The Overweight Horse

Dr. Caity Cosentino

We have all seen them and many of us own them, the ‘easy keepers’. Those horses who look at food and gain weight or those that have been difficult to manage due to how they are housed and fed. Obesity is not only a growing problem in the human population, but also in our animals. The body condition of a horse is directly tied to its overall health. Nobody wants to see a skinny horse, but some people don’t realize there are many health concerns that go along with a horse who is overweight or obese. Being overweight puts more stress on joints and feet, leading to osteoarthritis and potentially laminitis. Excess fat under the skin and surrounding vital organs makes it more difficult for a horse to efficiently cool itself in the warm weather and during exercise, causing overheating and potentially dehydration. Poor performance and lethargy are often seen as a result of being overweight. Overweight horses are more likely to develop conditions such as insulin resistance, equine metabolic syndrome, and elevated cortisol levels. These conditions can also cause weight gain.

There are several scales on which to score horses body condition. One of the most widely used is the Henneke Body Condition Scale. This scores the horse from 1 – very poor condition to 9 – extremely fat. There is some grey area as to where you want your horse to score depending on its lifestyle and job. All horses a score of 7 and higher are too fat. This scale takes into consideration different areas of the body including neck, withers, behind the shoulder, along the back, ribs and tailhead. There are separate scales that can be used to assess muscle condition and cresty necks.

Now you’ve gone out to the barn, looked at your horse and realized he may be slightly ‘over conditioned’. What can be done about it? The solutions vary depending on the reason the horse is overweight. Like us, many times they are simply taking in more calories than they are burning off on an average day. Ponies are notorious for storing their fat away for hard times! Start by measuring your feed by weight. Get a scale to weigh the grain ration and hay you are feeding. Step one may simply be to cut back on your horse’s daily intake. If they are being fed a grain high in fat, you may wish to switch to one lower in fat or simply switch to a ration balancer or mineral/vitamin supplement. Not all horses need grain! Once you figure out how much hay is being fed cut back 10% then 20% over several weeks. Slow feed hay nets and bags can help keep a horse occupied for a longer period of time when being fed less. Allowing them to eat throughout the day also decreases the risk for stomach ulcers and unwanted behaviors such as cribbing and weaving. If they are housed on good pasture this is going to be much more challenging! If possible, reducing access to grass either all of the time, or for part of the day will be helpful. If this is not an option, use a grazing muzzle. Most horses adjust very well to wearing them, as long as they keep them on, and the muzzle will slow the intake of calories throughout the day. If the horse is capable of exercise, it will also be an important component to weight loss. Consistency is key to achieving healthy weight loss. Even if the exercise just consists of hand walking 4 days a week, this will help. Start small and work your way up and comit to a certain number of days that you can stick with. This will not only help them lose fat, but also gain muscle. Don’t push too far too fast, but as the exercise becomes easier, slowly increase the duration and intensity. Make sure to track your horse’s progress. It’s helpful to obtain a commercial weight tape and remember to measure at the same place each time around the withers and girth. An inch can drastically change the estimated weight you obtain on the tape. Plan to take a measurement once every 2 weeks and write it down so you don’t forget. Taking pictures with the horse standing in the same position and place can also help determine if weight loss has been achieved.

So, you have been diligent, cut back on feed and you’re measuring it out, put your horse into an exercise program, and they have not lost a pound! Remember that there are also conditions that can make it difficult for your horse to lose weight and that they should be assessed for. It is important to have a veterinarian examine your horse and help you determine if they have a condition, such as insulin resistance, equine metabolic syndrome, thyroid dysfunction, or increased cortisol levels, that will make it difficult for them to lose the weight. Blood work is usually indicated for a definitive diagnosis. There are medications that can help with some of the conditions listed and you can also work with your veterinarian to come up with an appropriate diet and exercise plan that is tailored specifically to their needs.

Be patient and remember weight loss is not going to happen overnight, but gradually over weeks and months. We have to be our horse’s health advocates. We are in control of what they eat and how much exercise they receive. Remember that food isn’t love! As cute as they may look standing out in the field all plump and fuzzy, it is not the healthiest thing for them and can even cut down on the number of happy healthy years you have with them. If you are concerned about your horse’s weight, the best first step is to set up an appointment with your veterinarian to discuss what steps can and should be taken to achieve healthy weight loss in your horse.