The show season is upon us and the glossy magazines are filled with images of overweight horses and ponies. Many of the cobs are particularly overweight, which is quite easy for them since they are usually very good doers who need very little feed to stay fat.

Overweight (fat) horses and ponies get this way from being overfed dietary energy, which is converted to fat and stored under the skin and between the internal organs. A horse with plenty of fat under his skin also has a great deal wrapped around his internal organs. Laying down fat demonstrates an unbalanced diet i.e. one that does not supply the correct amount of required nutrients every day.

Overweight horses and ponies who are worked regularly at moderate intensities are probably not at such high risk of metabolic disturbances and diseases such as laminitis and equine metabolic syndrome as those who are sedentary, but they are still not in peak health.

Many show cobs are overweight, with high levels of body fat.
Many show cobs are overweight, with high levels of body fat.

Regardless of the health issues linked to obesity, overweight horses and ponies who have become this way from over-consumption of calories (energy) from grass and grass hay may still be undernourished due to the shortages of essential minerals in fresh and preserved forage, and the shortage of essential vitamins in preserved forages (such as hay and haylage). It is a mistake to assume that a horse or pony can get all they need from forage, even if they are overweight.

Always feed a well-formulated vitamin and mineral supplement to balance the shortages in forage if your horse or pony does not require the full recommended amount of fortified compound feed e.g. nuts, coarse mix or fibre mix.

Horses and ponies on weight loss regimes who are fed restricted forage soaked for over 10 hours, or a large portion of their forage as straw need a supplementary source of protein as well as essential vitamins and minerals. Feed a low calorie (lite) balancer that supplies good quality protein as well as vitamins and minerals. Weight loss regimes need to be short of energy in order for the horse or pony to use up body fat, but should not be deficient in other essential nutrients like protein, vitamins and minerals.

Ad lib grass forage can result in chronic over-supply of energy and resulting obesity, but is short of minerals so ponies who are fat on ad lib grass hay are deficient in essential minerals.
Ad lib grass forage can result in chronic over-supply of energy and resulting obesity, but is short of minerals so ponies who are fat on ad lib grass hay are deficient in essential minerals.

Don’t limit forage in order to feed compound (unless it is a chopped forage-based product) because your horse will eat his daily ration much more quickly and may have long periods of fasting, which increases the risk of stomach (gastric) ulcers. Ideally source as low calorie forage as you can find, severely restrict grass intake and balance with vitamins and minerals (and protein if necessary).

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About Clare MacLeod

Clare MacLeod MSc RNutr is one of the UK’s few registered independent equine nutritionists who also has expertise in health and fitness. She advises private and commercial clients in all sectors of the horse world and is a hands-on horse owner herself. Clare is passionate about correct nutrition as a foundation for good health, without which peak fitness is not possible. She states “Good nutrition isn’t everything, but there’s nothing without it”.