By Gina Fresquez, equine nutrition specialist with Purina Horse Feed
Obesity in horses is a growing problem in the United States as horses are eating more and working less. Sadly, it is a serious issue that is linked to a variety of disease conditions. As horse owners, it is important to recognize the distinction between a fat and fit horse. Most don’t realize that obesity carries risks in horses much like it does in humans. The ugly truth is that obese horses are at greater risk for health problems such as laminitis, insulin resistance and joint issues from supporting excess weight.
According to a Virginia Tech and Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine study from 2007, 51% of horses are overweight and 19% of overweight horses have a body condition of 7 or more, making them medically obese. And nearly one-third of obese horses suffer from insulin resistance. Horse owners can refer to the scoring chart provided by Purina to help accurately assess their horse’s body condition by visiting http://horse.purinamills.com/products/BodyConditionsScoringChart/default.aspx.
Managing equine obesity
Many horse owners have the misconception that simply feeding an overweight horse less will make it lose weight. For horses, as for humans, losing weight is best accomplished through a combination of diet and exercise. This means getting the right amount of calorie-burning exercise and adhering to a diet that provides nutritional balance without empty calories.
It’s easy for well-meaning horse owners to make mistakes when helping their horse reach a healthy weight. For example, the general rule of thumb for forage requirements is 1% to 2% of a horse’s body weight, but many people feed free-choice hay or pasture and horses may consume as much as 4% of their body weight. At 2% of their body weight (20 pounds of hay for a 1,000 pound horse), without exercise, a horse will not lose weight, even when no additional grain or supplement is offered.
However, just scaling back on hay and not providing any sort of nutritional supplement will rob the horse of the protein, vitamins and minerals necessary to maintain muscle mass and overall health. This often causes loss of muscle tone over the topline, poor hair coat and hoof quality, and potentially compromised health.
When it comes to enacting a weight-loss program, many horse owners struggle with the psychology of restricting their horse’s intake — and most horses don’t like it, either. We want to spoil our loved ones, and the easiest way to do that is to give them more of what they enjoy. Cutting back on something horses enjoy can elicit feelings of guilt and neglect, and watching a horse go hungry is heartbreaking. Horses can also develop stable vices when they notice they’re not being fed as much as their stable mates.
A good way to meet weight-loss goals is to reduce the daily ration of grass hay to around 1% to 1.5% body weight and supplement with a nutritionally balanced feed. This feed should have less fat and calories than other feeds, but also support muscle mass and overall health with an excellent amino acid balance and a complement of antioxidants and other important nutrients. Concentrated supplements that provide proper nutrition in a very low 1 to 2 pound feeding rate, which ensures a balance of nutrition with very few additional calories. If you’re worried about your horse’s reaction to a lower feeding rate, a full scoop twice daily of a product such as Purina WellSolve W/C horse feed can be fed with along with 1% of body weight in hay, providing more satisfaction in meal size without going overboard on calories.
For more information on topics related to horse health and nutrition, visit http://purinahorse.blogspot.com.