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It is often said that you never stop learning about horses.   They are complicated animals all with individual personalities and there is a great deal of differing information available from a variety of sources, which can make it difficult to know where to turn.   Within our Facebook and Twitter pages we have been asked for examples of what has been achieved earlier.     Therefore these simple case studies hopefully will explain to some of our workings and success's to date.

Essential Vitamins and Minerals

Dr Jo-Anne Murray

PhD, PgDip, PgCert, BSc (Hons), BHSII, RNutr, FHEA

Obesity in horses is a growing problem, which can have major implications for health.  Therefore, as we enter spring it is a good time evaluate our horse’s bodyweight and consider if they may need to shed a few pounds. 

 

The feral horse will gain weight during the spring and summer months, laying down fat to stock up for the times when access to food is more limited during the autumn and winter.  However, in the domestic horse these times of limited access to food don’t exist as we feed our horses well year-round, which can mean that they enter spring already slightly overweight.  The types of feedstuffs used in feeding regimes can be a part of the problem, with high calorie feeds, such as cereal grains, resulting in horses being able to eat more calories in a smaller amount of feed.  Exercise is another aspect that needs to be considered, in that feral horses will roam for miles each day searching for food, whereas our domestic horse will be confined to a much smaller area of land.    Many horses are also confined to stables for periods of time, which also reduces the amount of exercise they get.  Furthermore, because we know that we need to make sure our horses have plenty of forage to eat to prevent them from becoming bored in the stable, we often provide ad lib hay, which coupled with low levels of exercise can contribute to weight gain. 

 

All types and breeds of horses can be affected by being overweight; however, our native breeds tend to be more susceptible to weight gain.  An overweight horse or pony is more likely to encounter health issues (such as digestive disorders, metabolic disorders, laminitis, respiratory problems, joint strain, heart and circulatory problems) as well as lethargy and lower performance.  Therefore, it is important to ensure that your horse’s weight is managed appropriately.  You will know yourself if your horse tends to put on weight easily and, if so, then he or she may be described as a “good doer”, and it is advisable to prevent weight gain in these types of horses rather than putting them on a diet later on.   The following information is provided as a guide in preventing weight gain and also advising you on the best way to manage weight loss if your horse is overweight.  However, it is important to note that weight gain can be affected by certain medical conditions and therefore if your horse is overweight it is advisable to consult your veterinary surgeon for advice before beginning any form of weight management programme.

Assessing your horse’s body weight and condition

Before any nutritional intervention can take place, an assessment of your horse’s body weight and body condition needs to be done.  This will allow you to calculate the amount of feed your horse requires and to determine if your horse needs to gain or lose weight.  Regular assessment of body weight and body condition will also enable you to determine how much weight your horse has gained or lost over a certain period of time. 

 

There are a few different ways that you can assess your horse’s weight.  You can use a weigh bridge, but not everyone has access to one of these. Alternatively, you can use a weigh tape, which you can purchase from your local tack shop or feed merchant.  It is important to measure your horse’s weight regularly and record this to allow you to monitor their weight.  In addition to determining your horse’s weight, you also need to look at their body condition, which can be done using body condition scoring (BCS). 

 

Many vets and nutritionists use a body condition scoring system called the Henneke Body Condition Scoring system, which uses a scale of one to ten  to help them determine if a horse is of an appropriate condition or not.  As a guide to assessing if your horse is overweight, a good place to start is the ribs.  If the ribs can only be felt by pressing hard, or cannot be felt at all, then your horse is likely to be overweight.  You can then look at the middle of the back, if the spinal processes cannot be felt and there is a noticeable crease down the back, then that will indicate that your horse is overweight.  You can then look for fat deposits along the neck, rump and tailhead.  Lumpy fatty tissue in these areas is of concern as they are an indication of obesity and an indicator of risk for obesity-related diseases, such as metabolic syndrome and laminitis.

 

Now that we have discussed how to assess your horse’s weight we can consider how to deal with the situation of managing your horse’s weight.

