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Controlling Your Horse’s Weight

Let’s face it, lockdown has been challenging for most of our waistlines!

With an excess of warm, wet weather causing the grass to rush up, our horses are feeling it too. Whilst the ‘Thelwell pony’ appearance might be adorable, keeping the kilos off and maintaining an appropriate weight for your horse is so important for their health. Not only will it help to keep laminitis at bay, but it is essential in the management of other diseases and issues such as equine asthma and osteoarthritis.

Achieving weight loss in horses can be a significant challenge, but it is not impossible. Here are some tips to help any chunky monkey turn into a streamlined athlete:

  • Minimise calorie dense hard feed and maximise forage. The term ‘forage’ incorporates grass, hay and haylage and is essential for gastro-intestinal health. Unfortunately, even hay can contain significant quantities of sugar (you can get it analysed by various companies to find out exactly how much), but soaking for 7-16 hours will significantly reduce the calorific content, as this decreases the amount of ‘soluble carbohydrate’ available. It is important to remember that vitamins and other nutrients will also be lost through soaking, and therefore an appropriate supplement should be provided.
  • Reducing the time your horse is turned out for would seem to be the logical way to reduce grass intake, but don’t be fooled! Studies have shown that this encourages gorging and ponies will consume up to 1% of their bodyweight in just 3 hours when their turnout has been restricted. Instead, consider using a grazing muzzle. Most horses will learn to tolerate these well, enabling turnout whilst reducing grass intake by up to 80%.
  • If a hard feed must be given, ensure that it is high fibre and low in sugar and starch. Don’t forget to weigh your hard feed too- scoops do not provide accurate measurement and ‘guesstimating’ how much to feed makes it too easy for portion sizes to creep up.
  • Inevitably, restricting feed means it is more likely that your horse will spend time without feed. This should be avoided as far as possible as empty stomachs can predispose your horse to issues such as gastric ulceration, and even colic. If your horse tends to rush through their hay, consider providing it in small-hole or double-netted haynets, or a low-calorie hay replacer could be fed via a feed ball to keep them occupied.
  • Use a weigh tape, frequently. Don’t just measure around your horse’s girth area, pick a couple of other areas such as over the neck to assess. Like us, horses will carry weight in different regions, so measuring multiple places will give you a more accurate representation. Record the values weekly to keep track of weight loss, or for ongoing monitoring.
  • Exercise as much as possible! Exercise is key to the control of weight. It improves the horse’s metabolism and increases insulin sensitivity, so, alongside weight loss, it will reduce your horse’s risk of developing equine metabolic syndrome and other diseases.

Remember, equine nutrition is complicated, and any changes should be made slowly. Professional advice should be sought prior to making any significant changes in your horse’s diet.