OK, your horse is fat. You know it, maybe your trainer told you and heaven knows your veterinarian would point it out. Overweight horses, just like overweight people, are jeopardizing their overall health. Horses can become more susceptible to injury, laminitis, breathing difficulties, and hormonal problem. You’ve got to take action.
The first step in setting up a weight-loss diet is to determine what you horse’s ideal body weight is. This will be used to determine how much hay the horse should be fed. For safe but steady weight loss, if the animal is being worked daily, feed a minimum of 1.5% of his current body weight and 2% of his ideal body weight in hay. For a horse getting no formal exercise and confined to a stall or small paddock, feed between 1% of the current body weight to 1.5% of the ideal body weight. For example, assume our fat pony’s current body weight is 700 lbs. and his ideal body weight 500 lbs. He’s getting no formal exercise. We’d fed him between 7 and 7.5 lbs. of hay per day (1% to 1.5% of the ideal weight of 500 lbs.).
No Crash Dieting
If your horse or pony is already on a grain-free, reduced-hay diet that would make any other horse look like a rack of bones, but weight loss is slow, you may decide to cut feed even further. Don’t do it.
Ponies, minis, donkeys and even full-sized horses whose weight problem is metabolic react to severe calorie restriction by becoming increasingly resistant to the effects of insulin and mobilizing large amounts of fat in an effort to “feed” their cells that way. The fat mobilization can be so severe that the blood looks milky and organ damage can occur.
If you’re in this situation, go back to square one, determine your target weight, feed accordingly and make sure you allow no grain, grass or high-sugar hays. If you choose the diet correctly your horse or pony can eat a normal amount and still lose weight.
Hay’s No. 1
The type of hay you choose is important. Hays vary tremendously in their calorie and sugar content. The bright green, tender, dairy-cow-quality cuttings of alfalfa lead the pack in calories. The stemmier alfalfas usually available to horse owners often contain the same or fewer calories than young cuttings of some grass hays.
In general, however, we recommend you avoid high quality alfalfa, brome, peanut hay, any crop type hay (e.g. peavine, soybean), the grain hays (wheat, oat, milo, triticale) and young, tender cuttings of any type. The best hays for weight loss are prairie hays, native meadow hays, and mature cuttings of Bermudagrass, timothy or orchardgrass.
Calculating his grain and fat intake is simple: None. We’re all conditioned to think that the horse’s nutrition comes from his grain and that you must “feed” the horse, meaning a concentrate/grain of some type. It’s just not so. Grains and fat are extremely calorie-dense and have no place in the diet of a horse that needs to lose weight. The culture shock this creates puts a major roadblock to weight loss in the path of many horses. Even more importantly, if your horse or pony’s weight issue is related to a metabolic problem, it’s essential to avoid feeding grain or fats to get that under control.
If you just can’t bear the idea of not feeding your friend — or he throws a fit because the other horses get goodies in their tubs and he doesn’t–substitute something more appropriate. Beet pulp packs about the same calories pound per pound as oats, but because it can soak up to a volume four times it’s dry measure, you can give a good-sized, filling beet-pulp meal but at a fraction of the calories.
For a full-sized horse, one pound of beet pulp per day (dry weight) divided into two feedings and “seasoned” with 2 oz. of rice bran and 2 oz. of ground stabilized flax makes a tasty, good-sized meal that’s mineral-balanced for the major minerals, supplies all the fat the horse needs for health, and meets his requirement for omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. All you need to add is the hay and a mineral supplement suitable for the hay you’ve chosen (more on this in an upcoming issue), such as the Select-The-Best Select I and Select II (www.selectthebest.com 800-648-0950) vitamin/mineral supplements that are formulated for grass or legume hays.
Nothing makes losing weight easier than also following a regular exercise plan. Exercise does a lot more than just burn the calories needed to sustain the level of work. The hormonal changes that accompany regular exercise reset your horse’s metabolism to a higher resting level. His muscle cells become more sensitive to the effects of insulin, taking up the glucose they need to function more efficiently.
Straw may look low-calorie and unappealing, but fact is straw provides as many calories as average grass hays and is often high in sugar. It’s readily consumed, especially by horses on diets. We recommend you bed the horse on shavings or another type of alternative bedding.
Nothing packs the pounds on a horse more reliably than good pasture. Nature intended grass to be the horse’s perfect food, but it didn’t plan on horses having an unlimited supply without covering many miles a day to get it.
One of the most difficult things to accept is that grass intake will have to be limited if not prevented. You can still allow the horse or pony the benefits of moving around on turn out by using a grazing muzzle that sharply limited grass intake (see March 2003). For extremely overweight animals, or those with metabolic problems, grass intake should be prevented entirely.
Your horse should have an advantage over a person trying to lose weight since he really can’t cheat. Unfortunately, keeping to the prescribed diet seems to be harder on owners than it is on the horses. Be careful not to project your own feelings about dieting onto the horse, or make assumptions that your horse is craving certain things or feeling deprived. Fact is that most horses adapt extremely well to a weight-loss diet.
If you want to share some treats, forget the grain- and molasses-based treats or, worse yet, donuts or any human food you used to use for treats. Sugar-free candies, like an occasional peppermint, are OK, but it’s better yet to substitute along the same healthful lines as recommended for human diets. A few carrots, a handful of grapes, a prune, or a few alfalfa pellets are much better choices. Fresh carrot and fruit bits are better than dehydrated/dried because the natural water content dilutes the calories. Think portion size, too. Don’t give your horse that whole apple, split it with him.