Feeding horses that are prone to becoming overweight

 

Horses gain weight because they take in excess calories above the amount required for their daily metabolism and energy expenditure during exercise.  Therefore, the goal of managing weight is to balance energy intake with energy expenditure. The following is a guide on ways in which you can manage your horse’s weight.

  • Evaluate your horse’s diet in consultation with your veterinary surgeon or nutritionist
  • Commit to managing your horse’s weight over the longer term
  • Base your horse’s diet on forage and/or fibre
  • Make dietary changes gradually and avoid prolonged periods of fasting
  • Minimise high calorie feedstuffs in the diet (e.g. cereal grains and oil)
  • No excessive feeding of treats (e.g. carrots, apples etc.)
  • Ensure adequate exercise
  • Be realistic about workload and feed according to how much work your horse is doing (most people over-estimate how much work their horse is doing)

Feed your horse as an individual

Feeding horses that need to lose weight

The basic principle of weight loss is “eat less” and “exercise more”; however, I am sure that many of us know that it is easy to say this, but it can be difficult to put into practice.  What we have to remember is that it is us, as horse owners, that need to make the changes required to promote weight loss in our animals.  Therefore, we need to evaluate how we are currently managing our horses and consider what changes we can make to enable them to lose weight.  The following is a guide to how weight loss can be managed (these are in addition to those points given in the above section).

  •  After assessing your horse’s body weight and BCS, set realistic goals for target weight loss, in consultation with your veterinary surgeon or nutritionist.
  • Commit to a long term weight management programme.
  • Make any dietary changes gradual, including reductions in the amount of feed offered.  Health problems can occur when horses are suddenly fed severely restricted diets.
  • Remove all high calorie feedstuffs from the diet (e.g. cereal grains and oil)
  • Feed at 2 percent of bodyweight for the first two months of the programme (for example, 6 kg per day for a 300 kg pony)
  • Increase the amount of exercise your horse is doing (if appropriate), weight loss is more effective by combining feed restriction with increased exercise.
  • If your horse is not doing any exercise then this must be introduced gradually to avoid injury, especially in overweight horses as they are more prone to fatigue and injury as they are carrying excess weight.  You may begin with walking in-hand twice daily for the first week and gradually increase to 1 hour of exercise daily.
  • If your horse is unable to be exercised (for example in the case of chronic lameness), you could turn out into a larger paddock or turning out with a companion to try to increase the amount of voluntary exercise your horse does.
  • Once the level of exercise has been increased, feed restriction can be reduced
  • If after 2 months your horse still needs to lose more weight, then you can reduce feed intake to 1.5 percent of bodyweight for a further 2 months (for example, 4.5 kg per day for a 300 kg pony).
  • For restricted feed intakes divide the forage ration into 3 to 4 feeds per day
  • Prolong feeding time by using haynets with small holes
  • Restrict access to lush pasture (see below for advice on managing turnout)

Turnout advice

Unlimited access to grazing during the growing season can lead to weight gain as pastures are typically high in sugars during this time.  Therefore, whilst allowing horses access to pasture is a good management practice as it promotes exercise, reduces boredom and promotes social contact with other horses, this must be limited in order to reduce the intake of grass in those horses that are overweight or prone to weight gain.

  • Avoid or restrict turnout at the times of year when sugar levels in the grass are likely to be highest (spring and autumn)
  • If you do turnout, then do so at times when sugar levels are likely to be lowest (late night to early morning)
  • Provide forage when your horse is not turned out
  • Restrict turnout to small, well managed paddocks
  • Do not graze on pastures that have not been properly managed by regular grazing or cutting.  (young leafy swards contain less sugars than mature stemmy grasses)
  • Ensure pastures are free from toxic plants (hungry animals are more likely to eat them)
  • Consider using a strip grazing strategy, where paddocks are divided into smaller areas in order to limit grass intake
  • Consider the use of grazing muzzles  (ensure horse can drink enough and be aware of possible behavioural issues)
  • Consider turnout in an indoor or outdoor school with forage provision
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