Issues with horse obesity and how to manage it - Part 1
The causes of obesity in horses are simple: too much energy (calories) consumed, too little exercise and certain medical conditions. Management of the obese horse requires changes in the feeding program, as well implementing an exercise program. In an owner-reported survey conducted by the National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) in 1998, the prevalence of overweight horses was reported as around 5%. However, in a study conducted by veterinarians evaluating over 300 horses in 2006, more than half (51%) were determined to be overweight or obese.
Excess weight and over-nutrition in equines has a number of potentially negative effects, including: increased stress on the heart and lungs, greater risk of laminitis or founder, increased risk of developmental orthopedic (bone and joint) problems in young, growing horses, more strain on feet, joints, and limbs, worsened symptoms of arthritis, less efficient cooling of body temperatures, fat build-up around key organs which interferes with normal function, reduced reproductive efficiency, greater lethargy and more easily fatigued.
Weight reduction will only occur if the horse's energy expenditure is greater than its energy intake. Weight loss can only be accomplished by reducing the number of calories going in and increasing the number of calories expended, so a combination of diet and exercise is in order, to shed extra weight from the easy keeper. Especially if turnout space is limited or unavailable, the horse should be exercised regularly, provided it is sound and healthy. This is one of the best options for weight loss, especially if the horse is usually sedentary. If possible, exercise the horse more often than it had been before dieting, to increase the rate of weight loss. If an exercise or dry lot paddock is available, where there is no pasture available for grazing, regular turnout will allow for increased activity and weight loss.
Don't feed high-fat supplements. Vegetable oil, flaxseed and rice bran are high in fat, and therefore high in calories. Limit access to pasture by using a grazing muzzle and replace legume hay with grass hay. Legume hay is higher in calories than grass hays, but typically has lower non-structural carbohydrates (NSC). Local grass hays tend to be stressed during growth and are not fertilized to increase growth rate, this leads to high concentrations of NSC’s. Standlee Premium Western Forage® has ideal growing conditions, and scientific application of fertilizers and water to ensure rapid plant growth, thereby decreasing the NSC’s in the plants before harvest.
Standlee Premium Western Forage® has average NSC values for all of their forage products to ensure the most appropriate product is selected for your horse. While limiting calories is important for weight reduction, there are limits on the amount of fiber that can be decreased. Ideally, a horse on a weight loss protocol should still be consuming 1.2% of its body weight in the form of forage. Management of these animals becomes much more intensive as we also need to be gradually providing this quantity of forage consistently throughout the day in order to mimic the horse’s natural grazing behavior. If forage is not provided regularly, the risk for gastric ulcers and stereotypic behaviors such as cribbing and wood chewing significantly increases.
For more on this topic download Standlee's Free Nutritional White Paper - Feeding And Management For An Obese Horse.
Dr. Tania Cubitt
Performance Horse Nutrition
Dr. Cubitt is a native of Queensland, Australia. She completed her Master of Science and Doctor of Philosophy degrees in equine nutrition and reproduction at Virginia Tech. Dr. Cubitt has a wealth of knowledge in nutrition as it relates to reproduction and a background that includes all aspects of equine farm management.