I am seeing more and more overweight horses who are carrying unhealthy, excessive amounts of fat. Many of them are out 24/7 on what looks like very little grass, but often on large areas. The message about how unhealthy over-fatness is does not seem to be getting through to enough owners!
If you cannot feel your horse’s ribs relatively easily then they are too fat and they may have an increased risk of laminitis, arthritis and other diseases. If they remain fat all year round, the risks are higher than if they go through a cycle of being overweight, then losing that body fat during winter. If you can’t feel your horse’s ribs, you need to take action.
Most adult horses will get too fat if left out on large pasture areas 24/7 during spring and summer. During this time, the energy (calorie) content of grass is similar to a competition or conditioning feed. Even if that grass looks well eaten down, the horses on it are constantly grazing off new growth.
Horses will not get fatter if they burn more dietary energy than they ingest daily. Horseman, rancher and clinician Martin Black runs his hard-working horses on thousands of acres of desert-type grass in Idaho and says that not only are his horses never too fat, they do not suffer from founder (laminitis) or colic.
Most of our leisure horses will never work hard enough to need ad lib UK grass during spring and summer, so you will need to restrict it somehow. Strip grazing and running your horse on a track around the edge of your field can help. Be sure to keep the total area limited, to ensure your horse has limited access to grass regrowth.
The more exercise your horse gets, the better, because this burns calories and can help good doers stay slim. Exercise also balances out the hormones involved in blood sugar regulation. ‘Exercise’ for a horse involves may miles, so a 20 minute walk and trot around an arena or round the block doesn’t really count. Consider someone else riding your horse out if you don’t have time or aren’t confident hacking, because exercise will have a huge positive effect on your horse’s health.
Simply stabling horses or keeping them on completely overgrazed paddocks and severely restricting their forage intake is not recommended, due to the high risk of gastric ulcers and other gut disturbances. Source the lowest calorie forage you can so that you can still fulfil your horse’s appetite whilst causing weight loss. Horses on a weight-loss regime will not need compound feed so you must feed them a good multi-vitamin and mineral supplement to balance their diet.