Fit is the Best Color: How to Manage Your Horse’s Weight

Last Updated on August 21, 2023 by Allison Price

Learn how to reduce your horse’s weight and the contributing factors that cause it to gain weight.

John Sylvester (Doctor of Horse and Rider) discusses sweet feeds and whether they are okay to give to horses in the August 2009 issue. The following article is from the November 2007 issue. It gives you the facts on what fat is considered “too fat” and what you can do to reduce it. We also provide basic information about equine metabolism syndrome (EMS), which could be contributing factors to your horse’s weight problems.

The Henneke Body Condition Scale allows horse owners to assess the different levels of fat in their horses. It rates six important conformation points: neck and withers, tail head, tail head, back, crease of the back, neck, behind the shoulder, ribs, and ribs.

Mitchell Luo/UnSplash

Is your horse overweight? Is your vet sure he is? What would your horse friend say?

America’s “obesity epidemic”, as it is called by the media, has spread to horses. As with humans, excessive weight can make horses’ lives more difficult, and even lead to death.

This article will discuss the reasons why horses become fatter and more obese. We’ll also give expert tips on how to trim excess weight and keep it off.

Every era has seen horsemen appreciate a handsome horse in good flesh. But, the wise horseman today knows that fat is not “the best color.”

Why is the Weight?
Horses were designed to roam free and graze freely. They can survive in the wild on very limited pastures. In summer, they store excess weight to prepare for winter’s lack of foliage.

They do, however, eat high-starch, high concentration grain feeds at least once a day. There is limited, if any, grazing access.

Owners love to give their pets high-sugar treats.

Horses were first used for work purposes. They could be used to transport people or drive farm machinery. Horses are used primarily as recreation horses today, while some can be classified more accurately as “yard ornaments”.

Too much food and not enough exercise is the best recipe for weight gain. There are other factors that contribute to horses’ bulging sides, however.

Easy keeper. Some horses don’t require many calories to keep their bodies in top condition. Kentucky Equine Research, Inc. conducted a survey that found owners who described their horses as “easy keepers”, tend to have difficulty reducing their horses’ weights through calorie restriction. These owners claim they are and notdishing high-starch feeds.

Although you might prefer a large horse to a smaller horse, overweight horses are a serious health problem.

Super-grass. Surprisingly forage has been vastly improved, which is one of the main factors in weight gain. The nutritional content of forage has improved over the years. Horses were free-roaming grazers that thrived on diverse forage and sparse pastures. The forage of today is limited in variety and mainly consists of the grasses, legumes and other nutrients that are best for horses’ nutrition. Genetic technology has also increased the nutritional value of these forages. This means that horses now receive pasture and hays with higher amounts of starch and carbs.

It can also make a big difference when a horse is grazing. Rhonda Hoffman PhD, PAS is an associate professor of horse science at Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro. She explains that photosynthesis occurs when green plants produce glucose and other sugars. Oxygen is a byproduct of the presence of sunlight. Forage carbohydrates naturally rise in the morning, peaking in the afternoon when they are exposed to the sun. The plant carbohydrate levels then drop overnight and into the morning. Horses that graze in afternoon rather than during the night or early hours are more likely to consume two to four times the sugar, starch and fructans and are thus at greater risk for obesity.

We like ’em plump. We just like our horses to be heavier. A “meatier profile” has been a desirable characteristic for halter horses. It’s easy to believe that your horse is being fed “plenty,” but the truth is that he’s not getting any benefits from extra calories.

