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 into the category of being ‘good doers’. The native breeds 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.
For many years, it has been perceived that for a horse or pony to win rosettes in the show ring required an animal that was well rounded with plenty of top line. This in reality is a horse that is more than likely overweight. People are beginning to appreciate that fat horses are not fit horses and there are serious health issues that are linked to obesity. Correct feeding, exercise programmes and management means that muscle definition, correct outlines and athletic performance can be achieved in ‘good doers’ and be more than acceptable for the show ring.
The following points are designed to help you feed and manage your ‘good doer’.
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”.
Body condition score
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.
THE IDEAL BODY CONDITION SCORE: (1-9)
Hacking and light work 5-6
Horse Trials 4-5
Show Jumping 5
Polo 4 - 5
Your horse’s condition score depends upon energy balance
The amount of energy going in (calories), and the amount of energy being used in exercise, temperature control and metabolism will determine your horse's body condition score. If your horse takes in more energy than he uses, he will gain weight. If he takes in less energy than he needs then he will lose weight. To promote sensible and gradual weight loss the minimum amount of forage that can be fed per day can be reduced to 1.5% of body weight, e.g. 400 Kg pony would require 6 Kg of total feed per day. However, if your horse is currently overweight and you are considering reducing their forage, seek advice from a nutritionist and gradually reduce the amount being fed by 0.5kg every week. 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 as both of these actions can lead to extremely serious and potentially fatal conditions.
Choosing Suitable feeds
Forage is essential to satisfy both the horse’s physical and psychological needs. The physical need for forage is to provide bulk and help to maintain a healthy digestive system, whilst the psychological need is that horses have a natural “drive” and need to chew as they are “trickle feeders”.
Soaking hay is a great way to reduce the calorie content without limiting the amount of fibre that a horse is receiving. We would suggest soaking hay for 60 mins in cold water or 30 mins in hot water (16 degrees or above), to maintain hygienic quality and rinse off any sugary water, as research has shown that this can lead to a 40% reduction in NSC & 7% reduction in DE content of hay (McGowan et al 2012). Good- Doers should not receive less than 1.5% of their body weight as forage per day, this can come from grass, hay/haylage or shorts chops such as chaff.
If you are unsure on how much forage your horse or pony should consume on a daily basis please get in contact with a nutritionist.
Weigh your hay so you know exactly how much you are feeding, it is very easy to over or underestimate how much you are feeding when feeding by 'slice' or 'wedge' of hay
Good- doers that are on a strict weight management programme still require a balanced diet. Choose a low calorie, fully fortified balancer to support health and well-being when the horse or pony is on a weight management program as they are specifically formulated to provide concentrated nutrients at low intakes:
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.
Competition-Fit Balancer is a nutrient dense, low intake balancer in the form of a mix which includes a small inclusion of cereal and is based on digestible fibres. It includes live yeast and acid buff to allow performance horses to train, compete and recover throughout the season.
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. KER 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 into the bloodstream 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 helplines, 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