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One in Three Horses and Ponies Are Overweight


Latest studies reveal that one in three horses and ponies is now overweight.

Dengie senior nutritionist KATIE WILLIAMS, MSc (Dist), looks at those most at risk and what we can do to help them slim down.

We meet lots of overweight horses at Dengie yard clinics, so it was no surprise to find that two recently published papers reveal that about 30% of the equine population is obese.

Although this figure is shocking, it often takes an episode of ill-health – such as laminitis – for some owners to sit up and actually do something about their horse’s weight.

In one study, Prevalence of and Risk Factors for Equine Obesity in Great Britain Based on Owner-Reported Body Condition Scores, by Charlotte Robbins, nearly 16% of horses and ponies were reported to have a history of laminitis – a much higher figure than the 7% previously shown in the 2005 BEVA (British Equine Veterinary Association) study.

If you refine this information and look at the incidence of laminitis in only those deemed overweight, rather than the entire horse population, the figure increases to 20%. This highlights that one in five overweight horses is likely to develop laminitis and reveals that they are at a far greater risk than those of moderate weight or less.

Why are there more overweight horses?

Obese-horse credit-photo-to-Blue-Cross
Photo: An obese-horse, photo provided by: Blue Cross

Breed: Breed can play a big part in a horse becoming overweight or obese. For example, a study by Sarah Giles of Bristol Vet School reveals that native cobs are 13 times more likely to be overweight compared with lightweight breeds.

Natives are usually good doers, designed to get a lot from a little feed. They evolved to eke out an existence in their natural habitat, where grazing was sparse. Because of this, these breeds will eat a large amount to obtain what they need to survive.

Research shows that pony breeds can consume 5% of their body weight as dry matter in 24 hours. Domesticated natives given feed of a greater nutritional value – and still eating in this manner – will invariably pile on the pounds.

Work: Research shows that the percentage of ponies not receiving any structured exercise is higher than for horses. In the wild, they would burn off energy by travelling across the land to find better grazing, driven by their natural instinct to consume large quantities.

Today, ponies with little workload, turned out in the paddock, still eat the same amount – but their diet is made up of richer grass and higher-quality feeds. This lack of exercise means that the energy in outweighs the energy out and the pony ends up putting on weight.

Sarah Giles’s study showed that horses and ponies given unrestricted access to grass showed the largest increases in girth size from winter to summer.

Limiting turnout time would seem like an obvious step to help cut calories, but this isn’t always the most efficient way because in just three hours a pony could still eat 1% of its body weight.

Grazing muzzles might be a better option because they have been shown to reduce grass intake by up to 80%. They also allow the horse or pony to enjoy turnout in the fresh air while having contact with others.

How can you tell if a horse is fat?

Condition scoring provides an objective way for you to check your horse or pony’s body condition. This system looks at the key areas where fat is stored, such as the crest of the neck and around the top of the head or tail, and gives it a score.

If this leaves you a bit confused then the first step is to look at your horse’s ribs. Are they visible? If they aren’t and you have to push quite hard to find them, your horse is probably too fat. If the ribs are visible but your horse has a cresty neck then this can still be an indication of trouble ahead and you should seek advice from a nutritionist or vet on how to promote weight loss safely.

To see what you should be looking for, visit the Dengie website, www.dengie.com

Or view on YouTube [youtube height=”HEIGHT” width=”WIDTH”]http://youtu.be/Nu7ksGa9XJ4[/youtube]

Exercise is important

The more work a horse does, the more energy it uses – it is common sense, really. However, exercise is also thought to be helpful in maintaining sensitivity to insulin, which is really important because insulin resistance is linked to laminitis. The bottom line is that regular exercise is a great way to help reduce the chances of an overweight horse developing this debilitating condition.

Get it weighed


To control the calories, you need to know just how much your horse should be eating in the first place. To calculate this, you must know its weight – a guesstimate isn’t good enough.

If you don’t have a weight tape, invest in one. Although it is not completely accurate, it does give you a pretty good idea. It also makes it easy to keep track of whether your horse is losing or gaining weight!

If there are a number of you on a livery yard, why not contact the Dengie nutrition team, which could arrange for its portable weighbridge to pay you a visit?

Weighing applies to feed, too. It’s amazing just how much hay can be packed into one net! Although we always say that forage should be given on an ad-lib basis, when it comes to overweight horses this is one exception to the rule.

If your livery yard only provides forage with a high nutritional value, try adding oat straw to reduce the calories. It is used as an ingredient in chopped fibre feeds, so there is no reason why you can’t mix it with hay or haylage too.

Take care to introduce it gradually – and don’t use it at all if your horse has poor dentition. Another option is to replace the forage completely or partially with a low-calorie chopped fibre feed – even a couple of kilograms might be just enough to keep your horse’s weight under control.

Keep it balanced

Cutting back on grass can result in a shortage of the vitamins and minerals that are naturally occurring in pasture. To keep your horse or pony topped up, a broad-spectrum supplement or balancer should be used – and it won’t provide any additional calories.

Supplements or balancers can be mixed with a low-calorie chopped fibre feed, which is all that’s needed alongside forage. Even in winter, good doers and those that are overweight don’t need more – if they are holding their weight, they are getting enough.

Don’t be tempted to feed a mix or cube and remember that even low-energy versions can still provide a great deal of energy. Just half a scoop of mix gives enough to fuel 20 minutes of schooling – and, if you can’t do that every day, the energy or calories will be stored as fat.


Weight-watching tips

  • Don’t over-rug native breeds in particular – they have fat stores that provide insulation and energy for keeping warm. If a horse comes out of winter carrying too much weight, it will just keep getting bigger on the spring grass and eventually end up with laminitis.
  • Get an accurate assessment of how hard your horse is working – horse owners nearly always overestimate workload.
  • Ideally, horses should receive 1.5% of their body weight as forage each day, but this might need to be reduced to 1% to promote weight loss in severe cases.
  • If you are limiting forage intake, divide it into as many small offerings as possible to keep the time the gut is “empty” as short as possible.
  • Exercise your horse or pony as much as you can. Lungeing, long-reining and driving are all ways to provide exercise even if time is limited or they are too small to ride!
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