Managing a good doer

Condition scoring a horse

Most horse owners understand the dangers of a horse dropping weight and becoming too thin; however being overweight is just as unhealthy and can be much more difficult to manage. Although many owners know that their horse shouldn’t carry excess weight, often the challenge is in recognising what a healthy condition actually looks like as it has become normal to see horses carrying more weight than they should.

The problems associated with excess weight

Managing a horse’s weight can be a real challenge and is an area of work the grooms at World Horse Welfare’s four UK Rescue and Rehoming Centres have significant experience of dealing with. Many of the horses who come into our care are underweight and malnourished; however those that are overweight will often have a much longer and more difficult journey through rehabilitation.

There are a number of different problems associated with overweight horses, these can include:

  • Laminitis
  • Equine Metabolic Syndrome
  • Extra strain on the heart and lungs
  • Added pressure on limbs and joints
  • Less able to perform during exercise

Did you know?

An overweight horse will not only have a compromised quality of life, but will also be at higher risk of a number of health problems, such as laminitis.

How to determine if a horse is overweight

The first thing to understand is the assessment criteria you can compare your horse to. Knowing your horse’s weight is useful for a number of reasons but it won’t tell you if this is appropriate for them. The best tool to use is to learn how to fat score (also known as body condition scoring).

There are two main fat scoring systems, the 0-5 system (Carroll and Huntingdon) or the 1-9 system (Henneke). Both provide an effective way of assessing condition and use hands-on techniques to feel for fat cover rather than just looking at a horse. If you have limited experience of fat scoring, the 0-5 system can be easier to apply.

A weightape provides a good tool for monitoring weight and identifying changes but must be used in conjunction with fat scoring in order to assess 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 using a weightape is ideal for monitoring weight long-term. If you have access to a weighbridge this gives an accurate measurement so is a good tool for monitoring changes in weight.

Horse on a weighbridge

Slimming success

If you are concerned about your horse’s weight and are contemplating whether to put him on a diet, we always recommend speaking to your vet first, as they will be best placed to give you advice on how to do this safely. Whatever you do, never crash diet an overweight horse as 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 by asking yourself these questions:

  • How much feed does your horse have each day? (remember grass and hay count as feed)
  • How many hours is your horse turned out?
  • How much exercise does he do?
  • Does he wear a rug?

Any plan needs to cover all aspects of your horse’s lifestyle and routine so it’s important to consider your horse’s output as well as his input.

The answers to the questions will allow you to look at the current situation and will help you see where changes can be made. It’s important to stress that a few small changes can make all the difference so don’t feel overwhelmed by thinking that you have to devote hours each week to increasing your horse’s exercise.

If you do provide hard feed, consider whether you really need to and whether the type of feed and the quantity is appropriate for your horse’s workload. 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, 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.

Weighing hay

Using small-holed haynets will help make forage last longer and you can put one haynet inside another to make it even more of a challenge for your horse to eat!

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. 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 other animals (such as other horses or sheep) 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 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 rather than stopping it, but remember these do not work on really short grass. You can find guidance on the use of grazing muzzles through the National Equine Welfare Council (NEWC).

Consider if your horse really needs to be wearing a rug, as 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.

Clipped pony

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 (low calorie, of course!) 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. 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 our Right Weight page for more information or call our Advice Line on 01953 497238.