Avoiding excessive weight gain

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Increased levels of obesity in the UK have received a lot of attention in the press recently, following studies that have shown 3 out of 10 children in the UK to be obese. Unfortunately, it is also a very common problem in horses, with serious implications including reduced life span and increased risk of conditions such as arthritis.

Horses gain weight for exactly the same reason as humans — by eating more calories than are required for the work they are doing. Horses that receive too many calories (which are the same as energy) without sufficient exercise will put on weight. It really is that simple.

We also have a perception that feeding can alter a horse’s character. Imagine this in the human context. You have just got back from work and there is enough daylight to allow you to eat supper and ride your horse. Wouldn’t it be lovely if you could cook a meal which results in your usually housework-allergic partner suddenly jumping up and saying: “I will do the washing up, ironing, put the bin out and run the bath for you, while you ride.”

Unfortunately there is no food that will radically change a person’s character. There are feeds that supply instant energy (think chocolate for us, oats for our horses) but they do not change the inherent character of either a horse or a person. Invariably the horse that is a “good-doer”, is also a fairly laid back character and will not exert themselves unnecessarily. Horses that look “well” are normally carrying too much weight and will feel lazy. Simply feeding them more energy to make them livelier will only result in more weight gain, exaggerating their underlying laid back character and making them even lazier.

Another factor to consider is the way we keep our horses. Horses that are standing in a stable will not be using as much energy as horses at pasture, which use up energy walking around. Also keeping horses well rugged up means they will not have to use any energy trying to keep warm, leaving more energy to turn into fat.

In order to prevent our horses gaining excessive weight we must match calorie intake with energy output. This is complicated by the fact that horses are designed as trickle feeders and require small amounts of food frequently in order to keep their digestive systems healthy.

To avoid weight gain you need to weigh and condition score your horse on a regular basis. The best time to do this is at least every two weeks, preferably at the same time, as body weight will fluctuate throughout the day. This will allow you to see any pounds creeping on. Your horse’s ideal body weight will depend on his breed and height but as a guide you should aim for a condition score of two to three out of five.

It is essential for both the horses’ physical and mental health that fibre requirements continue to be met while limiting calorie intake. In overweight animals or horses that easily maintain weight you could try:

  • Using a grazing muzzle when turning out on lush grass but make sure the horse can drink while wearing it

  • Strip grazing large paddocks
  • Feed low-energy hay
  • Soak good quality hay for 12hrs to lower its energy content
  • Use two small holed haynets, placed inside each other
  • Feed a low energy chaff

Although calories may need to be restricted, vitamin and mineral requirements must be met. For overweight horses or those prone to weight gain this can be achieved without feeding large quantities of concentrates by feeding:

  • A vitamin and mineral supplement;

  • A feed balancer; or
  • A low energy feed specifically designed for low intake rates.

Finally, remember how much more energetic you feel when you lose a couple of those extra pounds you have been carrying. The same goes for your horse — keeping him at the correct body weight will make him look and perform better.

Feeding the overweight horse

Dodson & Horrell has a wide range of compound feeds, supplements and forage that are suitable for good doers and horses that tend to become overweight easily. These include: Fibergy, Surelimb, Ultimate Balancer, Leisure Mix and Safe & Sound.

For further information and friendly feeding advice call the Dodson & Horrell Feed Helpline (tel: 0870 442 3322) Normal national call rates apply, or visit: www.dodsonandhorrell.com

Originally published on horseandhound.co.uk