Reading time 15 minutes

While some horse owners struggle to add a few pounds to their horse’s ribs, others have the opposite problem with their horse: the chunky pony. Being overweight is then often affectionately played down as “baby fat” or people point out that they bought the horse completely starved and are now happy that he is “so well fed”. Sometimes it is simply blamed on the breed, that “Cobs are fat”.

The affectionate horse owner of an overweight Equine often convinces themselves that it is not fixable, deep down knowing that being overweight has considerable consequences for the horse’s health. In addition to the risk of laminitis, the weight puts excessive strain on the joints in the long term and thus encourages the development of osteoarthritis. This means, in years to come, years of chronic pain every time the weather turns cold. It also requires a lot more effort for the body to move let alone exercise, which can put excessive strain on cardiovascular circulation and the heart. This can result in cardiac insufficiency, which in turn can put excessive strain on the kidneys. In such cases it is really important to act accordingly to help the horse back to health.

Being overweight is a combination of several factors and by no means straight forward. Genetic predisposition naturally plays a role, some horses are ‘good doers’ and therefore easy to feed others struggle to put on weight. The ‘working breeds’ in particular, which include all the ponies, but also the large and small draft horses as well as Spanish horses and the American working breeds, were specifically bred to be ‘good doers’ not requiring lots of feed.

These type of horses were expected to work hard (maximising performance v energy consumption) while not expensive to look after and feed. When the Hafliner or the Noriker where pulling heavy loads across the Alpine regions they had to live off what they could grab left and right alongside their path i.e. a little alpine bush here and a little mountain pine there. The quarter horse had to walk many miles a day driving the cattle and eat what the cattle had left on their way. And the Spanish horses were also originally workhorses that had to walk many kilometres while plucking a mouthful of barren scrub here and there on the side of their walkways.

This has resulted nowadays in breeds whose metabolism hold on to every bit of nutrients, when given plenty of nutrients in the form of feed, hay, and plenty of grass, it ends up on the hips, belly and neck. Very few horses these days work 10-12 hours in a harness or under the saddle, being overweight is inevitable.

Another important factor that can be observed in stable yards is the lack of exercise. The trend towards open stables in particular has a negative side effect, as many horse owners think that the horse moves around all day and therefore doesn’t need any extra exercise in either ridden or in hand form. Unfortunately, most open stable yards (free walk facilities) are far too small and there is too little incentive for the horses to move and consume the required amount of energy.

In a standard open stable yard, horses only move about 1-3 kilometres per day on an average. That’s less than an hour’s walk! In a paddock box, a horse walks an average of 800 metres, which is not that much less than in a standard open stable yard. If a horse is in a box, the owner is under pressure to move his horse every day, but if it is in an open stable, many people think that is enough movement. It is far too little. Even in a perfect and very spacious paddock track system facility, the horses only walk about 10 kilometres a day. That’s about 2.5 hours of exercise.

It is very important especially for ‘good doers’ they require regular extensive exercise, so they enjoy moving their body’s and can reduce stress hormones in the process. Strolling out on a long hack through the forest with a brisk canter along the grass verge or some schooling sessions two or three times per week.

Exercise doesn’t have to be boring; you can make it varied for both two and four-legged partners. Perhaps plan a weekend ride with an overnight stay? Or train for a short endurance ride that is taking place nearby? It helps some riders to set goals for their exercise programme, so that even after a hard day’s work or in bad weather, you can motivate yourself to go to the stable and exercise your horse.

For many horse owners, the way to the horse’s heart is through the tummy. Horses are generally delighted to be given lots of carrots or being fed treats by hand, also a yummy müsli or mash isn’t usually turned down.

Unfortunately, it’s much the same if you constantly give your child chocolate bars and chips to eat. The child will also prefer the chocolate bar to an apple or salad. In both cases as a carer, we are responsible to ensure a healthy diet. Especially when it comes to feeding, there are many ways to ensure a good weight for the horse for a more prosperous healthy future.

5 tips to manage ‘good doers’ and their feed intake

1) Hay instead of muesli

In terms of energy density, hay and muesli for the horse is comparable to salad and chocolate mousse for us. Not only the cereal-based mueslis, with highly digested, thermally treated starch carriers are proving to be problematic. They have the same effect on the metabolism as blank sugar. In human medicine science, it is known how problematic a high-carbohydrate diet is in terms of obesity. Sugar addiction has been proven in many animal species to date.

