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Weight Management for Equines

Weight management is a common welfare issue that we all deal with and is something that can be quite complex; especially if the equine has other needs. Excess weight can lead to a number of other health issues such as laminitis, Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) and joint problems such as arthritis.

A horse’s digestive system has evolved to eat fibre, trickle feed and graze for around 18 hours a day. Due to domestication, problems can arise when we are trying to manage their weight and keep them at an ideal body condition score of 3.

A horse that is not in full work or is kept as a companion can easily gain weight as their food intake is not being used for energy expenditure.

Here are just a few handy tips for managing weight gain while still considering the horse’s welfare needs:

Use the winter months to naturally lower the weight in preparation for the spring grass and the natural influx of weight; this can be done by not ‘over rugging’ (Horses produce natural oils in their coat which act as a form of waterproofing. If we over rug, this prevents them from using their body fat to provide warmth.) and clipping; Consider a small neck and belly clip to support weight management. If your horse is such a good doer that you need extra support with managing their weight, you could try a small clip to allow their internal temperature to do the job for you. As they will need to create extra warmth from having the clip, they will use body fat to do this, therefore supporting weight loss. If your horse is cold and shivering, then a rug should be applied.

Try not to guess how much they should be eating; this applies to forage too.

You can lower the percentage of food intake to diet the horse but not starve them, as this will cause other problems. Weight loss should be done slowly over a period of time, depending on how much they need to lose.

Although this is already a golden rule of feeding, it is important that we use this to ensure they are foraging regularly throughout the day, rather than having all of their daily food in one go. Three or four small nets spread out throughout the day is much better for them. Small-holed hay nets can also be beneficial in making the hay last longer, keeping your horse entertained for longer and closer replicates trickle feeding behaviour.

Try to reduce the calorific value of the food given. This can be done by soaking the hay in water as this reduces the sugar content but still provides the fibre required.

Speak to a vet or nutritionist to get advice on whether your horse needs a feed and if so, what is the best option for them. Try to feed low-starch feeds.

As much as we enjoy treating our horses, please be aware that some treats and succulents like carrots and apples can contain more sugar than they need. A swede on a string is a good way of providing a treat whilst also providing enrichment.

A vital part of weight management, it is beneficial to try to create an exercise plan for your horse. Even a companion can go for an in-hand walk a few times a week and they will enjoy the variety rather than being kept in the field. Remember to ensure your horse is capable of completing the exercise and start off with small tasks to build it up as they lose weight and get fitter.

If you have the facilities to do this you can try track systems, creating a four-metre track around the perimeter of your field. This enhances movement by placing their forage, water and shelter in different places around the track. If you are unable to do this, try using electric fencing to create a zig zag pattern up the field, again to promote movement.

These can be used at certain times of the year when grass is lush and contains lots of sugars. Muzzles will reduce grass intake, but care should be taken with the fit of the muzzle and length of time spent wearing it.

As we start moving toward the winter months, it is the perfect time to start thinking about how best to benefit from the change in seasons and help our equine friends shed some weight. Remember, we are always available for help and advice if needed.