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How to manage your horse's weight
Most horse owners realise why it’s important for horses not be underweight, but being overweight is just as unhealthy and can be much more difficult to manage.
Although many owners understand their horse shouldn’t carry excess weight, the challenge is often in recognising what a healthy condition is actually like as it has become normal to see horses carrying more weight than they should.
Between 2007 and 2010 World Horse Welfare ran a ’Right Weight Road Show’ visiting over 25 yards and events and assessing over 700 horses. Through these roadshows we found over 50 percent of the horses assessed were carrying more than their ideal weight. This is in line with other research which found 35 – 45 per cent of the UK’s horses are believed to be overweight or obese.
Managing a horse’s weight effectively can be a real challenge and is something which the teams at World Horse Welfare’s four UK Rescue and Rehoming Centres have significant experience of dealing with. Whilst more of the horses who come into our care are underweight and malnourished, those who are overweight will often have a much longer and more difficult journey through rehabilitation.
An overweight horse will not only have a poor quality of life but will also be at a higher risk of a number of health problems, such as laminitis.
- A pony showing the laminitic stance
There are many triggers which can cause laminitis but excess weight is one of the most frequent and also one of the most avoidable. There is also a clear link between excess weight and Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS), which is another key cause of laminitis. Laminitis can affect any horse or pony, regardless of breed or type, at any time of the year and is an incredibly painful condition which must always be treated as an emergency. Once a horse has suffered laminitis, they will be susceptible for the rest of their life, but by regularly monitoring and controlling your horse’s condition you should be able to significantly reduce the risk of weight-induced laminitis.
Carrying excess weight also places extra strain on a horse’s heart and lungs, as well as added pressure on their limbs and joints which can cause a number of problems just as it will in humans.
An overweight horse will undoubtedly be less able to perform in his ridden work, whatever that might involve, and it is also important to consider the combined impact of excess weight along with tack and a rider.
How do you tell if a horse is overweight?
The key thing here is to understand what you are trying to assess. Knowing your horse’s actual weight is useful but it won’t tell you if this is appropriate for them. Although there are guideline weight to height ranges there is so much variety within horses that these are of limited value. The best way to find out if your horse is carrying the right amount of body fat is to learn how to fat score (also known as body condition scoring).
There are two main fat scoring systems – the 1-5 system (Carroll and Huntingdon) or the 1-9 system (Henneke). Either system provides an effect way of assessing condition, with the key being to get hands-on and feel for fat cover rather than just looking at your horse, but if you have limited experience of fat scoring the 1-5 system is easier to apply. Find out more here.
- Fat scoring
A weightape provides a good tool for monitoring weight and identifying changes but remember this does not reflect condition. The most accurate weightapes have both a horse and pony side so you can choose the correct one according to your horse’s height. A combination of fat scoring and use of a weightape is ideal for ongoing weight management.
If you have access to a weighbridge this is also a good tool for monitoring changes in weight and will provide an accurate measurement.
If you are concerned about your horse’s weight and thinking about putting him on a diet, we would always recommend speaking to your vet first as they will be best placed to advise on whether your horse does need to lose weight and how you can go about this safely.
Whatever you do, never crash-diet an overweight horse or you could put them at risk of hyperlipaemia, which can be fatal. This condition causes fat cells to flood the bloodstream, overloading the body’s ability to cope.
When considering weight loss options a good place to start is by setting out what you are currently doing; how much feed does your horse have each day? (Remember that grass and hay also count as feed.) How many hours is he turned out? How much exercise does he do? Does he wear a rug? Output is just as important as intake so any plan needs to cover all aspects of your horse’s lifestyle and routine.
Looking at the current situation will help you see where changes can be made and it is important to stress that a few small changes can make all the difference so don’t feel you have to devote hours each week to increasing your horse’s exercise.