Horses at the hayrack
© Adobe Stock / Igor Maz

It can be assumed that this sugar addiction also exists in horses, which is specifically encouraged by the daily muesli or mash. More and more horse owners are therefore switching to “grain-free muesli”. It is often overlooked that these are also enriched with hidden sugar in the form of carrot pieces, apple pomace, apple syrup or molasses to make them as palatable as possible for the horses. This is the devil’s own game. Instead of buying sacks of bucket feed, it is by far more helpful to invest your money in a hay analysis and good quality low-sugar hay.

Hay contains significantly less sugar, than a common muesli (even the grain-free muesli version!) and its high fibre content encourages a natural healthy chewing process. The chewing process ensures that happiness hormones (endorphins) are released: a chewing horse is generally a happy horse. I can therefore ultimately make my horse just as happy by offering hay as I can with a muesli bucket feed – it’s just less satisfying for the owner.

And this is a question that should be critically analysed, for whom is the feed actually? More often than not it is very satisfying and gives us a feeling of happiness that we prepared a wonderful caring bucket of feed, filled with carrots and other yummy treats for our beloved Equine. If the horse, then responds with a lovely knicker and licks the bowl clean it could not feel any better. But is that good for my horse? Generally, not. Hands off fast food for horses, hay instead of buckets feeds is the way forward.

2) Use Slowfeeder

There are horses that give you the impression that they are getting fat just from “looking at hay”. This mainly applies to the ‘good doers’ in combination with very nutritious hay. Unfortunately, you can’t see the sugar content in the hay, and this is very critical when it comes to the weight management of these type of horses. It is always advisable to have your hay analysed for its nutritional values in an agricultural laboratory.

As it is not always possible due to cost and time frame, a very simple method, has been developed by Elke Malenke to determine the sugar content in hay by yourself using a refractometer.

The method is simple and not very complicated; therefore, anyone can use it at their stable yard. The sugar content in the hay should be <10% for horses; for horses that are prone to metabolic disorders such being overweight or laminitis, <6% is desirable. It is not always possible to get such low sugar hay. In this case, you have to help yourself by “thinning out” the hay, for example by mixing it with a very low sugar hay (e.g. hay that has been rained on and dried clean after being rained on) or with straw.

Slow feeders also help to slow down the feeding speed. Slow feeders include the well-known hay net, which is available in various sizes and mesh widths so that you can find a suitable solution for every situation. The more skilful the horse and the more nutritious the hay, the smaller the mesh widths should be. However, if you mix the hay with straw, it is extremely difficult for many horses to pluck enough feed from the very small mesh, so you have to switch to slightly larger mesh.

In addition to hay nets, there are many other, sometimes very creative ways of slowing down the feeding speed. These range from hay balls that can roll across the track to hay pillows that can also be distributed on the track without having to put up extra posts to hang more nets.

With slow feeders and possibly a mixture of hay/straw, the feeding rate should then be adjusted so that horses that tend to be overweight end up with approx. 1.5-2kg of hay per 100kg per day (straw is not weighed here), spread over 24 hours, so that they can eat constantly but do not consume too much per unit of time. This means that 24/7 hay feeding also works for chunky ponies.

3) Grazing muzzle for the pasture

Grazing is always a particularly critical point for overweight horses, as grass is much more nutritious than hay and often has a very high sugar content. What’s more, it is nice and soft and can be eaten at record speed. This happens, for example, if you shorten the duration of grazing. Horses learn very quickly that they are only put out on grass for an hour and then increase their grazing speed fourfold!

This means that they eat as much in one hour as they would otherwise eat in four hours. This certainly doesn’t add up when it comes to limiting the nutrients for our little piglet.

In an ideal world it would be best to have lean pastures with low-nutrient grasses and herbs. But unfortunately, you can’t choose the vegetation on your land as desired for your ‘steppe animal’, even more difficult if the soil is rich.

Here, too, the feed intake per unit of time needs to be limited. The most sensible and horse-friendly way to do this is to use a grazing muzzle. Even if this looks a bit gruesome to begin with: The grazing muzzle does not prevent grazing, it simply reduces the amount per unit of time so that the horse cannot guzzle as much. What would be the alternative? Leaving the horse isolated in a paddock with hay while everyone else goes out on grass is not particularly horse-friendly, a horse wants to stay with its herd as much as possible, which provides security.

Or put the horse out on grass without a grazing muzzle and risk laminitis, which is extremely painful and can be fatal. The horse’s welfare must be considered. In this case, the grazing muzzle is clearly still the best option. The AS model from “Das Pferd im Blick” (https://as-das-pferd.de/as-fressregulator/fressregulatoren/) has proven itself well and will ship to the UK.

