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Question of the Week: Help for an overweight horse

How can I get my horse to a healthy weight without compromising nutrition?

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Appaloosa horse Q: I have an 11-year-old Appaloosa gelding that is overweight. I rode him every day during the summer and he didn't really lose any weight. We've had a drought for the past few months, so there's not much grazing in his pasture, but he's still not losing weight! He goes out to a more grassy pasture every other night and gets half a cup of grain twice a day. How can I get his weight down without compromising nutrition?

A: The weight-loss battle can be just as challenging for horses as it is for their human counterparts. Gradual changes in genetics, nutrition, and trends in general horse management over the past few decades seem to have produced a sub-set of the horse population that is just plain fat and determinedly so. Historically ponies, especially of the Shetland type, have been the primary “easy-keepers”, which is a nice way of saying an equine is overweight, but now many horses with a Quarter Horse or Morgan background are being described this way as well. Appaloosas, depending on the lineage, can be of similar body type as the Quarter Horse – average height with the potential for large muscles and a generally “stocky” look, which seems to push the horse in favor of packing on the pounds when diet and exercise aren’t monitored carefully, but that’s not to say the generally lanky Thoroughbreds and fine-boned Arabians out there don’t have their share of weight problems too.

As with any diet plan for any species, the two keys to weight loss are to increase exercise and decrease caloric intake. Let’s start with the first point: exercise. The riding you describe doing over the summer is great – keep the exercise up as much as you can and remember that five shorter rides per week are better for your horse than one long ride a week.

The second point, decreasing your horse’s caloric intake, tends to be more difficult. Equine diets usually consist of two parts: concentrate and roughage. Let’s begin with the concentrate, which is the grain your horse is getting twice daily. Most horses, unless they are medically compromised, a mare in late pregnancy or early lactation, a young growing horse, or a competitive athlete in training at top level performance, do not need grain. The nutrients obtained from pasture are currently enough to nutritionally sustain your mount.

Removing grain from your horse’s diet is the first step in cutting his calories. This may institute some “growing pains” in your horse as he realizes his rations are being cut. Diets work best when they are gradually instituted, so begin by slowly decreasing his grain portions instead of ceasing them completely. Eventually, cut down to graining once a day and then decrease the portion size to not much more than a third of a cup, if any at all.

The second and most important component of a horse’s diet is roughage. Providing bulk, roughage is necessary for promoting proper gut health and motility and although roughage as a rule is not as calorie dense as grain, pasture and certain types of hays such as alfalfa are still loaded with sugars and protein which can pack on the pounds. You say your horse is on a grassier pasture every other night – it is a safe bet that this pasture in combination with the grain are what are hampering weight loss in your horse. Cutting down your horse’s consumption of this more lush pasture can be done a few ways: either simply limit his time on this pasture, construct strip grazing, if that’s an option, or have your horse wear a grazing muzzle when he’s out.

In regards to nutrition, the above recommendations to cut your horse’s grain and grass exposure will not compromise his nutritional health. The limited pasture your horse will have access to, assuming it’s not brown from drought, has enough nutrients to maintain your horse’s health. If you are still concerned, you can offer your horse a mineral block, although check the molasses content before purchasing, as some brands tend to be more sugar than mineral.

Although overweight horses are not prone to heart disease and high cholesterol as are overweight humans due to the make up of equine vegetarian diets, they are more prone to a handful of equine-specific problems. Laminitis seems to generally favor the overweight horse, and musculoskeletal problems (increased wear and tear on joints and soft tissues such as ligaments and tendons) can be made worse by carrying extra weight.

Overweight horses also seem to be more prone to the fairly recently identified and vaguely named “equine metabolic syndrome” or EMS. A triad of problems consisting of obesity, insulin resistance, and laminitis, EMS has been compared to type two diabetes, where the equine body has problems metabolizing glucose and processing adipose (fat) tissue. Similar in some ways to Cushing’s disease, this syndrome can be somewhat managed by diet and weight restriction, although pharmaceutical intervention may also be required. If your horse shows signs of “crestiness”, or the deposition of excess fat along his crest, or other odd places such as around the tailhead, and develops a particularly shaggy winter coat that is slow to shed out in the spring, he may be developing EMS or Cushing’s disease, or both. A low functioning thyroid can also cause weight gain in horses. Contact your veterinarian, as there are a handful of blood tests that can diagnose these problems. Preventing these problems by putting your horse on a diet is much easier than combating these problems in the future.

-- Anna O'Brien, DVM

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Question of the Week: Help for an overweight horse

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Reader Comments

kygal    rural, KY

3/25/2013 5:48:05 PM

good avdice

PKL    Somewhere, WY

3/25/2013 6:19:01 AM

Good reading and it makes alot of sense. It is just as hard for animals to loose weight as people. Less calories and more excerise.

Galadriel    Lothlorien, ME

3/25/2013 12:04:42 AM

Great article. It always amazes me how many horse people think that grain is necessary. We just got a teenage horse who has eaten grain all his life. Since he is used to this "treat" every morning we gradually switched him over to a handful of alfalfa pellets instead. He loves them and they're so much healthier!

Galadriel    Lothlorien, ME

3/24/2013 11:57:47 PM

Good to remember.

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