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Equine Obesity
Feeding horses and ponies prone to obesity

by Dr Tim Watson BVM&S, PhD, MRCVS
The Equine Veterinary Clinic, Turningshaw Farm, Houston, Renfrewshire, PA6 7BP
www.equinevetclinic.co.uk

Key Facts

  • Management of obesity depends upon careful attention to diet and exercise.
  • Total food intake should be restricted to 1.5% of body weight a day, comprised chiefly of hay and high fibre/low energy concentrates.
  • Turnout should be restricted to bare paddocks for no more than 4 hours a day.
  • Feeding high quality dried alfalfa or hay helps ensure adequate nutrient intake despite restricted rations.

It is estimated that approximately 50% of horses in the UK are overweight or obese.  These animals are at greatly increased risk of laminitis and equine metabolic syndrome, as well as arthritis and other forms of lameness.

Obesity arises because calorie intake exceeds expenditure, invariably due to over-feeding relative to the amount of work or exercise that a horse is doing.  Some breeds, especially ponies, are more susceptible to weight gain with these ‘good doers’ putting on weight despite little or no supplementary feeding.

There is no medical treatment for obesity and its control depends upon careful attention to feeding as well as ensuring adequate exercise.  When reviewing the diet of animals prone to obesity, look at time spent at grass as well as the amount and type of forage and concentrates fed when stabled.

Restricting turnout to around 4 hours a day will help reduce calorie intake but having them out during the day or at night will not.  Greedy horses can consume a whole day’s worth of calories in as a little as 6 hours.

Grazing muzzles are an effective way of reducing grass consumption and are particularly useful for ponies that gain weight even with limited turnout.  Access to sand arenas or bare ‘starvation paddocks’ is also beneficial.

In animals that resist losing weight even when turnout is limited, then stabling and more strict control of food intake is required.  Hay is usually lower in calories than grass, especially when it is late cut.  Haylage is less appropriate as it contains greater calories than hay and is eaten more quickly.  Straw and chaff contain fewer calories than hay but are not nutritionally adequate on their own.

It is important to ensure an adequate intake of vitamins and minerals given that the total ration is smaller than normal.  You may choose to a feed balancer or broad-spectrum feed supplement for horses or ponies that are just getting hay.  Alternatively, feeding alfalfa, alone or in combination with hay or chaff can be an effective diet as it is rich in protein, vitamins and minerals.

Dried forage products, such as those produced by Halley’s Feeds, are ideal for horses and ponies on a ‘diet’.  Because they are dried within an hour of being harvested, their nutrient content remains high in contrast to hay where there is some loss of vitamins and minerals during drying and storage.

The amount of food given each day should be equivalent to 1.5% of the horse or pony’s target or ideal body weight of the horse or pony.  By comparison, normal guidelines for feeding are 2% of body weight per day.  For example, a 13.2 hands Welsh-cross pony with an ideal body weight of 350 kg should fed just over 5 kg, rather than 7 kg, a day.  This is equivalent to two slices of hay and a round scoop of high fibre cubes or pasture mix.

If the horse or pony has access to pasture for around 4 hours a day then, as a guide, assume that grass contributes half of the food allowance.  It is important to weigh the amount of food accurately, rather than relying simply on volume or amount of food.  This can be made straightforward by feeding the 1 kg forage ‘blox’ from Halley’s feeds.

Because daily rations for dieting horses and ponies can be small, care should be taken to avoid prolong the time taken to eat the food and so prevent boredom and associated risk of stomach ulcers and stable vices.  Using small mesh or double hay nets, as well as ‘boredom busting’ and ‘trickle feeding’ toys, can help avoid this problem.  Providing some or all of the forage as Halley’s blox will reduce monotony and prolong foraging activity.

Weight loss should be monitored weekly using a weight tape.  The ration should then be further reduced if weight refuses to budge, or increased as the animal approaches his or her target weight.

Exercise is also an important component of any weight loss programme.  You should not assume that simply turning a horse or pony out will increase energy expenditure.  Instead efforts should be made to ride or lunge the animal, or even use a horse-walker.  Care should be taken to start slowly in animals that are heavily overweight or unfit, then increasing the duration and intensity of work as weight is lost.  The benefits of a long hack, during which the horse is encouraged to maintain an active walk, should not be overlooked.


 

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Telephone: 01738 840394
Fax: 01738 840830
Email: info@halleysfeeds.co.uk

 
 
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