LIZZIE DRURY MSC RNUTR
Many people own a horse or pony that seems to only need to look at a blade of grass or pony nut and they just keep piling on the pounds. These equines often leave their owners feeling guilty because they appear to be eating very little and yet they are still fat. Native breeds of horses and ponies usually fall in to the category of being ‘good doers’ as they have adapted to life in the wild surviving on little or no keep and have a normal tendency to use excess energy to build up fat stores in preparation for when food sources are scarce.
Excess weight is a serious problem and one that should not be overlooked. The overweight horse is more likely to suffer from long-term health problems and is certainly going to be unable to perform to its true athletic ability. Perhaps the most serious implication of excess weight is the increased predisposition to the most serious and potentially fatal disease laminitis.
Owners are beginning to appreciate that fat horses are not fit horses and there are serious health issues linked to obesity. Correct feeding, exercise programmes and management tecnniques mean that muscle definition, correct outlines and athletic performance can be achieved in ‘good doers’ and the risk of potentially life threatening conditions such as laminitis can be reduced.
The importance of body condition scoring
Dr Joe Pagan, President of Kentucky Equine Research (KER), the most prolific independent equine research centre in the world says, “Excessive energy intake, leading to obesity, is the number one danger facing most leisure horses. Monitoring your horse’s bodyweight is an effective means of tracking the energy balance, but to get a truly accurate representation of energy status you should know his body fat composition. Condition scoring is a practical way to monitor body fat content and it can be quite accurate when done correctly”.
Learning how to condition score accurately should form the foundation of any equine management programme. Condition scoring is a visual and “hands on” assessment of your horse’s ‘condition’ to assess the body fat covering particular points of the horses skeleton. The results are graded on a scale of 1-9.
The actual process of condition scoring could fill an entire article but as a guide for the purposes of this article you should be aiming for a condition score of 5-6 for hacking/light work. ‘Good doers’, on average, tend to have a condition score of between 7 and 8, which significantly increases the risk of laminitis. Click here to view our Body Condition Score sheet which details how to individually assess your horse or watch our video below.
Balancing Energy requirements
Your horse’s condition score depends upon energy balance between the amount of energy (calories) going in, and the amount of energy being used through exercise, temperature control and metabolism. If the horse takes in more energy than he uses up he will get fat. If he takes in less energy than he needs then he will loose weight.
Normally a horse will consume 2.0-2.5% of his bodyweight as feed per day, including hay and pasture. To support sensible and gradual weight loss this can be reduced to 1.5% of body weight e.g. 400Kg pony would require 6.0Kg of total feed per day to include pasture, long-stem forage, any hard feed or short chop chaffs. It’s essential that any horse or pony that is put on a weight loss programme is NOT starved nor has the fibre part of his diet severely restricted. Both of these actions can lead to extremely serious and potentially fatal conditions.
Which feed for my 'good-doer'?
Weigh your hay so you know exactly how much you are feeding, it is very easy to over or under estimate how much you are feeding when feeding by 'slice' or 'wedge' of hay
Like any horse the good-doer has a requirement for vitamins and minerals. Commercially formulated feeds will provide all of these as long as the are fed at the manufacturer's recommended feeding levels. For many good-doers these levels are too high and are likely to cause weight gain, so a better option is to use a low calorie feed balancer.
Feed Balancers are formulated specifically for horses and ponies who do not have a requirement for ‘traditional’ ene
rgy providing compound feeds. They offer flexibility by allowing you to feed concentrated amounts of nutrients at low intakes either as a sole concentrate, or added to existing feeds.
Saracen SHAPE-UP™ is a low-starch, high-fibre mix designed to provide a balanced diet at low intake levels. The ingredients within Shape-Up are utilised to support and maintain a normal, healthy metabolism particularly for those horses and ponies on restricted rations due to the need for them to lose weight. It can be used as a calorie controlled ration for those prone to laminitis, Equine Metabolic Syndrome or Cushing's in order to meet micronutrient requirements without excess sugar, calories and starch intake.
Saracen Essential Balancer is low in sugar, starch and calories, so is suitable for horses and ponies that are ‘good doers’. Dense in vitamins, minerals and quality protein sources, Essential Balancer helps to support optimum muscle tone and topline development as well as supporting optimum health and vitality. A blend of yeast cultures helps to support a healthy digestive tract.
Other considerations when managing the good-doer
A horse will only lose weight if he is expending more energy than he is consuming. Initially he may feel rather sluggish and reluctant to go forward, but as the weight begins to drop off he should become more active. Make sure that you increase the workload gradually and start to incorporate lots of hill work. Remember that low intensity work e.g. walk and trot, will burn fat. Fast work will only deplete muscle glycogen stores and put unnecessary strain on cardiovascular, respiratory and muscular systems.
It is very likely that an overweight horse or pony will sweat. Sweat contains large amounts of sodium, chloride, and potassium and to a lesser degree magnesium. It is essential that these are replaced to avoid metabolic disorders and to maintain the horse’s thirst response. Adding 2 oz of salt daily to your horse's feed will maintain sodium and chloride levels, and using an electrolyte supplement e.g. KERx Restore SR before and after heavy or prolonged exercise will replace lost salts.
Remember, if you are using electrolytes, your horse should ALWAYS have free access to plain, fresh and clean water. Electrolytes can be dangerous if they are not used correctly.
MY HORSE IS PRONE TO WEIGHT GAIN BUT HE NEEDS MORE ENERGY FOR HIS WORK, WHAT CAN I FEED?
Once your horse has lost the excess weight and your workload has increased, if you still require more energy, for that little bit extra, you will need to consider using small amounts of a high energy mix e.g. Saracen Enduro-Performance or Competition-Fit Mix. These mixes contain cereals, which are digested very quickly by enzymes in the small intestine. The glucose produced is absorbed in to the blood stream and made available as an energy source for the horse to use very quickly, hence cereals are said to provide the horse with ‘fast release’ energy.
Fast release energy sources, if fed correctly, are more likely to be used immediately for the work being done rather than being used to put on condition. If you are unsure about which high energy feed to use or the quantities that you should be feeding, contact one of the feed help lines; after all you have done the hard work by encouraging weight loss and you want to keep it that way!
Need some guidance?
For a personalised feeding plan for your ‘good-doer’ please complete our simple and free Feed Advice form. Alternatively, if you would prefer to speak to one of our qualified nutritionists for some immediate advice, please call our Feed Advice line on 01622 718 487