Managing your horse’s weight
Keeping our horses at a healthy weight is a balancing act!
Whether your noble steed struggles to hold their weight, or your equine companion can’t help piling on the pounds, here is some guidance you might find helpful for keeping them happy and healthy.
The importance of water
Water is essential for all of us, so it’s vital your horse has constant access to fresh, clean water.
Every horse will drink a different amount, depending on their needs. It is estimated horses drink around 5% of their bodyweight every day!
Many factors affect your horse’s daily drinking habits:
- Diet – eating dry food and forage will make your horse thirstier.
- Health – issues like diarrhoea can cause horses to lose water.
- Exercise – horses who sweat must drink a lot.
- Temperature – in warmer weather, horses naturally drink more.
Feeding your horse a balanced diet
Balancing your equine best friend’s diet is important.
An unbalanced diet can cause horses to have health problems like laminitis, stomach ulcers, and colic. Excess energy in their diet can lead to challenging behaviour in horses, too.
For specialist advice about feeding your horse, speak to your vet or a qualified equine nutritionist.
You can also find a fantastic (free!) guide to nutrition, as recognised by the British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA), in the Keeping Britain’s Horses Healthy (KBHH) Responsible Horse Owner Booklets collection.
For information about what not to feed your horse, visit our Things you should never feed your horse article or ask your vet.
Avoid sudden dietary changes
Equine digestive systems are super sensitive! It is crucial you make changes to your horse’s diet slowly.
Feed little and often
Horses are ‘trickle feeders’ and need to eat small amounts through the day. If horses eat too much in one meal, they’re at greater risk of colic.
To keep your horse healthy, halving their hard feed (read on to find out what this is) ration into two meals a day is a great start!
Choose good quality food
You wouldn’t want to eat poor quality food, neither would your horse!
Good quality food shouldn’t be mouldy or dusty, and it’s always worth looking at the best before date on feed bags before opening them.
Feed according to exercise
Just as we use energy from our food, our horses’ diets should suit the level of exercise they enjoy, too.
You can always ask advice from your vet about feeding your horse according to their workload.
Avoid feeding a short time before or after exercise
Feeding your equine companion too closely to the time they are exercised can cause colic, digestive discomfort, and other health problems.
Allow your horse to rest for two hours after eating their hard feed before exercising them. After exercising your horse, they shouldn’t be given hard feed for over an hour.
Feed according to health
Part of managing your horse’s weight may involve dealing with health conditions such as laminitis, equine metabolic syndrome (EMS), gastric ulcers, etc.
If you have any concerns about your horse’s health, please contact your vet.
Feed according to condition
Condition scoring is a useful way to work out what your horse needs in their feed!
An excellent resource for condition scoring is available in this British Horse Society (BHS) article.
Chewing forage and getting enough fibre are essential for your horse’s digestion.
You can supply your horse’s forage in a hay net or haylage net, hay bag, hay bar, hay rack, in a bucket, or on the floor. Every option has pros and cons, so it may take some trial-and-error to find the right solution for you and your horse.
Hay is cut from grass that’s allowed to dry before being baled. Nice quality hay should smell slightly sweet. It’s also versatile, since hay can be soaked for horses and ponies at risk of laminitis or steamed for those with respiratory conditions (COPD, dust allergies, etc.).
Unlike hay, haylage is baled before it dries out and is wrapped in layers of plastic. The layers of plastic prevent haylage from becoming mouldy. Haylage is higher in calories than hay, so horse owners usually feed less of it.
Some horses struggle to eat hay and haylage. Age-related dental problems are common in veteran horses. There’s a big choice of alternative forage, including soaked fibre feeds and soft, chopped chaff.
Contact your vet or equine nutritionist for advice about forage and its alternatives.
Concentrated horse feeds (e.g. cool mix, pony cubes, balancers, etc.) have become a feed room staple.
Many ‘complete’ feeds and balancers are said to provide all the nutrients a horse needs, but picking the perfect food for your horse can be tough; there’s so much choice!
The best way to find the right feed for your noble steed is to contact a qualified equine nutritionist.
Some equine nutritionists have a ‘weighbridge’, which allows you to accurately weigh your horse. By weighing your horse regularly, you’ll be better able to monitor their weight and manage it safely.
Laminitis and other weight-related health conditions are important to have in mind when assessing the quality of your horse’s grazing.
While we all want our best equine friends to make the most of their turnout time, we can’t ignore the risks of grass sugars. If a horse is overweight, for example, it’d be beneficial for them to have restricted grazing.
Always consult your vet if you have concerns about the grass quality in your horse’s field.
To maintain a healthy weight, the energy a horse uses during exercise should be balanced with the energy they get from their diet.
For expert advice on effective exercise routines (whether that’s riding, carriage driving, lunging, etc.), you can connect with a local, qualified riding instructor through the free BHS ‘find a coach’ service.