Let’s face it, losing weight is hard work! However when it comes to putting our horses on a diet, the challenges that come with trying to restrict forage intake and monitor weight loss can make life all the more difficult. If your horse is carrying more weight than he should, we hope these tips prove useful…
- Safe weight loss takes time so aim for a reduction of approximately 1% of bodyweight per week (5kg for a 500kg horse) after the first week. Greater losses in the first week are common and likely to be the result of reduced gut fill - you may have experienced something similar if you have ever been on crash diet!
- Try to use your weigh tape at the same time of day. Due to changes in gut fill your horse’s weight (like your own!) will fluctuate during the day.
- Total forage intake should not be restricted to less than 1.5% of current bodyweight on a ‘dry matter’ basis without veterinary supervision. However all forage contains some water so in practice, you need to increase the amount you feed in order to ensure your horse consumes enough fibre. On average this equates to 9kg of hay (1.8% bodyweight) in a 500kg horse without access to grazing.
- Under ‘real life’ conditions it’s impossible to measure forage intake in horses and ponies that have access to grazing. However, counting droppings can be useful in those with individual turnout. In order to encourage weight loss, aim to reduce droppings by a third initially and never by more than half in horses and ponies that need greater dietary restriction.
- If you intend to feed soaked hay you may need to increase the amount you soak. Hay contains approximately 15% water so in reality, a 4kg net of dry hay contains approximately 3.4kg of actual hay (scientifically termed dry matter). However soaking causes a loss of nutrients into the water (and therefore dry matter) so once soaked, your 4kg net may contain just 2.7kg of hay. Speak to a nutritionist for more advice.
- Replacing up to 30% of your horse’s forage with straw can help to reduce calorie intake without restricting the amount of forage fed, particularly for ponies and natives in light work. Any straw fed should be of good hygienic quality and introduced gradually. Straw is also best avoided as a forage source for horses and ponies prone to impaction colic.
- Weight loss may not result in a change in body condition score initially, particularly in obese horses and ponies. Although this may feel disheartening, keep up the good work and try monitoring heart girth, belly girth and rump width too.
- Cut calories, not nutrients. Forage alone is unlikely to provide a balanced diet, particularly for horses on restricted rations. A balancer is the ideal way to provide vitamins, minerals and quality protein, without excess calories.
- Consider choosing a balancer high in lysine. It is inevitable that some of the weight your horse loses will be muscle, not fat. However if sufficient levels of protein and in particular lysine are not provided by the diet, the body will need to break down lean tissue (muscle) in order to meet requirements. In addition to compromising topline, burning muscle instead of fat slows metabolism!
- If using a grazing muzzle, monitor your horse’s condition and behaviour (for signs of distress) closely. Some horses and ponies will gain more weight if only wearing a muzzle for part of their time at pasture because they simply eat more when it is removed. Despite this, grazing muzzles should not be used 24/7.
- If possible try to maintain a regular exercise programme. Recent research has shown that light work can improve insulin sensitivity (reduced insulin sensitivity increases the risk of laminitis), even if doesn’t increase weight loss. Read our recent blog for more information.
For more advice on managing overweight horses and ponies contact the SPILLERS Care-Line