Did you know that over 51% of the horses in the U.S. are considered fat? And about 20% of that 50% would be considered obese?*
The problem with this is that obesity can have a negative impact on a horse’s wellbeing, leading to a predisposition for dangerous health conditions such as Equine Metabolic Syndrome, insulin resistance, and laminitis.
Overweight horses are also prone to poor performance and increased risk of injury, as well as overheating in hot weather, so it is important to care for your chunky, or dare we say, fat horse, appropriately.
So, what is the best strategy to help your horse lose that extra weight?
The first rule of thumb with any type of weight loss (whether it be your horse or yourself) is that weight is never added overnight and therefore, cannot be lost overnight either. Dry lotting your horse for long periods of time or extreme exercise routines are never a good idea. Shedding excess weight really is where slow and steady changes will help win the race.
Here’s your 4-step plan for helping your horse return to a healthy weight and body condition.
Step #1: Know your horse’s weight
To begin with, you’ll want to get a good estimate of your horse’s current weight. Since we don’t all have heavy-duty horse scales on hand, the best thing to do is purchase a weight tape and learn how to use it. These are inexpensive tools that can be purchased from your local farm store or from nearly any online equine catalog that look similar to a seamstress’s measuring tape.
Many people tend to estimate that their horse weighs about a thousand pounds, but, of course, this can’t be true in every case. For example, an adult Quarter Horse may weigh anywhere from 900-1300 lbs. An adult Warmblood, by contrast, usually weighs between 1200 and 1450 lbs. Arabian or lighter horse breeds would weigh less than that. And if your horse is overweight, these numbers could shift quite a bit.
To find your horse’s weight with a measuring tape, follow these instructions:
- With your horse standing still and square, measure his body length, that is, from the point of shoulder to the point of buttock (furthermost bony point high on the buttocks, near the tail).
- Next, measure your horse’s heart girth, the circumference of the chest just behind the withers and elbow.
- Finally, using pencil and paper or a calculator, plug your measurements into one of the following formulas:
(Heart girth2 x Body length) / (330) = weight in lbs.
(Heart girth2 x Body length) / (11,880 cm3) = weight in kg
Once you have a starting weight, you can then use the tape to continue to monitor for weight loss over the coming weeks and months. As long as your horse’s weight is slowly decreasing, then you are on the right track.
Step #2: Use the Henneke horse body condition scoring system
Just as important as knowing your horse’s weight is learning how to use the Henneke Body Condition Scoring System (BCS). This system was developed by Dr. Don Henneke as a way to assess fat cover over the six major points of the horse that are most responsive to changes in body fat.
The Henneke scoring system can be used to evaluate any horse’s body condition, regardless of breed, body type, sex, or age. Numerical values between 1-9 are assigned by palpating for the amount of fat cover at six specific places on the horse’s body:
- Area behind shoulder
Horses with a score of 1 are considered to be in poor condition and extremely emaciated while horses with a score of 9 are considered extremely fat.
The target score you should be working toward is 5-6.
Step #3: Look closely at your horse’s diet
Once you have your horse’s weight and BCS score, it’s time to take a close look at the diet. Assess everything you are currently feeding and your horse’s pasture intake. Less grain concentrates and more low-sugar forage in the form of good-quality grass hay is the ideal way to achieve weight loss.
For horses that are easy keepers, feeding a ration balancer, which contains all of the essential nutrients a horse needs in a small, pelleted ration, works well.
Dr. Amanda Bradbery, FullBucket’s Equine Nutritionist, suggests that horse owners invest in a hay analysis (it’s only about $30!). “That way you know what nutrients your horse is receiving from their forage sources, which allows you to make better decisions on the amount and type of grain concentrate you should be feeding.”
Purchase a scale to use at the barn (fish scales work great) and weigh everything that you’re currently feeding your horse. Reduce concentrate intake before reducing forage. You can reduce hay to 1.5% of the horse’s current body weight, but do not reduce much more as that can result in gastrointestinal and behavioral issues.
The best hay for overweight horses is one that is lower in non-structural carbohydrates and higher in fiber. You can also use slow feeders to slow down hay consumption, if needed.
For horses on pasture, you may need to limit pasture access as well, but again, never restrict forage completely with dry lotting, as this can lead to digestive problems as well as stable vices such as wood chewing. One option is using a grazing muzzle during turnout which reduces the amount of grass your horse is able to consume.
To support your horse’s digestive system during any diet changes, it’s also important to supplement with a high-quality probiotic such as EQ Probiotic Pellets.
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Step #4: Move, move, move!
Finally, the most important factor for shedding excess weight is movement. Whether it’s lunging, using a walker, or riding, slowly increase your horse’s exercise to help him lose weight.
Dr. Bradbery cautions, “Keep in mind that exercise alters a horse’s nutrition requirements. Be careful that you adjust your horse’s diet as necessary to prevent extreme calorie restriction which may present as fatigue, lethargy or unwillingness to work.”
Since overweight horses are typically unfit horses, slowly increasing their activity level will help to acclimate them to the exercise program as well as help to prevent injuries.
For riding, start with a 30 minute combination of walking and slow trotting at least 2-3 times per week. Then, work up to light work or visible sweat 3-5 days per week for a half hour to 1 hour a day.
As your horse loses weight and gains fitness, the exercise intensity and duration can be further increased.
When caring for your overweight or obese horse, remember that a holistic approach is always the answer.
Together, exercise and diet are key for helping your horse shed weight and much more effective than using one or the other alone.
Don’t make extreme changes and remember to supplement with equine probiotics to protect the delicate gut microbiome during times of transition.