Why Fat is Bad
Horses that are overweight can stress almost all his systems. A fat horse can suffer:

  • Increased stress on the heart and lungs, as they work overtime in order to supply oxygen to his large body.
  • A tendency to feel tired and lethargic. Poor conditioning can also increase the risk of injury. Horses who are overweight are more likely to fall, make a mistake, or strain a joint.
  • He is more likely to put stress on his hooves and joints, muscles, and other limbs. This can increase his risk of tendon and ligament injuries, as well as laminitis. Concussion and strain can also aggravate arthritis or increase the chance of developing it.
  • Low reproductive efficiency is due to hormonal and metabolic imbalances.
  • Impaired bone growth in horses that are young and growing; higher risk of developing orthopedic complications. Because cartilage expands before the bones fully develop, this can lead to impaired bone growth.
  • Performance loss due to horses being heavier. He may not be as fit as he should to perform at his best.
  • Inefficient regulation of body temperature. This is particularly problematic in hot and humid climates where fat accumulations can hinder a horse’s ability to cool itself.
  • Cushing’s syndrome, equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) and an increased risk of getting it (see “The Lowdown On EMS” at the end of this article).
  • A combination of these conditions can cause a shorter life expectancy.

Jenny Craig is calling!
Okay, your horse looks chubby. What now? The best way to approach this is the same as with humans: Add exercise, subtract calories. It’s not always as easy as it seems, but these tips can help you get started. You should always consult your veterinarian before you change your horse’s exercise and diet.

Get rid of the carbs. If your horse is performing moderate-to-moderate work, then he likely doesn’t require grain. A high-quality, pastured forage and a vitamin or mineral supplement will suffice to provide his nutritional requirements. Instead of feeding alfalfa, or a grass-alfalfa mixture, stick to grass hay.

Horses require the pleasure of chewing roughage, without any added calories. Dr. Hoffman suggests that quality hay can be soaked in water before being fed to horses to reduce its starch and fructan content.

Horses that are active at a high rate may require additional nutrition. You can also supplement your horse’s nutrition with corn oil and rice bran.

Feed alone.Cherry Hill is a noted horsekeeping expert who has written numerous books on horse management. She says that horses will get more calories if they are fed together in a community feeder. Move your horse that is overweight to a separate pen or paddock if necessary.

Limit grazing. Hill recommends that a small horse be placed in an area with no vegetation such as an arena, round pen or field. This will allow him to exercise and eat freely. A grazing muzzle is an alternative to this if you don’t have the option (and your horse must still be on pasture at times), You should introduce the muzzle slowly and with supervision. Also, make sure that your horse can drink the muzzle while it is on.

To ensure that your easy keeper isn’t consuming extra calories or sugar, you need to control his turnout time.

Get your horse moving. Start a routine to build up your horse’s stamina. You can gradually increase the intensity and time of your horse’s workouts. Try to do at least 30 minutes per day (or half an hour)

Hill recommends in-hand work, longeing and long-lining for those who can’t ride. Hill also suggests ponying, longeing, longing, long-lining, ponies, and time on a hot walker or treadmill. Regular exercise can help increase your horse’s metabolism, which will result in more calories being burned, even if he is standing still.

Keep the treats to a minimum. It’s okay to treat your horse every now and again, but it’s not wise to give him 20 cookies per day. Dr. Hoffman explains that even carrots and apples are high in sugar and fructans so a bucketful may not be a good idea.

Here are some more tips:

  • Be patient. Be patient. Weight loss should be gradual. Too many changes at once can make horses stressed. This can lead to metabolic upsets that can cause colic.
  • A weight tape can be used to track your horse’s progress. Weight tapes can be used to track a horse’s progress and are accurate. You can adjust his diet or exercise plan as necessary. If your horse’s weight plateaus, you can gradually decrease his feed rations and/or increase his exercise.
  • Your horse needs water to help him digest. If his activity increases, he will need to drink more water to replenish himself. Salt will encourage your horse to drink more, help regulate his temperature via sweating, and balance his overall diet as well as electrolytes.
  • To make sure your horse is not escaping from grass, check the pastures, paddocks and round pen.
  • Even if your horse sits low in the pecking list (and is fed in a group), observe how he eats to ensure he’s not eating his neighbor’s food.
  • Regular visits to your vet are recommended to keep your horse healthy and track his progress.
  • Do not obsess about perfection. It’s all about health. Because fit is better than fat.
Allison Price
Allison Price

I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!