Fit or Fat
Overfed horses are more likely to have health and training problems.
By Martin Black | May 2, 2017
Some people may think they are being nice to their horses by feeding them the best feed available, keeping them fat and their hair slick. People are doing the best they know how, but humans have taken animals that have been bred for centuries to work and be fit, and in only a few decades, fed and confined them like an animal bound for processing. If we could just step back and make an observation, the cure to a lot of our horses’ problems may be obvious.
We are feeding them like Sumo wrestlers and then wanting them to work like soccer players or not work enough. In either case, they are not mentally or structurally designed for this life of luxury. I come from a background of raising horses in harsh conditions, so when I see horses that are over-cared for and compare the problems, there is no question: Overfeeding is a problem.
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Ranch horses in the Great Basin of Utah and Nevada may look like the high school cross country team, but they are healthy, fit and without the psychological problems found in stables and backyards. What most people identify as discipline problems with their horses is more likely too much stored energy. When horses consume high-energy feeds, they become hyperactive and need the chance to exercise.
Horses that are confined and overfed will have problems with hypertension, digestion, hormones and leg soundness, not to mention cribbing, weaving, ulcers, colic, founder, parasites and viruses not as prevalent in horses with lesser feeds in open spaces. If they are in training, the handlers will be challenged with directing the excess energy.
I see more problems mentally and physically with horses being overfed and under-worked than with horses that are burning as much energy as they consume and maybe show a trace of their skeletal structure. When analyzing problems with horses, I often ask myself, “Would this be a problem if the horse did not have excess energy?”
It’s also important to realize that corn, oats, barley and molasses do not supply a consistent energy supply for a performance horse who is working hard. These feeds contain excessive carbohydrates that lead to hypersensitivity because of the horse’s inability to utilize too many carbohydrates at a given time.
Also, the nutrient levels of a high-protein hay are often not consistent, which means that the hay your horse gets today may be richer or poorer than what he gets tomorrow, even though it came from the same field and looks the same.
Hay is not a reliable nutrient source for performance horses, but it is necessary in every horse’s diet. Good grass hay will provide plenty of roughage and a great source of fiber.
In bagged feeds, key things to look for are vitamin levels, organic minerals rather than inorganic, which the horse is unable to utilize, and Omega 3 essential fatty acids, which provide a more consistent energy source than excess carbohydrates.
Find more tips from Martin Black in our Horse Training Techniques with Martin Black e-book. You'll learn more about attitudes, problems with being an unbalanced rider, understanding the hindquarters and transitions!
I am not a nutritionist, but I deal with many horse problems and have witnessed much success in health and training programs when the right balance is found between nutrition and the horse’s workload.
Some situations don’t allow horses to have the space they need, but things can still be brought into balance if owners recognize the effects of their feeding programs and allow more unrestricted exercise or work, or the consumption of less energy.
Without the excess energy, more training could be done without extreme training methods, which would result in happier, more willing horses.
There is no doubt in my mind that if we could ask the horses who is the happiest and feels the best, it would be the ones without the crease down their backs.