Plump. Chubby. Rotund. Portly. Do any of these words describe your horse? An overweight horse is subject to a variety of equine health problems, so you may need to adjust your horse’s diet to maintain optimal weight.
Given the opportunity, an overweight horse will eat more than he needs. It can be hard to deny that imploring look, that pleeeeease feed me look. But excess equine poundage puts a strain on almost every body system. Your horse will be better off if your keep his weight down and his exercise levels up.
Keeping your horse at the optimal equine weight is not always easy. Some horses are “easy keepers”, requiring minimal calories to maintain their best weight. And some horses, as they approach middle age, begin to retain unneeded weight (a nice way of saying “get fat”) due to reduced activity and metabolic slow down.
The excess weight carried by an overweight horse causes a number of negative effects, including:
• Increased stress on the heart and lungs
• Greater risk of laminitis or equine founder.
• More strain on feet joints and limbs
• Worsened symptoms of arthritis
• Less efficient cooling of body temperatures
• Fat build-up around organs; interferes with normal function
• Greater lethargy and more easily fatigued
Fitness is a subjective measurement, so equine health care professionals use a “Body Condition Scoring” system to measure a horse’s level of condition.
A horse’s physical condition is based on the look and feel of six key confirmation points: neck, withers, crease of the back, tailhead, ribs and shoulder girth. Scores range from 1 (emaciated) to 9 (obese).
Score of 1: Poor. Animal extremely emaciated. Ribs, spine, hips and tailhead protruding prominently. Bone structure easily noticeable, no fatty tissue can be felt.
Score of 2: Very Thin. Animal emaciated. Slight fat covering over Ribs, spine, hips and tailhead protruding prominently. Bone structure faintly noticeable.
Score of 3: Thin. Fat buildup on spine. Slight fat cover over ribs. Spine and ribs easily discernable; tailhead and hip joints slightly discernable, lower pelvic bones not discernable. Withers, shoulders and neck accentuated.
Score of 4: Moderately Thin. Slight ridge along back; faint outline of ribs discernable; hip joints not discernable. Withers, shoulders and neck not obviously thin.
Score of 5: Moderate. Back is flat; ribs not visually distinguishable but easily felt; fat around tailhead beginning to feel spongy; withers appear rounded over spine. Shoulders and neck blend smoothly into body.
Score of 6: Moderately Fleshy. May have slight crease down back; fat over ribs spongy, fat around tailhead soft. Fat beginning to be deposited along side of withers, behind shoulders and along sides of neck. Not a fat horse, just kind of beefy.
Score of 7: Fleshy. May have crease down back; individual ribs can be felt, but noticeable filling between ribs with fat; fat around tailhead soft; fat deposited along withers behind shoulders and along neck. Warning: overweight horse in the making!
Score of 8: Fat. Crease down back; difficult to feel ribs; fat around tailhead very soft; area along withers filled with fat; area behind shoulder filled with fat; noticeable thickening of neck; fat deposited along inner thighs. Officially an overweight horse.
Score of 9: Extremely Fat. Obvious crease down back; patchy fat appearing over ribs; bulging fat around tailhead, along withers, behind shoulders and along neck; fat along inner thigh may rub together; flank filled with fat. This is an severely overweight horse.
For most horses, body condition scores in the Moderate to Moderately Fleshy range, (scores of 5 and 6) are ideal. Of course, certain horses may carry more or less weight successfully, but any horse rating more than 8 may be considered an overweight horse and a candidate for an equine diet plan.
An Equine Weight Reduction Plan
You need to begin with a sound horse nutrition plan and a regular exercise program. But any equine weight loss plan must be implemented gradually so you don’t stress your overweight horse.
When you increase the amount of exercise, you increase your horse’s metabolic rate and he’ll burn more calories. When you shift to a lower calorie diet, your horse will utilize his fat reserves as fuel. But be sure that the reduced rations provide all the needed nutrients.
Here are some guidelines to get you overweight horse on the road to good health:
Be Patient: Weight reduction should be a slow, steady process so as not to stress the horse or create metabolic upsets.
Decrease Food: Make changes in both the type and amount of feed gradually. Reduce rations by no more than 10% over a 7 to 10 day period.
Increase Exercise: Gradually build time and intensity as the horse’s fitness improves.
Drink Up: Provide plenty of clean, fresh water for your horse.
Feed Carefully: Select horse feeds that provide plenty of high-quality fiber but are low in total energy.
Measure Carefully: Measure feeds by weight rather than volume to determine appropriate rations.
Choose Carefully: Select feeds that are lower in fat since fat is an energy-dense nutrient source.
Make A Switch: Switch or reduce the amount of alfalfa hay fed.
Replace with a mature grass or oat hay to reduce caloric intake.
No Cheating: Feed overweight horses separately from others so there’s no chance of double dipping in his neighbors food.
Extreme Measures: In cases of extreme obesity, pasture time may need to be limited to control caloric intake.
A Balanced Diet: Consider age and activity level when designing a horse diet. Make sure your horse’s vitamin, mineral and protein requirements continue to be met. A supplement may be added to the ration to compensate for lower-quality, less nutrient dense feeds.
Keeping your horse in top condition through a sensible diet and exercise program will prevent a number of weight related health conditions. Your veterinarian or equine nutritionist can help you design a program that will work for you and your healthy horse.