In the UK it is estimated that 31-54% of equines are obese, and deposition of body fat is a normal physiological response to a positive energy balance. In the wild, horses gain weight over the summer months when food is abundant and naturally lose weight over the winter months when food is less plentiful and they utilise more calories to keep warm. However this seasonal shift in weight loss doesn’t generally occur, our horses gain weight in the Spring and Summer months and then we maintain this weight meaning that many equines begin a new Spring fatter year on year.
We know that obesity has many negative consequences, and there is a clear link to laminitis. We also know that laminitis has two hormonal conditions as likely causes, Equine Cushing’s Disease or PPID and Equine Metabolic Syndrome.
1. Body condition score your horse
If you haven’t ever tried this it’s not as complicated as it might sound, and it is a really good tool for checking the condition and fat covering of your horse.
Body condition scoring involves you feeling specific ‘landmarks’ on your horse, (as listed below) and scoring how much of a fat covering these have. You can use a 5 or a 9 point system, and give each area a score. Then you can work out an average for your horse as a whole
- The crest of the neck
- The ‘love handle’ area
- The withers
- The ribs
- Across the top of the back
- The loins
You just need to be realistic and use light pressure. You are aiming for a 3 out of 5, or a 5 out of 9. Do pop me an email and let me know how you get on. I’d love to know what score your horse is.
Often owners think that they are body condition scoring their horses, but in reality they are simply assessing one or two areas, such as the ribs or the crest of the neck. It’s helpful to body condition score all horses, not just those who are prone to weight gain as it will help you notice any loss of condition or unusual fat deposits.
2. How much is your horse actually consuming?
To help your horse to lose weight you need to know how much they are currently eating at the moment. For a horse to maintain their body weight they would need to consume 2-2.5% of their total body weight. So for a 500kg horse that’s 10kg – 12kg per day.
Now there’s too things that make working this out a bit difficult. Firstly a horse with a very high BCS is likely to have been consuming between 3 and 5% BW/DM each day, so do consider their BCS as well. Secondly what about the grass? A horse or pony on good grazing is capable of consuming from 3-5% BW/DM in
grass alone, so and therefore complete removal from pasture is usually necessary to achieve effective weight loss in the summer months and is essential if a risk of laminitis exists. Suitable turnout alternatives must be sought, such as a wood chip pen, track system or use of an arena / bare field, and appropriate forage given.
3. Weigh out your forage – don’t feed by eye
This is certainly an error that many horse owners make, thinking that x number of slices, or a large (or small haynet) is enough for their horse. In reality you are probably over (or perhaps under) feeding hay, and you’re aiming for a difficult balance of not wasting hay, keeping your horse nibbling for the majority of the night if stabled, but not letting your horse get overweight.
Working out how much you should be giving your horse, and then being accurate is your first step to weight loss success. The further steps can be taken such as forage analysis and if appropriate soaking the hay to further reduce the water soluble carbohydrate fraction.
There are many myths when it comes to feeding horses, they don’t have the nutritional wisdom that people assume (you can read more about that here
4. Assess your horse’s weight and condition regularly
This is really important, one to ensure that your efforts are working and two it will help you stay focused. Using a weigh bridge is ideal but a weight tape will show change if used consistently. Continue to body condition score your horse regularly, and track these measurements. If your horse’s weight loss plateaus or the horse puts on weight one week you’ll have something to refer back to.
I would also encourage you to take photographs regularly, preferably with your horse in the same place, standing the same way. This will really help you see how they have lost weight, when you see your horse every day it is difficult to see the change.
5. Up the activity
Just like humans weight loss is achieved when more calories are used than are consumed, so it is essential to get your horse moving more. If your horse has suffered from laminitis, or has had some time off then it would be sensible to get an all clear from your vet first, and of course increase work and activity gradually.
Keep your horse turned out as much as possible during the colder months when the grass isn’t growing and won’t be providing the same calorific input or use a grass free turnout system.
During the winter months riding can be harder to fit in, so why not use in-hand work, try horse agility, work over poles, lead out in hand, enlist a friend to ride your horse then days you can’t or consider the use of a horse walker. Research has shown that EMS can be reversed in horses with weight loss and exercise, which means that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Finally please don’t give up!! Just like with humans you should be aiming for slow and steady weight loss, and then maintaining your horse at a healthy weight for life. Safe weight loss for a horse is 0.5-1% BW per week, and there are negative health consequences if the horse loses weight too quickly. So to put this in context a 500kg horse should lose 2.5-5kg per week. If your horse is 80kg over weight that could take 32 weeks (i.e. more than half the year), so do be prepared for this to take some time. However I would like you to feel inspired, it is perfectly possible and as part of National Laminitis Awareness Day 2019 I shared some inspirational success stories of weight loss.
I’d love to hear how you are getting on.