How to prevent your horse from becoming overweight
Equine obesity is becoming a huge problem for horse owners. Unfortunately, being overweight can put horses at risk of health problems like:
- Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS).
- Heart disease.
- Beathing difficulties.
Don’t panic! There are many ways to manage your horse’s body condition and prevent them from becoming overweight…
Why do horses become overweight?
There are several reasons our horses have become prone to gaining weight:
- Thanks to advancements in equine science, horse feeds have become incredibly nutritious.
- Horses often spend a lot of time stabled, or turned out in smaller paddocks, which is opposite to the natural, roaming lifestyle their bodies are designed to lead.
- Luckily, our domestic horses have next to no predators to worry about, though that means lots of their energy isn’t used.
- Breeders now produce horses who are ‘good doers’ and capable of maintaining their weight through the winter.
- Owners’ hectic schedules limit the time we have available to exercise our horses.
When you combine the above factors, it’s no wonder horses are struggling with weight issues!
What’s the ideal weight for a horse?
It’s impossible to suggest what the ideal weight is for your horse, because the ideal weight will look different for every individual! Just like us, horses have distinctive characteristics that determine how their bodies are maintained. Your horse is unique, so their needs will be unique, too.
For example, a pony in light work who wears rugs, is on good grazing, and fed a deceptively high-energy cool mix will be more likely to store extra nutrients as fat than a stabled racehorse who’s exercise routine and diet are constantly monitored in line with their athletic performance.
To find out the ideal weight for your horse or pony, have a chat with your vet or a qualified equine nutritionist.
Booking an appointment to weigh your horse using a weighbridge is the best way to get an accurate picture of your horse’s true weight. A ‘weighbridge’ is a portable weighing platform your horse will stand on to be weighed – basically, a giant version of our bathroom weighing scales!
Once you know your horse’s actual weight, you can create an effective diet and fitness plan that suits both their needs and your schedule.
The British Horse Society (BHS) runs a great weight management scheme called Horse Health Day, which involves the BHS Horse Care and Welfare team visiting your livery yard with a weighbridge and offering options for weight management plans that are suited specifically to your horse or pony’s situation.
How to maintain a horse’s healthy weight
Whether your horse has to gain weight, lose weight, or maintain a healthy weight, it’s always worth contacting your vet to ensure your horse’s needs are met.
When maintaining our horses’ healthy weight, we must consider:
Before making changes to your horse’s diet, speak to your vet and have your horse checked over to rule out any underlying health issues.
It’s also important that any changes to your horse’s diet are made slowly, to give their digestive system time to adjust.
Although restricting your horse’s diet to help them lose weight might seem like a good idea, it isn’t. Starvation diets are dangerous to horses because they require a near-constant supply of fibre to stay healthy.
- Switching haylage to hay – haylage is higher in energy, which could lead to weight gain.
- Soaking hay – soaking hay for around six hours in fresh, cool water, and allowing it to drain, before feeding it to your horse can reduce calories.
- Double-netting their hay – put an extra haynet over your horse’s haynet, so it takes them longer to demolish their hay!
- Splitting hay into multiple haynets – if you put their normal hay ration into different nets and tie them at different points around the stable, your equine friend will have to move around for their food.
- Swapping hard feed for chaff – there are so many types of chaff (dried forage that has been cut into small pieces) available for horses in light, medium, and hard work; have a chat with a vet or equine nutritionist about fulfilling your horse’s energy and nutrient needs from fibre feeds.
- A grazing muzzle – a properly-fitted, comfortable, safe grazing muzzle is a short-term solution to restrict the amount of grass your horse can eat while in the field, while still allowing them to drink normally; ask advice from your vet if you need help to find the right grazing muzzle for your horse, and always introduce a grazing muzzle gradually!
For an in-depth look at equine nutrition, visit our horse nutrition article.
Horse fitness plans & exercise
Gently increasing your horse’s exercise routine, through a well-developed fitness plan, is an effective way to prevent your equine from becoming overweight!
Creating a fitness programme that suits your horse can be a bit of a challenge. If you need some support, why not hire a local, qualified riding instructor to help? The BHS Find a coach feature is useful if you don’t already know of a local riding coach.
Remember: Exercising your horse doesn’t have to involve riding! From lunging and in-hand walks to carriage driving and horse agility, there’s a fantastic form of equestrian exercise out there for everyone.
To discover more ways to enjoy exercise with your horse, check out our horse exercise guide!
Managing all aspects of our horses’ lives can be beneficial when preventing them from becoming overweight.
Our horses love spending time with their field friends, so turnout time is important.
If your horse’s field contains good quality grass, using electric fencing to allow them to graze the field one strip at a time is great for limiting their sugar intake!
To rug or not to rug?
We’re all tempted to put a rug on our horses when we feel a little chilly.
However, horses generate heat themselves through eating fibre, so, it may help your horse to manage their weight more effectively to think twice before choosing their rug. Sometimes, it’s better to go with a lighter rug or no rug at all!
Take a look at the BHS Guide to rugging a horse for their recommendations.
Fun and games
Encouraging our horses to move around while they’re stabled can support all of the above steps in preventing our horses from becoming overweight.
Here are some ideas:
- Molasses-free licks.
- Salt licks.
- Equine treat balls (containing only low-calorie, high-fibre treats!).
- Hay balls or hay feeders.
- Hay blocks.
- Stable toys.
Always ask advice from your vet if you’re concerned about your horse’s weight.