Overweight Horse

Special care and nutrition are important for chubby horses.

From the American Association of Equine Practitioners, an AQHA educational marketing alliance partner

Feeding is one of the most rewarding chores of horse ownership. But many horses, given the opportunity, will eat far more than they need, tipping the scale to an unhealthy balance. No matter how much your horse enjoys eating, you do him a disservice by overfeeding. Excess pounds put a strain on virtually every body system. A far kinder strategy is to supply food and exercise in proper amounts to keep your horse fit and healthy.

Maintaining the ideal weight is not always easy, however. Some horses are what we call “easy keepers.” They require minimal calories to maintain optimal body condition. Many adult horses – especially those in their middle years – begin to retain unneeded body weight due to reduced activity and a slowdown in metabolism. When weight gain becomes extreme, we classify the horse as obese.

Hazards of Obesity

Excess weight and over-nutrition have a number of potentially negative effects including:

    • Increased risk of developmental bone and joint problems in young, growing horses
    • More strain on feet, joints and limbs

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    • Less efficient cooling of body temperatures
    • Fat buildup around key organs, which interferes with normal function
    • Reduced reproductive efficiency
    • Greater lethargy and more easily fatigued

Evaluating Body Condition

When it comes to a horse’s ideal body condition, beauty is often in the eye of the beholder. For example, a competitive endurance horse is usually leaner that a show-fit halter horse. Because “fitness” is subjective, equine health care professionals utilize a Body Condition Scoring system to talk in relative terms. The horse’s physical condition is rated on visual appraisal and palpation (feel) of the amount of flesh or fat covering six key conformation points:

  1. Neck
  2. Withers
  3. Down the crease of the back
  4. At the tailhead
  5. The ribs
  6. Behind the shoulder at the girth

Scores range from 1 to 9, from “poor” to “extremely fat.”

What’s Ideal

For most horses, body condition scores in the “moderate” to “moderately fleshy” ranges (scores of 5 or 6) are ideal. A commonly recited suggestion is to keep your horse where you can feel the divisions between his ribs but not be able to see them. However, keep in mind that the job of your particular athlete also has a bearing on what weight is appropriate for maximum performance. Polo, race and endurance horses might be perfectly fit with body condition scores of “moderately thin” (score 4), while a body condition score of “fleshy” (score 7) may be required for success in the show ring.

However, by feeding a horse to the “fat” level (score 8), you are starting to push the limits of good health. Horses with scores of 8 and 9 are definite candidates for a weight reduction plan.

Weight Reduction

You hold the keys to controlling your horse’s weight. You’ll need to enforce sound nutrition management, become dedicated to a regular exercise program and use restraint when measuring the ration.

When implementing a weight loss program, it’s important to do it in such a way so as not to stress the horse. Changes in both exercise and nutrition should be gradual.

By increasing the amount of exercise, you can rev up the horse’s metabolic engine and burn more calories. By shifting to a lower-calorie diet, you can create an “energy deficit” so that the horse begins to utilize its fat reserves as fuel.

However, even though the ration provides fewer calories, it should be balanced so that it continues to provide all the essential nutrients. Develop a program that will allow your horse to reduce his weight without any negative side effects.

Here are some guidelines to get you started:

    • Be patient. Weight reduction should be a slow, steady process so as not to stress the horse or create metabolic upsets.
    • Make changes in both type and amount of feed gradually. Reduce rations by no more than 10 percent over a 7- to 10-day period.
    • Track your horse’s progress using a weight tape. The tapes are remarkably accurate and provide a good way to gauge weight loss. When the horse’s weight plateaus, gradually cut back his ration again.
    • Step up the horse’s exercise regimen. Gradually build time and intensity as the horse’s fitness improves. Some horses are natural pasture potatoes. Ride, longe, drive or work the horse on a treadmill rather than rely on free-choice exercise.
    • Provide plenty of clean, fresh water so the horse’s digestive and other systems function as efficiently as possible and rid the body of metabolic and other wastes.
    • Select feeds that provide plenty of high-quality fiber but are low in total energy. Measure feeds by weight rather than volume to determine appropriate rations.
    • Select feeds that are lower in fat since fat is an energy-dense nutrient source.
    • Switch or reduce the amount of alfalfa hay fed. Replace with mature grass or oat hay to reduce caloric intake. This will also satisfy the horse’s need to chew, reduce boredom and provide fill for his stomach.
    • Feed separate from other horses so the overweight horse doesn’t have a chance to eat his portion and his neighbor’s too. In extreme cases of obesity, caloric intake my also need to be controlled by limiting pasture intake.
    • Balance the horse’s diet based on age and activity level. Make sure the 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.

If you are finding this article useful, you should check out our FREE Chubby Horse report. There you can find even more information about having an overweight horse.

Help for Hay Bellies

A “hay belly” may or may not be associated with true obesity. Many horses, especially the very young and old, may exhibit hay bellies without an associated buildup of body fat. Hay bellies are a distension of the abdominal area due to the volume of grass or hay the animal consumes. The belly expands to handle the load.

To eliminate a hay belly, you need to reduce the total volume of feed that passes through the system. A well-balanced complete feed may be a good way to reduce total volume without adversely affecting the amount of fiber and nutrients required for proper digestion and nutrition. Also, remember that parasitized horses may exhibit the same outward appearance of a horse that you may think has a hay belly. Make sure you consult with your veterinarian about proper deworming protocols and the possibility of performing a fecal egg count to determine parasite load on your particular horse.

Maintaining Proper Weight

Once your horse has reached his ideal body condition, maintaining the proper weight is a gentle balancing act. You will probably need to readjust your horse’s ration to stabilize his weight. Exercise will continue to be a key component in keeping the horse fit. Because obesity can affect a horse’s health, keep a good line of communication open with your veterinarian. Schedule regular checkups, especially during the weight reduction process.

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