Top Tips for Managing the Overweight Horse

Article last updated: 14th June 2022

Achieving weight loss is certainly not easy and, with horses and ponies, there are a number of additional factors that make it particularly challenging. Restricting the feed intake of an animal that has evolved to spend most of its time eating increases the risk of problems such as colic and gastric ulcers, so the key to success is balancing feed intake with calorie restriction. In our latest blog, the Dengie nutrition team provide some practical tips to help simplify your horse’s weight-loss journey.

Managing an overweight horse

Regularly monitoring your horse’s body weight not only lets you keep a close eye on how your management regime is affecting your horse’s waistline, but it’s also important for other management factors such as supplying the correct quantity of wormer. Regular weighing makes it much easier to notice whether your horse’s weight is steadily creeping up and therefore allows you to address the problem sooner rather than later, before it becomes an even bigger issue.

Combine weigh taping with body fat scoring to determine at what weight your horse appears to be in ideal condition. Remember – if you can’t easily feel your horse’s ribs and it has a big, apple-shape bottom, it is definitely overweight!

Weigh your horse feed

It sounds simple enough, but when was the last time you honestly checked how much you actually feed your horse? It’s all too easy for portion sizes to creep up, especially when feeding or estimating by volume – the scoop. A prime example of this in our own diet is breakfast cereal. Pour your usual serving size of cereal in a bowl and see how much it weighs. Compare this with the recommended serving size on the back of the box and I guarantee you will be surprised, especially if you tend to have a ‘heavier’ type of cereal such as muesli.

Not all horse feeds weigh the same in a given volume, so it is important to know how much your scoop holds. Talking to horse owners on the Dengie Feedline, we come across people using all sorts of containers to measure their feeds from old milk saucepans to the plastic measures you get with washing powder! For a rough guide, a large, round feed scoop holds just over 1kg of mix, 1.5 to 2kg of cubes compared with only 300g of Dengie Hi-Fi range products.

Knowing how much you feed your horse – including forage – is also important before embarking on a dieting regime because it’s not advisable to restrict the amount of feed your horse receives suddenly. For dieting horses and ponies, the first step is gradually to restrict their intake to 1.5% of their current body weight. For example, if your horse weighs 500kg, this would equate to 7.5kg. If, however, you are currently feeding 14kg of total feed per day, it is important to reduce this gradually to 7.5kg rather than making a sudden change.

Avoid the little extras in your horse’s feed

Does your horse really need that little bit of mix or cubes? Chances are that, if you are feeding by the scoop, this is where ‘portion distortion’ can really come into play as the amount you give steadily creeps up. If you are the owner of an overweight horse or pony, it is important to think about what these little extras really provide and honestly assess whether you need to add them.

Generally, these ‘sprinkles’ of mixes or cubes are added because, from our perspective, they make a meal more interesting and your horse finds them tasty. However, these extras provide quite a few calories and don’t last very long. From a horse’s perspective, it is far better to provide something that encourages longer chewing time, both for behavioural and digestive health.

One of the additional problems of feeding just a sprinkle of mix or cubes is that your horse will be missing out on valuable vitamins and minerals that these feeds would provide when fed at the recommended quantity. One alternative to make your horse’s feed appear more interesting and provide valuable vitamins and minerals without excessive calories would to be to use a feed balancer.

Factor in forage

In some cases, haylage provides too many calories for good doers and, if your yard provides haylage as the sole forage source, you might need to think of a suitable alternative. One option would be to replace a proportion of haylage with a much lower-calorie fibre source such as good-quality oat or barley straw if available. Alternatively, Dengie Hi-Fi Lite can be used to replace forage partially or totally.

Keep your horse occupied

Feed restriction means that overweight horses and ponies might inevitably spend some time without anything to eat. Ideally, this time needs to be kept to a minimum and it means that not only do you need to use as low-calorie feeds as possible, but you also need to be as cunning as possible to try to increase the amount of time it takes your horse to consume its feed.

For hay and haylage, this can be achieved by feeding in small holed hay nets and, if necessary, one hay net inside another, to make your horse work really hard for forage. If using a chopped fibre feed such as one of the Dengie range, feed in a large rubber bucket and put a football on top or some very large smooth pebbles so that your horse has to manipulate to get to the feed. If your horse is a playful character, hanging up vegetables or chopping and putting in a foraging ball can also help to keep them entertained.

The physical form of the feed that you choose can significantly affect how long it takes your horse to eat it and the amount of chewing required. Mixes and cubes are eaten at a much faster rate than short-chop, fibre-based feeds or long-stem forages.

To keep your overweight horse occupied for as long as possible, it therefore makes sense to try to maximise the amount of fibre in the diet in a form that requires more chewing. For example, a scoop of High Fibre Cubes could be replaced with one and a half Dengie measuring buckets of Hi-Fi Original for the same number of calories.

Of course, eating is not the only factor in keeping horses occupied and company is also really important. If your horse has to be kept off grass, if possible, allow access to a companion – some yards even have specific areas for overweight horses that have to all be managed in a similar way.

Monitor your horse’s grass intake

Many people who contact the Dengie Feedline report that they have horses that live on ‘fresh air’. Most of the time, what they are actually referring to are horses that do very well on grass alone. For very overweight horses and ponies and those prone to laminitis, it might be advisable to avoid grass access completely until their weight is reduced.

A grazing muzzle is one way to allow your horse to have some grass access and free exercise while restricting intake. A muzzle should be used only for part of the day, after which the horse should come off grass either to the stable or no-grass area and have access to forage.

It is important to get your horse used to the muzzle gradually and ensure that it is happy to drink with it on. One of the main benefits of using a muzzle is that it still allows your horse to go out to pasture for some exercise and contact with other horses.

Click here to read our blog about using a grazing muzzle to control grass intake.

Exercise plans for overweight horses

This is something that sounds easy in theory but is sometimes a little tricky to put into practice. The good news is that, if you are also on a get-fit mission, it will certainly help you to achieve your goal. Introducing an exercise plan for overweight horses should be a gradual process and you’ll be glad to hear that mad galloping around is not ultimately the best exercise for fat-burning!

One problem that owners of overweight horses frequently report is that their horse can be a little lazy. First, it is important to establish that your horse is fit enough for the exercise that you are trying to do and, second, to remember that being overweight puts extra strain on your horse, which makes exercise much harder work, so give your horse plenty of time to get fit gradually.

If your horse is fit enough for the job in hand and you still find your horse less than enthusiastic, nutritionally there are two factors to consider. First, if your horse is on restricted rations, it is important to consider whether its diet is still balanced. If you are feeding a fibre-only ration or less than recommended of a feed with added vitamins and minerals, it is important to top up with an additional source of vitamin and minerals.

If your overweight horse is not being ridden, such as companions, it can be difficult to keep the weight off. However, an exercise plan for overweight horses doesn’t have to involve riding. In-hand walking, lunging and driving are just a few examples of how you can add variety to your horse or pony’s exercise regime without having to get in the saddle. Click here to read our blog on how you can exercise a horse without riding.

For more information about managing your horse’s weight

If you’re really not sure what to feed your good doer, contact the Dengie nutrition team for a personalised feeding plan. Call the Feedline on 01621 841188 or fill in our Feed Advice form and we will prepare a ration that helps to promote weight loss but keeps your horse happy and healthy.