It is all too easy to overfeed our animals and this includes our horses and ponies. It goes without saying the only way to prevent a horse or pony from getting too overweight is to feed them the correct diet and it has to be one that not only suits the breed but the amount of work they do as well. All too often many owners do not realise their horse or pony has put on too much weight until there is a problem. With ponies this can manifest itself with conditions like laminitis but horses too can suffer from the condition, and one of the causes of laminitis is obesity in horses. There are certain times of the year when horses get enough goodness from the grass they graze and this is particularly true of spring grasses. Unless, horses and ponies are in medium to heavy work, they don't need any hard feed during the spring and summer months because they get enough natural nourishment from the grass they eat. However, if the pasture in your paddocks is too rich, then this can be a problem and if left unchecked, a horse can get obese in no time at all. On the other hand if your paddock is short on grass, then feeding good quality dust free hay to your horse or pony will provide ample nourishment for them during the summer months. A lot of horse owners offer their horses hard feed, but this is not necessary if the animal is in light work and just being ridden occasionally and could lead to a weight problem and other associated conditions.
Older horses have a slower metabolism than younger ones which is something many owners forget to take into account when they feed them. Horses are measured for obesity on a scale from one to nine, the ideal weight being around five. Horses in good condition and carrying the right weight should have a nice flat back, their shoulders and necks should look as if they flow into their bodies smoothly and when it comes to their ribs, these should not be too noticeable. Horses will over eat if they are given the chance and this combined with poor dental care and lack of exercise will lead to a horse becoming obese. If you have rich pasture in your fields and let your horse graze this freely, the chances are if the horse is not regularly exercised, they will become obese in a relatively short space of time. It is far better to limit the time they are out at grass and this is especially true if the pasture has a lot of red clover and other rich grasses in it.
Apart from the risk of laminitis, there are other dangers that horses and ponies can suffer from because they are obese. This includes increased stress on their lungs as well as their hearts. Their bones and joints are also put under more pressure which can cause arthritis. Obese animals will tire easily and being over weight can mean that mares are less likely to get in foal. One major health risk is an insulin resistance which can be compared to diabetes in humans. The result is a lower immune system in obese horses and they are more susceptible to catch other diseases. The simple fact is that any horse or pony that is obese is not a healthy animal at all.
Preventing your horse from becoming obese is easy, you have to ensure they are getting proper and regular exercise and that they eat a healthy, balanced diet that suits their breed and the amount of work they do. If your horse is overweight, then very much as in humans, it will take a lot of time for them to lose the extra weight. If a horse loses weight too quickly, it can have an major adverse affect on their health. The process of your horse losing weight has to be slow and steady which means cutting down their daily food rations by 10% and no more over a period of 10 days. You need to keep track of the progress and by far the best way to do this is to use a weight tape. You also need to make sure your horse is drinking plenty of good clean water to ensure the body gets rids of any toxic waste and that your horse's digestive system works efficiently.
When it comes to diet, you need to make sure it is high in fibre but low in fat/energy. It is always a good idea to feed your horse their food by weight and not by volume, like this you give your horse the correct rations. If you keep an obese horse with another horse, make sure they cannot steal the other horse's food. One important factor to think about when putting a horse or pony on a diet, is to make sure they are getting the correct ratio of vitamins, minerals and protein needed to stay healthy. If you are feeding lower quality feeds that are less nutrient dense, then you may need to consider using supplements to make sure your horse is getting all they need. This could include ones that are rich in Omega-3-fatty acid. This type of supplement helps improve condition and contains plenty of vitamin A, E, selenium and zinc which may be deficient in their diets.
Obese horses or ponies need to be exercised but you need to start out slowly with them. You will find they tire very quickly and sweat up profusely to begin with. Take it steady with them by just walking them for around 20 to 30 minutes a day for the first two weeks and then slowly build up the time they work after this. Just as in humans, it will take a long time for an obese horse to lose weight. Exercise has to be done carefully and slowly because you don't want to put any stress on your horse's heart, limbs and joints. You will also find that an obese horse may have trouble breathing so any strenuous exercise can be fatal.
Obviously it is far better to avoid over feeding horses and ponies in the first place. However, if you find that your horse has but on too much weight, for whatever reason, you will have to do something about sooner rather than later. You also have to realise that nothing will happen overnight and that it may take as long as a year for a really obese animal to lose weight safely. If you try to get the weight off them too fast, you could end up harming their overall health even more. You have to make a plan and then keep to it and seek the advice of your vet or an equine nutritionist if you feel you cannot cope on your own.
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