Springtime weight management – don’t get caught out!
Dr Tamzin Furtado Liverpool University, discusses how to keep your horse healthy and happy while watching their waistline
As the nights become lighter and horses get more access to turnout, many owners sigh in relief. However, as anyone whose horse has previously had laminitis knows, it is vitally important that we carefully manage our horses’ springtime regime to prevent weight gain – particularly after a lovely mild winter as we’ve just had, in which many of our horses won’t have lost their summer weight from last year. The research is clear: spring is a particularly risky time for laminitis, and we’re here to help you avoid getting caught out by excess weight gain in your horse.
Proactive owners will already be thinking about the year ahead and their horses’ weight management. This doesn’t have to be boring, taxing, or result in a hungry and grumpy horse. In this article, we help you break down weight management into four components, and plan an individual weight management strategy which suits your horse’s needs and personality, by choosing to target weight management in the most welfare-friendly ways you can, to suit the needs of you and your horse.
Although our horses love being out at grass, research shows that this is one of the biggest risk factors for obesity (Robin et al., 2015); no surprise, given that ponies can eat their entire days’ intake of grass at almost double speed (Ince et al., 2011) in just four hours! When thinking about options for reducing grazing, owners tend to think mainly of strip grazing and muzzle use – both can be useful in the right circumstances. However, there could be plenty of other options which would suit you and your horse, including turning out in non-traditional areas such as woodlands which have less grass; employing the help of sheep to eat down grass; turning the horse out with younger/more playful/bossy horses (depending on herd dynamics of course), or using a track system – a perimeter track around the edge of the field – to encourage movement and minimise grass intake.
Depending on your needs, it may also be suitable to vary the time your horse is turned out; grass has less available sugars at the night-time, so turni out a previously laminitic horse at night can be beneficial (ideally, from a few hours after dark, to morning) (Diaz et al., 2020). However, depending on your schedule, this can mean that horses end up on grass for more hours than the daytime, so monitor your horse carefully to see what’s right for you.
A quick note about grazing muzzles: many owners (and horses!) dislike muzzles, but that is unsurprising given that they are often simply placed on a horse, who is left to learn how to use them. Slow introduction (as is the norm for teaching dogs to wear muzzles) can make this quite a different experience for the horse and carer – one behaviourist has a video of her highland pony choosing to lift his head from grass to place it in the muzzle, for example!
Reducing supplementary feed
If your horse only has a balancer, you can skip this section and focus on the others. If you feed hay, haylage, straw, and other bucket feed – read on!
You probably know about soaking hay to reduce the non-structural carbohydrates in the hay (reminder: don’t get too hung up on the “how many hours” question – soak in plenty of clean water for as long as you can to fit in with your management, and if your horse isn’t losing weight soak for longer! Ideally rinse, and don’t soak for too long in warm weather). Recent research has also shown good results for using straw (ideally oat straw) as part of the horses’ forage ration because of its incredibly low calorie content (Jansson et al 2021.,); this can be used for horses who have NO history of impaction colic or dentition problems. One handy tip to make your horse’s life more interesting is to split up the forage into small haynets and place them in different parts of the stable/turnout area, even applying different types of herbal teas to different nets, in order to offer low-calorie choice. You could also use different devices such as hayballs or small-holed nets to prolong intake but, do watch your horse to ensure that he or she is not becoming frustrated with these; some horses seem to enjoy them, but for others they can cause significant frustration.
If you’re still feeding a bucket feed, consider consulting a nutritionist about whether the type or amount of feed could be reduced; all the major feed companies offer free nutritional advice. Remember that if your horse is on a diet, it is advisable to always use a low-calorie balancer to ensure that they get the vitamins, minerals and protein required to remain healthy.
"Important note: no horse should have a diet of less than 1.5% bodyweight diet without veterinary assistance (ask your vet or nutritionist help to work this out, as there are various important factors to consider here."
Many people, understandably, worry about reducing their horse’s food, because it’s not much fun for the horse and also because of the risk of ulcers. Exercise is your friend here: with a healthy horse, it can be possible to achieve weight management with exercise alone – though you’d have to be doing a significant amount of exercise including trotting, cantering and fast work, and regular long/fast hacks of several hours in length. One tip is to time your usual hacks, and then work on making them increasingly quicker each time. Another is to consider finding a sharer, or even pay a professional to help ride the horse – either way, your horse gets more exercise, and you don’t have to do anything! Once the horse is fit enough, frequent events such as fun rides, farm rides, or endurance pleasure rides can be really helpful to get you both having fun and burning off the fat.
If your horse is unfit, or has issues such as arthritis/a history of soft tissue injuries, careful introduction of exercise is key, under veterinary advice if necessary. Bear in mind that even daily 15-20 min brisk walks can reduce the horses’ insulin sensitivity (Bamford et al., 2018), making laminitis less likely (though this low level of exercise will not actually reduce weight). Gentler exercise such as in-hand walks, leading from another horse, or altered turnout to increase the distance the horse has to walk, can all help here.
