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Feeding the Overweight Horse

Feeding the overweight horseFeeding the overweight horse

Feeding the Overweight Horse

Do you have a problem with an overweight horse? If so this article may be just what you’re looking for. We spoke to Lisa Elliott (MSc) – nutritionist at Castle Horse Feeds and Smart Horse Nutrition, to find out how we should feed our horses to help fight the flab.

Fighting the Flab Equine-Style with Smart Horse Nutrition

Just as being overweight isn’t ideal for humans, the same can be said for horses! Excess weight can lead to organ damage, joint problems like arthritis and more significantly, laminitis and metabolic issues, all of which will compromise your horses’ health and welfare. The good news though, is that weight loss can easily be achieved with the right diet and management; follow these essential guidelines to help your horse fight the flab and achieve a healthy weight.

Don’t feed unnecessary calories

This might seem obvious, but it’s easy to feed extra calories your horse doesn’t need without realising it. Feeds that are marketed as low calorie may seem like the ideal solution for an overweight horse, but are often not necessary.

For example

A 500kg horse requires for around 70MJ (megajoules) of Digestible Energy (DE) per day to meet basic maintenance requirements

Your hay can range in DE but on average is 10MJ per kilo

A horse requires 2% of it’s body weight in feed (in this case 10kg) a day

If a 500kg horse is fed 8 kilo of hay a day, that horse would be getting 80MJ of DE a day – already around 10MJ above its maintenance requirement just from hay alone!

So, feeding low calorie feeds as an extra will just add excess calories to the diet that the horse doesn’t need.

Provide a low energy, high fibre diet

A low energy, high fibre diet – essentially a forage based diet, which reduces calorie intake without compromising on fibre is key to achieving healthy weight loss. Removing the horse from grass during the day when sugar and ultimately energy levels are higher can help reduce calorie intake, but ad-lib low calorie forage such as hay should be given instead.

An overweight horse should never be starved as this can lead to serious health conditions (not to mention a very grumpy horse!). Additionally, restricting forage can be counterproductive and actually make the horse fatter. For some overweight horses, it may be necessary to consider zero grazing, feeding just hay and/or a low-calorie fibre chop until the horse trims down a little.

A fat horse with a ‘cresty’ neck

Getting forage tested for starch, sugar and energy levels is extremely useful if your horse is overweight. Overweight horses will normally have some degree of insulin dysregulation so starch and sugar need to be kept low. The higher the starch and sugar, the higher the potential calories the horse consumes, so ideally forage offered should be less than 12% starch and sugar or Non-structural Carbohydrates (NSC).

Soaking hay is often recommended to reduce NSC in hay. However, results can be variable, soaking takes hours and reduces hygiene levels, particularly in warmer weather. A better solution may be to feed a specifically produced low % NSC hay to keep starch, sugar and calories to a minimum and help your horse to slim down.

Feeding a low energy fibre chop or chaff as a partial hay replacer can help reduce calories. Additionally, oat straw can provide a very useful low calorie alternative to hay as its energy level is typically around 6MJ per KG, with very low starch and sugar levels, so can be used to provide essential ad-lib forage without the calories. Oat straw can be mixed with hay and ideally used to replace 25% of the hay, but may be increased if necessary to a maximum of 50%. When straw is fed above this level the risk of gastric ulcers and colic can increase, so for this reason it should never be offered as the sole source of forage.

Use a balancer to supply essential micronutrients

Whist a low-calorie forage based diet is ideal for an overweight horse, it probably won’t provide all the essential micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and amino acids) your horse needs. Balancers are great for overweight horses because they provide what they need, without excess calories.

For example

A 500kg horse requires for around 70MJ (megajoules) of Digestible Energy (DE) per day to meet basic maintenance requirements

The normal feeding rate of a balancer is 100g per 100kg bodyweight

A 500kg horse would require 500g

This would supply 5MJ of DE, which equates to just 7% of the horses’ daily energy requirements.

Look for a balancer such as our Smart Balance which is molasses and cereal free to keep starch and sugar to a minimum, but with a high specification of micronutrients for optimum health and well-being.

Monitor weight and condition

Getting familiar with the weigh tape and Body Condition Scoring (BCS) can help assess if your horses’ feeding regime is working and resulting in weight loss. Condition scoring and weigh taping together regularly can help pick up subtle changes in condition and weight loss or even gains, so the diet can then be adjusted accordingly or not as necessary to ensure the right amount of condition. A great option is to take regular pictures of your horse with your smart phone, so you have easy reference to his (hopefully) shrinking waistline.

Management tips for the overweight horse:

  • Implement a suitable exercise regime – providing your horse with suitable exercise is one of the most important things you can do to help keep them at the right weight and condition. Start gradually and build up to the chosen level as the horse drops weight and becomes fitter.

  • Feed for work done not what is anticipated – Feeding unnecessary energy will result in weight gain, so always ensure you feed for the type of work the horse is doing now and not for what may or may not be done in the future.

  • Avoid over-rugging – horses are supposed to use their fat reserves to keep warm in winter, so keeping rug use to a minimum or turning the horse out without one can help your horse lose those extra pounds.

Smart Horse Nutrition is part of the tried and trusted Castle Horse Feeds group, a company dedicated to providing your horse with superior nutrition, at an affordable price.

If you have any questions for Lisa about creating the best diet for your horse, please email See or for further information or call 01497 570345.



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