An Overweight Horse: No Joking Matter

We horse owners have our ways of laughing things off. “My horse isn’t fat, he’s fluffy.” Or, “My horse is in shape…Round is a shape.” I’ll admit that one of my own geldings has been described as just “big-boned.”

Those things sound better, after all, than the words “morbidly obese.” SmartPak veterinarian Dr. Lydia Gray says that many horse owners have on “skinny goggles,” which cause an inability to see – or a refusal to admit – that there is a problem in the pasture. But as the saying goes, you certainly can kill a horse with kindness. An overweight horse has to cope with increased stress on his heart and lungs; more strain on his hooves, joints and soft tissues; fatigue; and, in the summer months, less-efficient body cooling. As an added menace, laminitis can also rear its ugly, life-threatening head.

Recognizing an Overweight Horse

So how do you know when your horse needs to trim down? Let’s review the Henneke body condition scoring system. This objective system allows the ranking of horses from 1 to 9, based on the amount of fat present in certain body parts.

Horses that are 7s, 8s and 9s are considered fleshy, fat and extremely fat, respectively, with telltale signs being a crease down the back and increasing amounts of fat over the ribs, at the tailhead, along the withers and behind the shoulder. A thickened neck is also an indicator.

And remember that this isn’t a sliding scale. Brutal honesty is essential here, because regardless of your horse’s age, discipline or bloodlines, fat is still fat, and these upper-end scores are the sign of a problem.

Dr. Gray says that periodically scoring your horse’s body condition score is of utmost importance, so that you can see if your weight-loss strategies are working and adjust them as necessary as your horse transitions back to a healthy score of 5.

What’s the Cause?

Well, as Dr. gray points out, there are some problems with modern horse-keeping – much like the problems with modern human-keeping.

Sedentary lifestyles aren’t doing anyone any favors, after all. Diet and exercise – too much of one and not enough of the other – can be a culprit.

Genetics also can play a role. Think of wild horses and how they evolved to subsist on virtually nothing. Donkeys and English ponies are other examples, Dr. Gray says, of the equine “thrifty gene” that allows for the conservation of calories, the ability to survive in frigid temperatures and the extraction of nutrition from things like scrub-brush.

Can Quarter Horses inherit the thrifty gene? Absolutely, Dr. Gray says.

They can also fall victim to a disease process called equine metabolic syndrome, which is especially dangerous because of its link to laminitis. Not all overweight horses, however, have EMS, and for the purpose of the main story, we’ll focus on those who do not.

When you’re dealing with an easy keeper, it’s essential that you start with some cold, hard numbers. You’ll need to estimate as closely as possible how much your horse weighs by using either a weight tape or a weight calculator.

These options might not be 100 percent accurate, but if the same person is measuring the horse over a period of time – so that the measurements are consistent – you’ll get a good sense of weight loss or gain.

And, you’ll need to know what your hay weighs. Dr. Gray weighs her hay by the bale and by the flake, so she knows exactly how much “Newman,” hereasy keeper, is getting.

The third number you’ll need is the one to your veterinarian’s office. Any time you start making changes that affect your horse’s health, it’s essential to get an expert on board.

We’ll offer guidelines here, but those are no substitute for the advice of your veterinarian who has seen your horse in person. He or she will also be able to determine if equine metabolic syndrome is a possibility.

So, the guidelines? The general rule of thumb is to feed horses 2 percent of their body weight in forage each day. For an average 1,000-pound horse, that would be 20 pounds of hay per day.

Start by calculating how much hay your horse is getting now, and then gradually – over the course of a few weeks – adjust that amount to 1.5 percent of his body weight. For our example horse, that would mean he’d eventually get 15 pounds a day.

The type of hay is important, too, and it’s best to find one with a low level of sugars and starches. Soaking hay may also be helpful, as Dr. Gray says that 30 minutes in warm water or 60 minutes in cold water removes some of these simple carbohydrates but not other nutrients.

In Part 1 of this series, we learned that small-hole hay nets are great for hard keepers, because they keep the horse interested in his hay but not able to make a mess of it. Dr. Gray also strongly recommends them for easy keepers, because they’ll slow down the horse’s hay consumption. The normal-sized hay nets are suitable for stalls and paddocks, and there are even super-sized ones that fit over a full bale of hay.

And we know that turnout is good for a horse’s mind and body, but lush, green grass doesn’t fit with the diet plan. Dr. Gray says that grazing muzzles allow horses to enjoy the best of both worlds.

Balancing Your Horse’s Diet

Some horse owners might be tempted to feed their overweight horses just hay – and perhaps a lower-quality hay, at that – in an attempt to promote weight loss. But that strategy might cause unintended consequences.

“We’ve found that having the right ratio of minerals can help horses’ metabolism and help them maintain a correct weight,” Dr. Gray says. “When you deprive them of basic nutrition, sometimes that makes the problem worse.”

