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My Horse is Too Fat. What Should I Do?

By Fernanda Camargo, DVM, PhD; Laurie Lawrence, PhD; and Bob Coleman, MS, PhD, PAS, of the University of Kentucky Department of Animal and Food Sciences

As we understand more about the impact that obesity and emaciation have on animal health, it is imperative that we strive to keep our horses at an optimum body condition. We’ve learned how to body condition score (BCS) our horses, so let’s take a look at what horses with a BCS of 6 and higher might look like:

Now, here are some tips you can use if your horse could stand to lose some weight.

Be patient.

Depending on how fat your horse is, it could take several months to arrive at his target weight and condition score. Look for small steady changes and don’t be surprised if after some initial improvements, your horse appears to plateau. If that happens, revisit the feeding program and the exercise program and evaluate whether additional changes are necessary.

Think about calories first.

A mature horse will lose weight and condition when the number of calories it consumes is less than the number of calories it uses. Therefore, to decrease body condition the horse must either decrease calorie intake or increase calorie use (or, ideally, both). It isn’t healthy to starve a horse into weight loss, so a combination of increased calorie use and decreased calorie intake is a good approach.

Understand where calories come from.

The horse consumes calories from its pasture, hay, and grains and/or concentrated feed (such as a sweet feed). But most people underestimate the importance of hay and pasture in the horse’s diet. If hay and pasture are good quality and abundant, they can contribute the majority of the calories that a horse needs—your horse might not even need grain. The fiber in hay and pasture is also important to keep the digestive tract healthy.

Concentrates have the most calories per pound. Therefore, the first step in reducing the calorie intake of fat horses is to decrease the concentrate.

Also, do not add any extra fat to the diet. Fat is high in calories and, although it helps have a shiny coat, it is a source of calories that an already overweight horse doesn’t need.

Dealing with feeding-time frenzy.

Some horses become extremely agitated when other horses get concentrate and they don’t. To minimize this frenzy, feed a fat horse a small amount (one eight-ounce cup) of a high-protein, high-mineral supplement (often referred to a balancer pellet or a supplement pellet) at the same time the other horses get their regular concentrate. This small amount of food will help appease the fat horse and it will meet its needs for protein, vitamins, and minerals not provided by the hay.

Another option for feeding-time frenzy is to purchase some hay cubes or pellets and feed a small amount (again, less than a pound). This is a good appeasement strategy but doesn’t provide the same nutrient support as the balancer pellet. Generally, these feeds will be less palatable than concentrate and it might take the horse a few days to adapt, but most horses eventually do.

Restrict pasture access.

Lush pasture can provide an almost-unending source of calories for your horse as you can’t control the amount of grass he eats per day. The best way to reduce pasture intake is to put the horse in a drylot (sacrifice lot) where you will be able to control the amount of food your horse will have access to. This is, of course, only feasible, if there is space in your property for a dry lot. Confining a horse to a dry lot may decrease his level of activity, which will, in turn, reduce the number of calories he uses each day. Consider using a young horse as a companion to keep the fat horse moving—just ensure the horses get along so no one gets hurt. Remember to feed the youngster separately, as he will need a diet designed to meet his needs.

Use grazing muzzles.

Another way to restrict pasture intake is to use a grazing muzzle. Some horses will adapt very well to the muzzle, while others will sulk. Muzzles allow horses to eat very little at a time, and the horse will not be by himself in a dry lot. Pasturemates will keep that horse moving all day. Just be careful to fit the muzzle correctly so it doesn’t cause any facial sores.

Also, when horses are muzzled, your water source is important. Some automatic waterers have openings that are small, in which case it will be impossible for your muzzled horse to drink sufficient amounts of water. If you are watering out of a bucket or trough, then you should have no trouble.

Another thing to keep in mind when muzzling horses is that it is useless to muzzle a horse, say, for six hours of the day, and let him eat for the remaining 18 hours. He will make up for those lost six hours in the other 18 hours. You should keep the muzzle on whenever the horse is in the pasture—consistency is key.

Feed clean, late-maturity grass hay.

Hay will be primary diet component of horses managed in a drylot, barn or large paddock with minimal available pasture. Fat horses should be fed hay that was harvested in late maturity. Late-maturity grass hay (for example timothy or orchardgrass) is high in slowly digested fiber and, thus, is lower in calories than early maturity hay.

In addition, because late-maturity hay is higher in fiber, the stems are thicker, and it takes the horse more time to chew. More chewing time means that horse has less idle time between meals, and chewing uses calories. If you get your hay analyzed, look for something that contains more than 60 percent neutral detergent fiber (on an as-fed basis).

Control the amount of hay.

Some feeding guidelines suggest that a horse should receive two pounds of hay for every 100 pounds of body weight (or 20 pounds of hay for a 1,000-pound horse). That is a pretty good guideline for a horse in moderate body condition, but for the very fat horse, it is probably more than is needed. Keep in mind that a horse with a condition score of 8 and a current weight of 1,000 pounds is really an 850- to 900-pound horse with a lot of extra padding. A reasonable starting point then for a weight loss hay allocation for that horse would be 2 pounds of hay for each 100 pounds of the target weight, or about 17 pounds of hay per day. If no weight loss occurs at this rate of feeding then, the amount can be slowly decreased. However, restricting hay too much might lead to digestive disorders or undesirable behaviors, so it is desirable to maintain a hay intake of at least 1½ pounds for each 100 pounds of the target weight.

Find ways to help your horse burn more calories.

As suggested above, putting a young or active horse with a sedentary fat horse could stimulate him to move around more. Turning stabled horses into dry lots for several hours a day can increase their activity. In a paddock, put hay and water away from fence lines, gates, resting places (and each other) to encourage movement. Use feeding devices or practices that slow the rate of eating or increase the work of eating. For example, use a small-hole haynets or, when feeding hay in the pasture, put it in many small piles to make the horse move from place to place. If you normally blanket your horse in the winter or keep him in the barn a lot, you’re helping him reduce calorie use. So, minimize blankets and time in a barn as much as possible, to maximize calorie use in the winter.

Exercise.

Regular exercise is one of the best ways to increase calorie use. But before starting an ambitious exercise program, have a veterinarian and a farrier evaluate your fat horse to make certain he doesn’t have any underlying diseases or lameness. Once you are sure the horse is healthy and able to start exercising, formulate a plan that gradually increases the amount and difficulty of the regular exercise.

You can start with lunging exercise, for example, 10 minutes a day at a trot for a week, then increase to 15 minutes at a trot for the second week, and progressively increase the duration until you reach about 45 minutes at least a few times a week. Remember to increase the duration or level of activity, but never both at the same time. Ideally it would be good to exercise a horse every day, but if this is not feasible, exercising three to five times a week will still be helpful.

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