Different reduction plates allow the feeding speed to be customised to the horse’s ability and the condition of the pasture. An additional leather plate protects the incisors of horses with sensitive teeth from excessive abrasion.

In general, the horses cope well with this grazing muzzle, and some get really excited when it is put on as they have learnt that they can then go out to pasture. It’s always nice to have a horse that tolerates going out to pasture without any restrictions. But for overweight horses and those at risk of laminitis, the grazing muzzle is a good option to allow grazing, and therefore a normal routine.

4) Stay away from treats

As difficult as it may be, if the horse is already round as a ball, then any treat is too much. The horse certainly won’t deny the obligatory carrot on arrival or the goodbye banana. Same horses may even offer to perform some circus tricks. But unfortunately, when it isn’t a big deal in a slimmer build horse it can the ‘breaking point’ for an already overweight horse.

Treats are like concentrated feed: they should only be fed strictly in line with performance. If my chunky pony has just completed 60 minutes training session with a good canter, then there’s nothing wrong with a (the emphasis is on: a) treat as a reward afterwards. But you don’t have to reward the horse for standing around and looking cute.

Apples, carrots, watermelons, oranges, kiwis and all the other fruit and vegetables on the yard: What is a healthy addition to our diet is like a chocolate bar for the horse and absolutely not suitable for the chunky pony, especially if hay rations are already prescribed. If you still want to reward your horse because you are doing clicker training, for example, you should switch to a low-sugar reward.

© Adobe Stock / Happy monkey

Rosehips are suitable for some horses, but best to try them out first – some horses love them, others not so much. Individual sainfoin pellets are also well suited to clicker training, they seem to taste very good to horses and are similarly low in sugar to hay but are much more attractive than hay cobs due to their high protein content and bitter substances.

Biostickies (http://www.biostickies.de/product-page/basis-clicker-5kg) are also popular for clicker training; they consist of 90% hay and 10% linseed meal.

This naturally makes them richer than normal hay cobs, but also more attractive in terms of flavour. They are however, about three times more expensive than similarly tasty sainfoin pellets. Another lean treat alternative is OKAPI’s Clickerlis Light, although these are not cheap either and are therefore more of a “highlight” reward, as are the other Grain-Gree Clickerlis from OKAPI.

Same applies though, less is more. The moment a treat tastes attractive to horses, it always contains significantly more sugar, fat or protein than hay, i.e. all nutrients that should be given in very small doses to overweight horses. Always remind yourself: chocolate bars for horses! Less is more…

5) Ensure mineral supply

If you restrict the hay and pasture grass intake via slow feeders and grazing muzzle so that the horse no longer has completely free access to it, it will not only consume fewer calories, but also fewer other nutrients. Particular attention must be paid to the balance of minerals and trace elements.

What is often noticeable is that many horses only display minor fat pads (this does exist, but it definitely does not affect the majority of horses), but rather lymph deposits due to high sugar levels and / or toxins in the feed and / or a disturbed intestinal flora and / or detoxification function.

If you now exercise these horses regularly and at the same time, take them off the sugar feed and replace the muesli and treats with 24-hour hay from hay nets, these horses often start to drain the lymph deposits from their body’s.

The sugar deposits and toxins stored in the lymphatic system are excreted via the kidneys, which naturally also leads to an increased loss of minerals via the urine. Feeding haylage and other feedstuffs with lactic acid bacteria often leads to an excessive amount of lactic acid being stored in the lymphatic system and thus in the connective tissue. To neutralise this, it is necessary to activate an important enzyme in the tissue, carbonic anhydrase.

Pure Mineral G from OKAPi © Okapi GmbH

And for this to work effectively, the body must be supplied with sufficient zinc. This means that overweight horses, especially those with a cresty necks and ‘fat’ pads on the hindquarters must be fed additional minerals so that the body can balance its mineral intake despite limited access to roughage, compensate for losses via the urine and allow the deacidification reaction in the connective tissue to take place accordingly.

In addition to a salt lick, a proper mineral feed should therefore be given on a regular basis.

Pur Mineral G from OKAPI, for example, is a good choice. It is a pure mineral and trace element mixture that horses only eat as required. In exceptional cases, e.g. pregnant mares or horses with significant metabolic disorders such as sweet itch etc., an individualised mineral supply should be ensured, and an experienced therapist should always be consulted for the best outcome.

Team Sanoanimal