With spring upon us and grass starting to grow abundantly, many owners are worried about their horses gaining excess weight.
In fact annual reports by the National Equine Health Survey (NEHS) suggest that around one in five of the UK’s domesticated horses are overweight. To help address this growing problem, Joanna Palmer, nutritionist at Allen & Page, offers top tips on how to feed and manage good doers to keep them at ideal bodyweights.
1. Feed a low calorie, balanced diet
If intakes are unrestricted, good doers can often exceed their calorie needs from grazing alone, particularly at this time of year. However, a forage only diet is unlikely to supply your horse with sufficient quantities of vitamins and minerals to provide a fully balanced diet, therefore a supplementary bucket feed will be necessary.
Carefully choosing a low calorie balanced feed (of 8MJ/kg or less) such as Fast Fibre or Veteran Light fed at recommended amounts, according to the horse’s size and workload, will provide all the vitamins and minerals and quality protein needed for a balanced diet, without too many additional calories.
2. Limit starch and sugars in the diet
It is well recognised that overweight horses and ponies and those that have a tendency to gain weight easily are more at risk of developing laminitis. Alongside a calorie controlled diet, horses and ponies at risk of laminitis should ideally be fed feeds which have a combined starch and sugar level of 10% or less and are free from whole cereal grains and molasses.
Veteran Light and Fast Fibre are two feeds from the Barley & Molasses Free Range that are suitable for laminitics. As well as being fully balanced with vitamins and minerals, both feeds are high in fibre and low in starch and sugar, making them more natural for the horse than traditional cereal based mixes and cubes.
Not only can a high starch diet cause fizzy and excitable behaviour, but it is also more difficult to digest and can make the horse more susceptible to developing laminitis or colic. Instead of starchy cereals, Veteran Light and Fast Fibre use fibre and oil as energy sources.
3. Restrict grazing
Unproductive, poor quality grazing is best for horses and ponies that gain weight easily, but as this isn’t often available, avoiding lush, fertilised pasture and restricting grass intakes is very important.
Strip grazing, implementing a tracked grazing system and the use of a grazing muzzle can all significantly reduce a horse’s grass intake whilst helping to maintain natural grazing behaviour.
4. Feed a low energy forage
Fibre should form the basis of every horse’s diet and when horses are stabled or on very restricted grazing they must be provided with supplementary forage to help keep the digestive system healthy and functioning efficiently.
For those who are overweight or prone to laminitis, hay should be soaked for 12–16 hours which removes the majority of the water soluble carbohydrates and significantly lowers its calorie content. Feeding hay that has been soaked for this amount of time is an excellent way of providing a good doer with the fibre they needwhilst reducing calorie intake and aiding weight loss.
Even overweight horses should be eating a minimum of 1.5% of their bodyweight in total feed per day in order to maintain a healthy digestive system and fulfil their natural feeding behaviours. Splitting a horse’s daily hay allowance into several smaller meals throughout the day will extend feeding time and avoid lengthy periods when the horse has nothing to eat.
The use of small holed haynets or a hay feeder designed to slow down feed intake are particularly useful in helping to keep good doers occupied and feeding in a way that mimics their natural lifestyle.
5. Increase exercise
Providing illness or unsoundness isn’t a problem, increasing the calories your horse uses through exercise will help to keep his waistline in check!
Whilst regular exercise is important for all round health, it is important to ensure your horse is fit enough for the work you are asking him to do and to implement an exercise programme that gradually increases in intensity, either in hand or ridden.
6. Keep a close eye on weight and condition
Regularly weighing and condition scoring will help you to pick up on changes in your horse’s condition more easily than relying on the naked eye alone.
Body condition scoring is essentially a hands-on assessment of the amount of fat covering different areas of a horse’s body. Generally speaking you should be able to feel your horse’s ribs easily when you run your hand lightly across their ribcage. There should not be any fat pads, or signs of a crest developing on the neck, or a gutter running down the spine over the hindquarters to the tail.
Keeping a record of the weights and scores will help you to manage your horse and make adjustments to his diet and routine accordingly.
Any extra calories a horse uses up to keep warm will aid weight loss, so only rugging when absolutely necessary or using a lighter weight rug than normal will help to encourage your horse to burn fat reserves to keep warm.