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1 February 2022

How to use Mother Nature to help your horse lose weight before spring — and why it’s good for him

How to use Mother Nature to help your horse lose weight before spring — and why it’s good for him

Have you heard about Your Horse’s #FitNotFat campaign, which is supported by Dodson & Horrell? Equine obesity is an enormous welfare problem and we’re on a mission to provide owners and riders with the knowledge, skills and information you need to keep your horse in tip-top health. It could be life saving! Find out more

Horses are designed to lose weight through the winter months, but modern management means many will fail to shed some pounds this season. Vet Lucy Grieve explains how to safely use this natural cycle to assist with weight loss, for your horse’s benefit.

With more and more horses falling into the ‘overweight’ and ‘obese’ categories, owners are under huge pressure to slim their horses’ waistlines down.

It might seem acceptable to us to have ‘round’ horses and ponies, but the dangers of being too fat are serious. Obesity is a trigger factor for conditions such as EMS (equine metabolic syndrome), which causes insulin dysregulation and laminitis.

Alongside metabolic issues, being overweight also places extra strain on the joints and other body systems. No one likes to see their horses being starved, but there are ways that we can use winter to help horses lose a few pounds safely and naturally.

Natural weight loss/gain cycle

Horses in their natural environment follow a cycle whereby they gain weight over the summer when there is an abundance of grass and food to forage, and lose it in winter when the quality and amount of grass falls, so there is less food to eat, and the reduction in temperature means horses expend more energy staying warm.

However, modern environments mean that we continue to feed our horses through the winter and we put rugs on them, halting their natural ability to lose weight. Add to this the fact that we often ride and exercise our horses less in winter, and what we end up seeing is horses not only maintaining their summer waistlines, but also potentially putting on even more.

What’s his current condition/

The first thing to do is assess your horse’s current condition. You could do this yourself if you are confident at body condition scoring, or you could ask your vet or qualified nutritionist to help you not only assess your horse but also show you how to condition score.

You could also take your horse to a weighbridge to get an accurate start point reading, and then use a weigh tape to help assess any future weight loss.

It’s important not only to work out what your horse currently weighs, but also to know what his weight should ideally be, so that you have a start and end point and know exactly how much he needs to lose.

It’s worth pointing out that most horses will come out of summer carrying a few extra pounds, as nature intended to help see them through the winter.

It’s only a problem if they continue to carry that weight all the way through the colder months and don’t lose any.

How much weight does he need to lose?

When it comes to the amount of weight a horse should lose over the winter, it really does depend on the individual — how overweight they are and how quickly or easily they lose weight.

Some horses lose weight easily, whereas others take a lot more work. The best way to start is to work out what your horse weighs at his heaviest at the end of summer, and what his ideal healthy post-winter weight should be, and then monitor that weight loss gradually over weeks and months.

Sudden and severe weight loss over a few days could indicate a health problem, and should be investigated by your vet, but as long as the weight loss in the healthy horse is gradual, it should be safe.

Over time, you’ll work out your horse’s natural weight loss and gain cycle. The key thing to appreciate is that it is much easier to put weight on an underweight horse than it is for an overweight horse to lose weight, and horses are designed to look a little thinner coming out of winter.

‘Seeing ribs isn’t a bad thing’

It’s important to stand by what is right for your horse. We need to banish the belief that being able to see your horse’s ribs coming into the spring is a bad thing — it is how nature intended them to be.

It’s easy to be bullied or cajoled into doing things that aren’t suitable for your horse by other liveries or even the yard staff, so stick to your guns. You know what is best for your horse and you’d rather he was fit and healthy than overweight and on the verge of a life-changing metabolic condition.

Things you can do

  • Feed forage first
    If you’re going to increase any feed because you are concerned your horse needs energy for ridden work or are losing weight, make sure it’s forage and fibre first.
  • Take off his rugs
    Don’t rush for the rugs unless your horse is old, fully clipped or unwell. We might feel cold, but horses have a far higher tolerance for temperature differences than we do, and probably don’t need those extra layers just yet.
  • Embrace mother nature
    Allow mother nature to give your horse a helping hand at weight loss — cold temperatures kick-start the horse’s metabolism to use up some of those stored calories in the fat tissue to help keep him warm. Keeping them naked where appropriate is a great way to ease them into it. Of course, if it’s pouring with rain and blowing a gale, provide protection in the form of a thin rain sheet if there’s no natural protection or field shelter.
  • Use small-holed haynets
    Put his forage ration in small-holed haynets, which will mimic the natural grazing approach of little and often. It will also help to string out the meal for as long as possible. It’s safe for horses to go for a couple of hours without any food, particularly over night when the acid secretions in the stomach are naturally lower.
  • Enrich his environment
    Stabled horses get bored, especially if they’re on restricted forage. Other methods of entertainment include stable toys such as balls, mirrors and treat balls with high-fibre nuts, which can also be hidden in hay to encourage your horse to forage.

Have you heard about Your Horse’s #FitNotFat campaign, which is supported by Dodson & Horrell? Equine obesity is an enormous welfare problem and we’re on a mission to provide owners and riders with the knowledge, skills and information you need to keep your horse in tip-top health. It could be life saving! Find out more

For more information on Dodson & Horrell and its range of horse feeds visit the website where you can also get personalised feeding advice from the friendly Nutritional Helpline via LiveChat, email or on the phone.

Lucy Grieve MRCVS

by Lucy Grieve MRCVS

Lucy Grieve MA VetMB MRCVS is an ambulatory vet at Rossdales in Newmarket. She works with all types of horses, from those who solely hack through to amateur sports horses to elite racehorses. Her main areas of interest are lameness, diagnostic imaging and poor performance, and she is passionate about maximising the welfare of the horse at all times.

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