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Managing equine obesity

Obesity is recognised to be a significant problem for people in many countries. However, studies have shown that this condition can be just as prevalent in horses and cause similar secondary health issues in our equine companions. While avoiding obesity in horses and ponies through dietary management is paramount, in cases where exceptionally slow metabolisms are in play the problem is often very difficult to prevent.

The primary effects of obesity in equines are similar to the symptoms shown in people, including the impact on joints and mobility issues in extreme cases. However, the more dangerous side effects of the problem are the secondary conditions that occur as a result of carrying excess body condition. These include insulin resistance, equine metabolic syndrome and the highly dangerous and often life threatening, laminitis.

Obese horses and ponies are classified as having body condition scores of 4 to 5 on the 0-5 Body Condition Score (BCS) scale and will often have areas of adipose or visible sub-cutaneous fat, which will vary among individuals. Some will have an absence of palpable ribs, large fatty deposits behind the shoulder and tail head and a large, firm crest. However, others may have palpable or even visible ribs making them look “lean”, although they retain a large cresty neck or perhaps other hidden fat deposits. The size of neck crests can be another way to define level of obesity and therefore the horse’s apparent risk of insulin resistance and laminitis.

Management of obese horses and ponies involves restricting calories while ensuring requirements for all essential nutrients are met and incorporating daily exercise into their routine. Easily digestible carbohydrates such as sugars and starch are best kept to a minimum, as these will contribute to the risk of metabolic disease and insulin resistance. Considering grass is often high in sugars, pasture intake should be controlled by either using a grazing muzzle or confining the horse to a yard, stable, small paddock or small area of the paddock.

To maintain digestive health, it is important to provide at least 1 percent of the horse’s body weight daily in alternate forage if the horse or pony is restricted from pasture. Mature, late cut hay is generally the lowest in calories and stalky grass hay or straw are ideal. It is recommended to avoid lucerne, clover or oaten due to the higher sugar and calorie levels. Soaking hay for 30 minutes in hot water or 60 minutes in cold water can reduce sugar and energy content significantly. Small amounts of food at frequent intervals is recommended to reduce digestive conditions and slow release hay nets are great for slowing down horses with healthy appetites.

To meet trace mineral and vitamin requirements, a low calorie balancer pellet such as NRM Equine Balancer is ideal and should be the only supplementary feed provided.

For assistance with feeding plans to reduce weight, manage condition and enhance overall health and performance, consult with an experienced equine nutrition advisor.

Article supplied by Luisa Wood, Equine Nutrition Technical Advisor.