Eat less and move more is a familiar message but if you have ever worked out how much exercise you would need to do to burn off a slice of your favourite cake, you may have been left wondering whether forcing yourself to go the gym is really worth it! Here we explain how even a small amount of exercise may benefit your horse’s health, even if it doesn’t result in additional weight loss…
In a newly published study carried out by Nick Bamford and colleagues in Australia, 24 obese horses and ponies were randomly divided into two groups; ‘restricted diet only’ or ‘restricted diet plus exercise’. All horses and ponies were fed the same diet of restricted hay (no grazing), a small amount of alfalfa chaff and soya bean meal, and a vitamin and mineral supplement. The exercise programme, which was designed following feedback from horse owners to help ensure it could be implemented relatively easily in ‘the real world’, consisted of 15 minutes of brisk trotting (with a 5 minute walk before and after) 5 days per week for 12 weeks.
The benefits of cutting calories
Weight loss as a result of reducing calorie intake had a number of benefits, regardless of whether or not the horses and ponies did any exercise:
*Reduced bodyweight, body condition score, total body fat and cresty neck score.
*Increased adiponectin - a hormone produced by fat cells. Low levels of adiponectin are a risk factor for laminitis.
*Decreased ‘baseline’ insulin – high levels of insulin in the blood have been linked to an increased risk of laminitis.
*Decreased leptin, a hormone produced by fat cells which helps to regulate appetite, fat storage and calorie burning. High levels of leptin are typically associated with obesity.
The benefits of exercise
Although exercise did not increase weight loss, it did produce additional benefits that were not seen in the ‘restricted diet only’ group, the main one being improved insulin sensitivity. More insulin sensitive horses and ponies need to produce less insulin in order to control their blood sugar. This is important because high levels of insulin in the blood and/or reduced insulin sensitivity are risk factors for laminitis. Horses and ponies in the exercise group also had decreased levels of ‘serum amyloid A’, a protein which is a marker for inflammation.
What does this mean?
Reducing calorie intake and feeding a diet low in starch and sugar should be the priority for overweight horses and ponies. However, the results of this study suggest that exercise may offer additional health benefits for obese horses and ponies and/or those with ‘EMS’ that cannot be achieved by cutting calories and weight loss alone. It is also exciting to see that such benefits can potentially be achieved with an exercise regimen that is relatively easy for owners to implement.
*Seek advice for from your vet before introducing any exercise or increasing the level of exercise if you are unsure whether or not your horse/ pony is sound.
*All exercise should be introduced gradually.
*The exact amount of exercise required is yet to be established – even if you are unable to follow the exercise programme used in this study, some exercise may still be beneficial.
*Speak to a nutritionist for advice on how to restrict your horse/ pony’s forage safely, particularly if they do not have access to grazing or you are feeding soaked hay.
*Cut calories not nutrients! Overweight horses and ponies still require a balanced diet and forage alone, particularly when provided in restricted rations or after soaking, is unlikely to meet protein, vitamin and mineral requirements. A balancer is the ideal way to provide essential nutrients without excess calories.
Did you know?
This new research entitled ‘Influence of dietary restriction and low-intensity exercise on weight loss and insulin sensitivity in obese equids’ was carried out in collaboration with SPILLERS as part of our on-going work to improve our knowledge of equine obesity. Ultimately we hope that by developing a better understanding of how to manage and prevent obesity, we can help to improve the health and welfare of horses and ponies throughout the world.
For more advice on managing overweight horses and ponies contact the SPILLERS Care-Line.
Bamford NJ, Potter SJ, Baskerville CL, Harris PA, Bailey SR. Influence of dietary restriction and low-intensity exercise on weight loss and insulin sensitivity in obese equids. J Vet Intern Med. 2019;33:280–286. https://doi.org/10.1111/jvim.15374