if a horse is carrying more weight than optimum, he or she is at risk of a number of serious health problems.

The main cause of obesity

The number one cause of obesity in horses and ponies is overfeeding. Like humans, not all similarly sized horses need the same daily caloric intake, or the same type of feed. There are many other factors that determine how much feed a horse truly needs, including work load, reproductive status, age, breed, and individual variation.

What problems are associated with obesity?

Obesity has become a major health concern in horses due to its association with chronic illness. Horses that are overweight are often plagued by chronic laminitis, oxidative stress, and less than perfect interaction between insulin and blood glucose. 

Obese horses are prone to laminitis                 

Laminitis is another major health concern that overweight horses are susceptible to. The prevalence of laminitis in obese horses is thought to be linked to insulin resistance. It has also been suggested that the extra weight exceeds the strength power of the lamella and detachment occurs like a tear. Laminitis is an all too frequently encountered condition in equine veterinary practice, many young, otherwise healthy horses are euthanased every year due to unyielding, crippling pain resulting from laminitis.

Find your horse’s body condition score

Before putting your horse on a diet to prevent diseases such as EMS (equine metabolic syndrome) or IR(Insulin resistance), first establish whether your horse is, in fact, overweight. A body condition chart takes into consideration where fat deposits appear on a horse. For example, racehorses are usually on the thinner side at a score of 4 out of 9, while halter horses are usually on the heavier side at a score of 6 out of 9. Obese horses score 9 out of 9.                  

This basic answer, while essentially correct, leaves out the fact that horses have different metabolic patterns varying by breed, age, and other factors. Easy keepers seem to “get fat on the smell of an oily rag,” while hard keepers might always look too thin, even though they are offered enormous amounts of feed. Owners of chunky, cresty horses need to pay extremely close attention to avoid allowing their horses to become too heavy and increasing the risk of EMS and laminitis.

What can I do to improve the situation?

The simple answer is to decrease energy intake and increase energy expenditure. If the horse is eating grain, consider reducing the amount or even cutting out grain entirely, possibly switching to a low-calorie vitamin-mineral pellet if you're concerned about providing complete nutrition. You can also switch from a legume hay to a grass hay, and move away from free-choice hay consumption by offering a daily hay ration equal to 1-2% of the horse's body weight. Pasture time can be limited by use of a grazing muzzle, a dry lot, or some hours in a stall or indoor arena. Make any changes to amount or type of feed very gradually over a period of several weeks.

Tips and tricks to equine weight loss

Horses are natural grazers and it is better for them to be eating all day. Some tricks include using double hay nets or bags with little openings, or grazing muzzles. It will take them more time to eat and therefore will not only keep them occupied longer but also diminish their feed intake. Frequent, smaller feedings are ideal but sometimes not practical. If horses are usually fed together, make sure that the one dieting cannot have access to another’s food. Some other tips to achieve a healthy weight loss include making any change gradually (10 percent over 10 days is usually the norm) with regard to both quantity and type of food. Vitamins, minerals and proteins are essential and it is imperative that horses receive their minimal requirement even though you are limiting feed. Follow the guidelines on the feed bags and use food weight instead of volume to determine how much to give. That being said, your horse is an individual and the quantity of food that he is receiving may be too much for him, even if that’s what it says on the bag. Feed companies and distributors often have animal nutritionists who are available to help you choose the right food for your horse.

Adjust Feeding Often

It is important to remember that nutritional needs also change constantly and feed may need to be adjusted more than you realise. If your horse is being ridden five times a week for one hour during the spring, versus once a week during the winter, that’s a huge difference in energy requirement.

Once your horse has reached its ideal body condition, maintaining the proper weight is a gentle balancing act. You will probably need to readjust your horse’s ration to stabilise its weight throughout the seasons. Exercise will continue to be a key component in keeping the horse fit. Because obesity can affect a horse's overall health, schedule regular check-ups, especially during the weight reduction process.