While most of us humans tend to pack on the pounds in the winter, the spring and summer are prime time for our horses to fatten up. While it is important to have a decent weight going into winter, many of our horses here in North Carolina are overweight.
Many of us (myself included) are guilty of thinking of our horses as “fat and happy” but the more appropriate saying is “fat and at risk.” Overweight horses have a shortened lifespan and are at risk for a multitude of health problems.
Obesity in horses can lead to insulin resistance, also known as Metabolic Syndrome. There is a simple blood test that can be performed to find out if insulin resistance is present. Horses with metabolic syndrome are at much higher risk to founder when given too much food or lush pasture. Horses with Metabolic Syndrome must be carefully managed through diet and medical treatment.
Aside from the risk of metabolic syndrome and laminitis in overweight horses, there are other concerns. Many of our athletic horses have some orthopedic concern such as arthritis or caudal heel pain. Weight loss can decrease the mechanical force on these joints and weight on the hooves. Dr. Redding, orthopedic specialist at the NCSU vet school, feels that any horse with an orthopedic problem should be maintained at a body condition score of 4 on a 9-point scale. This means the horse is moderately thin with ribs faintly visible but with an easily palpable fat pad above the tail base.
Losing the weight is more easily said than done. There are many “easy keepers” out there, and plentiful lush pastures in North Carolina. If your horse is overweight, we recommend a customized weight loss plan. Because every horse and stabling situation is unique, individual horses will require different tactics. Some horses can be taken off grain entirely and placed on a vitamin and mineral supplement. Horses who eat hay quickly can be given a small-mesh hay net, which allows them to nibble slowly throughout the day and has been shown to prevent blood glucose peaks. Limiting pasture turnout is an option but some studies have shown that a hungry pony can make up for lost time by eating faster during limited turnout. In some cases, a grazing muzzle can be used to reduce the total quantity of grass consumed on the pasture. If the stabling situation allows, the horse can be placed on dry-lot turnout to facilitate weight loss.
Exercise is also a viable option in sound horses. Any exercise program should be started gradually to avoid injury. A 60-day back-to-work program is available on our website as a safe option for an unfit horse to return to work.
The most accurate way to track weight loss is by using a weight tape. Gradual weight loss is always the goal. Weight taping your horse regularly is the best way to assess changes over time, as it is difficult to note small changes in a horse you see regularly. Your Triangle Equine Veterinarians would be happy to help you assess your horse’s weight and adapt your horse’s diet to help attain optimal body condition.