Most horse people now understand that horses feel the cold differently to us because of the internal “radiator” in their digestive system – if you need a reminder, try cutting your lawn and then put your hand in the pile of cut grass; that warmth is what happens in your horse’s digestive system when they eat forage such as grass or hay. Research has shown that keeping horses rugged vastly reduces the amount of energy horses use to keep themselves warm (DeBoer et al., 2020), meaning it’s hard to get a rugged horse to lose weight. Also, one amazing study taught horses to choose (by pressing symbols) whether to wear a rug or not – and in most cases, except high wind and rain, the horses chose to remain naked (Mejdell et al., 2016). Therefore, rugging your horse is not only preventing him/her from using excess calories to keep warm, but it’s also not what he or she would likely choose. Of course, there are individual differences, and older horses may require more care. You can amplify this effect by giving your horse a clip such as a trace or blanket clip, so he or she uses more energy to keep warm. My rule of thumb is to keep the horse warm enough that they aren’t shivering; above this level, they are capable of managing their own warmth, and they’ll be healthier for it.
For more ideas in each of the four categories above, consult the guide: https://www.liverpool.ac.uk/media/livacuk/equine/documents/Equine,Weight,Management.pdf which will help you find methods to suit you and your horse. There are some final tips which will help you succeed:
Keep a notebook by your horse-stuff (or a note on your phone) to log the things you change, and monitor your horse’s weight on a set regular basis (say, using a weigh tape and taking photos every Saturday, on the first of the month, or at the very least every time the farrier visits, for example). This way, you can see what’s changed, and why. Or, order a free Equine Weight Loss Workbook - see offer below.
Buddy up with a friend to help motivate one another – this sounds silly, but in human studies, it’s shown to make a dramatic difference to our ability to change. You could help one another condition score, book events together, help the other person think of ways around problems…..
Every time you see a professional (vet, nutritionist, farrier, instructor, physio, saddler…. The list goes on!!) ask them to help you condition score your horse. Research shows it is very hard to be objective about your own horse’s condition, so they can help you catch problems early – plus they’ll be impressed at your diligence!
Remember to introduce all changes gradually, including changes to paddocks, herd-mates, muzzles, and exercise. You’ll minimise risks of injury and you’ll both be more relaxed!
Equine weight loss workbook
If you’re serious about helping your horse to shed a few pounds but don’t know where to start, Baileys have an Equine Weight Loss Programme workbook. Packed with tips and advice on assessing your horse’s body condition and, how to formulate a calorie-controlled diet. It has space to record regular Body Condition Scores, weights and exercise plans, it helps you monitor progress and adjust things accordingly. Order your free copy here!
Bamford, N., Potter, S., Baskerville, C., Harris, P., & Bailey, S. (2018). Influence of dietary restriction and low-intensity exercise onweight loss and insulin sensitivity in obese equids. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 33, 280–286.
DeBoer, M., Konop, A., Fisher, B., & Martinson, K. (2020). Dry Matter Intake, Body Weight, and Body Condition Scores of Blanketed and Nonblanketed Horses in the Upper Midwest. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 94, 103239. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jevs.2020.103239
Diaz, M., Furtado, T., Jarvis, N., Menzies-Gow, N., Penrose, L., Rendle, D., & Risk, J. (2020). Tackling obesity and related laminitis in equine patients. Vet Times, 6–7.
Ince, J., Longland, a. C., Newbold, J. C., & Harris, P. a. (2011). Changes in proportions of dry matter intakes by ponies with access to pasture and haylage for 3 and 20 hours per day respectively, for six weeks. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 31(5–6), 283. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jevs.2011.03.106
Jansson, A., Harris, P., Larsdotter Davey, S., Luthersson, N., Ragnarsson, S., & Ringmark, S. (2021). Straw as an Alternative to Grass Forage in Horses — Effects on Post-Prandial Metabolic Profile, Energy Intake, Behaviour and Gastric Ulceration. Animals, 11(2197).
Mejdell, C. M., Buvik, T., Jørgensen, G. H. M., & Bøe, K. E. (2016). Horses can learn to use symbols to communicate their preferences. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2016.07.014
Pollard, D., Wylie, C. E., Verheyen, K. L. P., & Newton, J. R. (2019). Identification of modifiable factors associated with owner-reported equine laminitis in Britain using a web-based cohort study approach. BMC Veterinary Research, 15(1), 59. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12917-019-1798-8
Robin, C. A., Ireland, J. L., Wylie, C. E., Collins, S. N., Verheyen, K. L. P., & Newton, J. R. (2015). Prevalence of and risk factors for equine obesity in Great Britain based on owner-reported body condition scores. Equine Veterinary Journal, 47(2), 196–201. https://doi.org/10.1111/evj.12275