In my last blog post, we discussed the difficult topic of weight management in dogs, and so this week I thought it was only fair to discuss the problem in horses. Many principles applied to weight management for dogs is very similar in horses, so bear with me as I may sound like I am repeating myself but I still wanted to address the problem of obesity in horses.
In 2019, the Telegraph reported that 50% of UK horses are overweight and 70% of native ponies are obese. Obesity in horses is now considered by equine welfare charities as the largest threat to equine welfare in the UK.
Just like with dogs, the problem with obesity in horses is that it significantly compromises the health of the horse and their quality of life. The extra weight causes stress on vital organs and their all-important musculoskeletal structures, leading to diseases such as laminitis, an excruciatingly painful condition of the foot. Obesity can also lead to poor athletic performance and behavioural problems.
How can you help your horse?
As we begin the month of March, spring really does feel like it’s just around the corner, and it will not be long before luscious long grass begins to make its comeback. At this time, horses unsurprisingly begin to gain weight. Therefore, you shouldn’t worry if your horse looks a little thinner coming out of winter (although a sudden loss of weight could mean an underlying problem so it is best to consult your vet). But prevention really is better than cure, and avoiding weight gain is far easier than weight loss. So I have out together some hints and tips below which can help prevent considerable weight gain or support your horse’s weight loss:
1. Assessing weight and condition
Weight should be carefully monitored in your horse or pony. This can be done weekly using a weigh-tape and recorded so that diets can be adjusted accordingly. You can also check their physical body condition by checking landmarks like the ribs (which should be easily felt), the crest (if this is large and hard, there is a problem and a diet should be looked into as soon as possible) and their hindquarters. A body condition score can also be given to your horse to help monitor their weight. If you would like an accurate body condition score or to be shown how to accurately score your horse, please get in touch and we can look at assessing your horse or pony together.
2. Managing their energy intake
When the weather gets chillier, owner’s often feel the need to increase the volume of concentrate they feed to their horse. This is a common misconception, but it really isn’t necessary unless the horse is in hard work. Horses are incredibly adaptable and have evolved to cope in lower temperatures, with their bodies functioning on very few calories. Ponies in particular survive on a fibre-based and often do not need the volume of feed we offer.
A high fibre diet alongside some forage and their essential vitamins and minerals are all they require. You can also prevent overfeeding by weighing their feed. Moreover, feed intake can be slowed by feeding little and often, as well as using measures such as bowls and scoops.
Even in these last few weeks of winter, the weather can still be grey, wet and miserable and it can be very easy to put off exercising your horse. However, exercise is crucial in a weight-loss plan or to prevent gaining excess weight. There are so many ways that you can exercise your horses, whether that be in-hand or ridden. You should be aware of your horses’ level of fitness and progression of exercises should be slow- a sudden increase in exercise can make the horse injury prone. If you would like some help creating an exercise programme for weight-loss, strengthening or increased performance- please get in touch and we can create one together, to fit around yours and your horse’s schedule.
Forage should be available for horses at all times for their digestive system to be able to function correctly. If you still have good grazing, it may be necessary to restrict the amount of grass available to your horse. If your grazing is poor, then you may need to provide hay or haylage as an alternative to grass. Furthermore, if your horse is on a diet, soaking hay is a great way to reduce the natural sugars in the hay whilst still maintaining the fibre content. Hay can be soaked for anytime between half an hour to 12 hours- it then just needs to be rinsed before being fed to your horse.
A final word of encouragement
To conclude, I wanted to encourage owners because I understand the difficulty of weight management in horses! It is hard work to keep on top of your horses weight, especially if it is a breed which is far more efficient at storing energy and fat, such as cobs. But, alongside your vet, we can work as a team in an open way so that your horse is kept as healthy as possible. Improving the lives of the equines in the UK by reducing the incidence of obesity-related disease could be a very powerful and rewarding thing we can do for our much loved horses and ponies. And isn’t that the least they deserve?
If you would like to talk more about this subject or are concerned that your horse may be on the slightly heavier side- please get in touch and we can discuss some further techniques and methods that can help counteract the weight gain.
Pycock (J). 2019. The rise in equine obesity. [Online]. Available from: https://veterinary-practice.com/article/the-rise-in-equine-obesity
Blue Cross. 2019. Horse obesity prevention and management. [Online]. Available from: https://www.bluecross.org.uk/pet-advice/horse-obesity-prevention-and-management