Lizzie Drury MSc RNutr
Every horse owner at some time has seen a thin horse but, thanks in part to advances made in feeding management, veterinary care, parasite control and dentistry, compassionate horse owners can fatten horses safely and with relative ease. Many horse owners in today’s world have also seen porky Shetlands, cuddly ponies, conditioned horses and chubby seniors!! Although horses and ponies can come in all different shapes and sizes, regardless of appearance, if a horse is carrying more weight than optimum then he or she is at risk of a number of health problems. It is now far more common to find an overweight horse than it is an underweight horse. Now we are heading into Spring it is important to adress any potential weight concerns so your horse or pony does not get too fat when that spring grass finally comes through!
Body Condition Scoring
Most equine vets and nutritionists use a body condition score chart to determine a horse’s need to lose or gain weight. With practice, condition scoring is an accurate way of ensuring that your horse does not gain or lose too much body condition, and shows results far more quickly than by the eye alone. For this reason we recommend that condition scoring is done on a fortnightly basis in conjunction with weight taping.
For most horses, a body condition score of 5 seems to be most appropriate, although depending on the horse's breed, conformation and type of work this can vary. Horses in this state have sufficient fat cover so that ribs cannot be seen but can be felt. There is also no excessive fat deposition around the shoulders, over the withers and topline or around the top of the tail. As researchers dig deeper into the metabolic issues that influence body weight, it is becoming obvious that maintaining a horse in moderate body condition is healthier than keeping them even slightly overweight. A horse with a body condition score of 6 or 7 (scale of 1 - 9) may be described as being overweight, while those scoring 8 or 9 are considered obese.
However, although most healthy horses have body condition scores of between 4 and 6, this is not to say that healthy horses cannot be thinner or heavier, and certain life stages may prompt scores outside of this range. Examples of horses that are typically slimmer than 'ideal' include athletes that are frequently asked to perform strenuous exercise, aged broodmares in the first two to four months of lactation, and horses recovering from illness. In such cases, horses are usually being offered full, nutritionally balanced diets yet are still unable to maintain appropriate body condition. In these cases, the horses are incapable of consuming sufficient calories to fuel both weight gain and work, regardless of whether the work involved is actually performance, growth, lactation or tissue repair. Yet, once the workload is reduced (less strenuous exercise or weaning of a foal), weight gain is often accomplished.
Getting The Correct Balance
As with any species, horses gain weight when more calories are consumed than are used. Diets formulated for weight gain often contain high quality forages and concentrate feeds that are rich in energy (calories). Once a horse is at its target weight (and a condition score of 5), it is time to rethink his ration, as a continuation of the ‘weight gain’ diet may eventually lead to obesity.
The first components of a weight gain diet that should be removed are any high calorie supplements. Feed supplements rich in fat such as EQUI-JEWEL® or vegetable oils, are widely used to pack on the pounds, but as the horse reaches an ideal weight, their inclusion in the diet should be gradually tapered off.
The next consideration is the concentrate feed, as it delivers more calories per pound than forage. If a horse was eating 3.5kg of concentrate feed in order to GAIN weight, reducing his consumption by 0.25 - 0.5kg per day (accomplished over the course of several days) should lead to a slower rate of gain or even equilibrium. At this stage, body condition evaluation becomes a waiting game, as changes in weight often take several weeks. If the horse maintains his body condition on this new amount of feed for several weeks, further reduction by another 0.25 - 0.5kg per day is warranted. If more weeks elapse and he still remains in the desirable body condition, another reduction can be made. As mentioned previously, if owners are feeding less than the recommended amount, feed manufacturers usually suggest a low calorie feed that will provide the horse with protein, vitamins and minerals that he needs.
Owners should carefully read the feeding instructions that appear on the feed bag or the feed label. In order to ensure that the horse receives optimum vitamin and mineral nutrition, he should consume at least the minimal amount indicated. For instance, if you are feeding a formula and the feeding instructions state explicitly that the horse should be fed 2.5 - 3.5kg per day, the absolute minimum that can be fed is 2.5kg per day without risking nutritional deficiencies. If less than 2.5kg is fed, a well-formulated balancer, such as Saracen Essential Balancer or Saracen Shape-Up, can be added to make up for nutrient deficiencies caused by low concentrate intake. In some instances it may be necassary to fed just a balancer alone to ensure minimumal calorie intake.
ESSENTIAL BALANCER is low in sugar, starch and calories, so is suitable for horses and ponies that are ‘good doers’ and in particular native breeds of ponies. Dense in vitamins, minerals and quality protein sources, Essential Balancer helps to maintain muscle tone and topline as well as supporting optimum health and vitality. A source of Omega 3 fatty acids helps to condition and shine the coat, creating a picture of health inside and out.
SHAPE-UP™ is a low-starch, high-fibre mix designed to provide a balanced diet at low intake levels. The ingredients within Shape-Up are utilised to support and maintain a normal, healthy metabolism particularly for those horses and ponies on restricted rations due to the need for them to lose weight. It can be used as a calorie controlled ration for those prone to laminitis, Equine Metabolic Syndrome or Cushing's in order to meet micronutrient requirements without excess sugar, calories and starch intake.
The final part of the diet for review is the forage. For most horses, a combination of hay and pasture make up the forage allotment. It is not unusual for owners to feed haylage and to add alfalfa chaffs to the feed diet if weight gain is required. However, once the horse is in moderate condition good grass hay and a straw based chaff, such as Saracen Slim-Chaff™ is most suitable.
Depending upon the situation (and the weather!), horses might have access to lush pasture. As long as the pasture is introduced slowly (increasing by ½ hour increments per day to be safe), calorie rich pastures can do huge amounts for weight gain. As the horse reaches a desirable body condition, grazing may have to be limited if he continues to gain weight. Many good-doers become extremely fat on pasture alone and this may also occur in horses that have been on an increasing plane of nutrition. Reducing grazing time or using a grazing muzzle might be appropriate for a horse that tends to get fat on pasture.
All changes to the horse’s diet should be made gradually over a period of 7 - 10 days. The horse’s gastrointestinal tract is a fragile organ system. If abrupt changes are made, health problems such as diarrhoea, colic or laminitis may ensue. A step-by-step approach to instituting changes in a diet will help you to keep your horse in moderate body condition If a particular nutrition question or problem arises, owners should have on hand the number of a reputable equine nutritionist or feed merchant for consultation. A vet might be able to assist with some nutrition related questions as well.
Need some guidance?
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