Microminerals such as copper, manganese, zinc, selenium and iodine are essential to metabolism, so it’s essential to provide a complete and balanced diet that meets the horse’s minimum requirements.

Dr. Gray explains horse feed as a pyramid. At the top are vitamin-mineral supplements that are low in volume, with feeding rates as little as one ounce

The next step down on the pyramid is a ration balancer. Ration balancers are useful for horses who need to feel like they’re getting a little something – maybe every other horse in the barn gets grain, and they don’t want to be skipped. And they’re also good for horses who may be getting lower-quality hay and need the protein boost.

Dr. Gray uses a ration balancer for her easy keeper, as it offers a little more “stuff” for his other supplements to be mixed into.

Next on the pyramid would be fortified grains. “That’s when you begin to add calories that these overweight horses don’t need,” Dr. Gray says.

These grains also provide vitamins, minerals and protein – but only at adequate levels when they’re fed as directed on the bag. The recommended feeding rate might hover in the five-pound range.

“So people who are saying, ‘I know my horse is fat, and I’m just giving him a handful of sweet feed morning and night.’ … that may be a carrier for supplements, but it’s not enough volume or weight to provide adequate vitamins and minerals,” Dr. Gray says.

The bottom level of the food pyramid would be complete feeds, which offer vitamins, minerals, calories and roughage at the recommended levels of approximately 15 pounds a day.

Dr. Gray recommends that easy keepers stay at one of the top two levels of the pyramid – where they’ll get nutrients but not calories.

Remember that any diet changes need to be made gradually, over the course of seven to 10 days, to reduce the risk of colic.

Sometimes, additional help can be found in a supplement that supports normal metabolism.

Dr. Gray says ingredients that have been found to help metabolism include chromium and magnesium; cinnamon, fenugreek and other herbs such as adaptogens; amino acids like taurine and tyrosine; and biotin.

Many of these supplement are targeted to horses with equine metabolic syndrome but can also be useful – with a veterinarian’s guidance – in horses who are simply overweight.

“Sometimes the maintenance serving is appropriate in an overweight horse or one with active insulin resistance,” Dr. Gray says, “but as the horse loses weight and his metabolism improves, the ingredients in this supplement are no longer needed at that level. On the other hand, horses that are refractory to diet and exercise may need their supplement levels bumped up during the spring and fall when metabolisms change.”

Veterinarian advice is key here. The doc might say, “That product worked fantastically, along with exercise and your other diet changes, so this horse is now a 5; I don’t want him any thinner. So whatever you’re doing, we need to back off a little bit and see if we can maintain him at this new weight.”

Dr. Gray says antioxidants might also be helpful to these horses whose bodies are undergoing changes.

“Horses who are overweight or losing weight need to be protected from free radical damage, just like horses with insulin resistance from equine metabolic syndrome, so I’m a fan of vitamins E and C, alpha lipoic acid, bioflavonoids and other ingredients that neutralize dangerous free radicals,” she says.

Levothyroxine sodium is a pharmaceutical (prescription required) that may be worth talking to your veterinarian about, Dr. Gray says.

It can jump-start a weight loss program, although its use should be short-term, and it also increases insulin sensitivity, Dr. Gray says. It isn’t FDA-approved, however, for the treatment of equine metabolic syndrome or for obesity, and Dr. Gray says its use “is a decision you need to come to with your veterinarian.”

Exercising Your Horse

My horse is on turnout, so he’s exercising himself. right? Dr. Gray has just one word for that theory: “Phooey.”

“These easy keepers are that for a reason. Their favorite gait is most likely the halt, where very few calories are burned,” she says.

So you, the horse owner, have to put on your personal trainer hat.

Dr. Gray says that 30 minutes of controlled exercise a day is ideal, and it’s even better if you can split it up into two sessions.

But any exercise is better than no exercise, so she encourages horse owners to do the best they can. And make it fun for both horse and human. There’s hand walking, longeing, long-lining, riding, ponying and driving – and even that can be mixed up with ground work, hill work, cavaletti or free jumping.

A few caveats: First, don’t force exercise on a horse who is not sound – especially if he is suffering from laminitis. This is where your veterinarian needs to be called upon. Also, recognize that some difficulties under saddle – such as an unwillingness to canter – may stem from a subtle case of laminitis.

And, don’t make an abrupt transition from pasture potato to marathon runner. Introduce exercise gradually, starting with some of the lower-impact options.

Tracking Your Horse’s Weight

Remember that it’s a multi-pronged approach. Much like with human weight loss, there’s no one easy answer, but by addressing the basics outlined above, your horse can get on a healthier track … maybe even be the next Equine Biggest Loser!

Chart your horse’s BCS regularly – say on a monthly basis – so you’ll know how your horse is trending and you will be able to develop a long-term management plan with the help of your veterinarian.

And if you have a horse who seems to have a predisposition toward weight gain, take steps early to keep him at a healthy weight.

Courtesy of America’s Horse Daily