benefits of exercise alongside diet restriction for good-doers


Rachel O'Sullivan MSc RNutr


We all know that we should exercise our good-doers but over the cold, dark winter months it is very easy to overlook the exercise part of our weight management plan. However, a study published this year* has shown the benefits of exercise alongside diet restriction for our good-doer horses and ponies. Twenty-four obese horses (BCS ≥7) of various breeds were assigned to a twelve-week weight loss program. They were randomly split into 2 groups of twelve; dietary restriction only (DIET) or dietary restriction plus with low-intensity exercise (DIET+EX).

All horses in both DIET and DIET+EX groups were fed mixed grass hay at an intake of 1.25% BW (on a dry matter basis), as well as a small hard feed consisting of soybean meal (1.0g/kg BW), alfalfa chaff (1.0g/kg BW) and a vitamin and mineral supplement (60mg/kg BW). The horses in the DIET+EX group were also subjected to a low-intensity exercise program. This consisted of 5 minutes walking, 15 minutes brisk trotting and 5 minutes walking, 5 times per week. This exercise plan protocol was developed after feedback from horse owners regarding a practical low-intensity exercise plan.

The results of the study showed that, on average, horses in the DIET+EX group lost more weight than the DIET group (6.2% vs 7.7%). as well as having lost a higher level of total body fat mass (4.8% vs 5.5%). The results also showed that horses in the DIET+Ex group has a higher level of insulin sensitivity compared to the DIET group as well as having lower levels of Serum amyloid A concentrate at the end of the twelve-week study period. (Serum amyloid A is a biomarker of systemic inflammation, something which is common in horses and ponies with insulin dysregulation)


As weight loss and alleviating insulin dysregulation are the main recommendations for managing horses with EMS the results of this study show that both diet restriction combined with exercise is likely to be the best way to achieve this. In addition, it seems that regular low-intensity exercise provides additional health benefits over just diet alone and should, therefore, form an integral part of the management plan for good-doers, especially those prone to laminitis.

It is worth noting that earlier studies have shown that exercise alone is not enough to improve insulin sensitivity without dietary changes so if you are managing a laminitis prone horse or pony it is important to speak with a qualified nutritionist about how to make any necessary changes to your horse’s ration.

*Bamford N.J., Potter S.J., Baskerville C.L., Harris P.A., Bailey S.R. (2019) ‘Influence of dietary restriction and low-intensity exercise on weight loss and insulin sensitivity in obese equids’, Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 33, pages 280–286.