- Ensure forage is weighed carefully
If you do provide hard feed, consider whether you really need to and whether it is appropriate for his workload. If your yard has a feeding routine or if you would like to reward your horse after work then a good alternative can be to feed a low calorie vitamin and mineral supplement which are available in ‘treat’ form. You can put a few of these ‘treats’ in a bucket so your horse won’t feel he is missing out, without adding extra unwanted calories to his diet. You may choose to feed a balancer or supplement so if you need a carrier to add these to, make sure you find one which is low calorie. Any feed needs to be accurately weighed and measured. If you don’t have access to weighing scales at your yard, you could weigh out the feed at home once and mark the correct amount on a cup or scoop for ongoing use.
If you are feeding forage, then this should also be weighed using a hanging scale. Soaking hay for several hours will reduce its calorie content– get advice from a nutritionist about the best way to approach this for maximum effect. You can dilute hay by mixing it with good quality oat or barley straw to provide bulk without the calories but do take advice before trialing this as it is not suitable for all horses, particularly those with poor dentition.
Using small holed haynets will help make forage last longer and you can even put one haynet inside another to make it even more of a challenge for your horse to eat! To help relieve boredom on a limited ration you can also divide it between two or three nets or piles spread around the field or stable.
- Turning your horse out with more active field companions can encourage him to move around more
Grazing and Turnout
Limiting the time your horse spends in the field is not always the best way to help them lose weight as in some cases horses with limited grazing time eat at a faster rate and therefore consume more than they would if they stayed out for the full day. A better option can be to reduce the amount of grass the horse has access to by area rather than by time.
If you have the facilities, a track system is a great way to reduce grazing and get your horse moving around more. These can range from one single track round the outside of the field (the centre can be a good place for horses who may need a little more grazing) or a more complicated maze if you are feeling creative! Place the water trough at one end of the track and the gate at the other, plus you can leave piles of low-calorie forage (if needed) at different points around the track which will keep the horse moving in order to find his food and drink.
If you are unable to install a track system, strip grazing can be effective at limiting the amount of grass available (although don’t be tempted to move the fencing too much) as is letting another horse graze the paddock first so your dieter is not going straight on to lush grass.
Another option is to graze more horses on one paddock taking it above a traditional stocking level or adding other grazing animals, but make sure you’re on top of pasture management. At our Rescue and Rehoming Centres we have also found that putting a particularly good doer with a more active companion is another effective way of keeping the horse moving!
At livery, you might not always be free to modify the fields so a grazing muzzle can be a helpful tool in reducing your horse’s grass intake. Choose one which reduces grazing, not stops it, but remember these do not work on really short grass. If you do need to use a grazing muzzle you can find helpful guidance from the National Equine Welfare Council.
Most horses are naturally very well-equipped to cope with UK weather conditions without needing extra protection from rugs and when we provide artificial protection in this way, the horse will expend much less energy (if any) on keeping themselves warm. Consider if your horse really needs to be wearing a rug and if it might help his weight loss to go without. Some of the horses and ponies in our Rescue and Rehoming Centres will even be given a belly clip over the winter to encourage them to use up calories on keeping warm rather than adding them to their waistlines.
One other option is to provide turnout without grass, this can be using an all-weather arena or if available a bark or sand paddock so your horse can go out without taking on additional calories. It is important to provide forage if using any of these options.
Exercise is undoubtedly one of the most important factors in any weight loss plan but this doesn’t have to mean ridden work. If your horse cannot be ridden or the time taken to prepare to ride is too long on a tight schedule, walking in hand can be a great way to get them active and raise their heart rate. It is important to stress here that walking needs to be power walking and prolonged activity is the best way to help burn calories, but everyone has busy lives so any exercise will always be better than none at all. Horse agility can be a fun way to exercise your horse from the ground which not only helps develop your bond but can also play a part in desensitizing.
Whatever you decide to undertake as part of your horse’s weight management plan, be consistent and monitor the results. One programme might be effective for a few weeks but if the weight loss has plateaued, consider other changes you can make to ensure you keep seeing the results your horse needs.
As mentioned before, every small change will make a difference so find options that work for you and your horse and that you will be able to stick to. Equine weight management is no easy task but it is vital to safeguard your horse’s health and quality of life. There is plenty of advice and support available to help you, visit www.worldhorsewelfare.org/right-weight for more information or call our advice line on 01953 497238.