We’ve all heard the phrase “I’m as hungry as a horse.” But we never really stop to think about what that means.
Horses eat a lot.
Like… a lot.!!
Like so much that someone came up with an idiom to make how much they eat synonymous with a ton.
Unfortunately, sometimes horses eat too much and, as a result, can wind up unable to comfortably work and even develop some seriously worrisome health issues.
Luckily, chunky horses don’t have to stay that way. There are a variety of tools at the horse owners’ disposal that can help horses shed weight without too much hassle.
Assessing Your Horse’s Body Weight
Before any treatment plan can be recommended, you must first get an accurate understanding of your horse’s weight. There are several methods available to help you determine whether or not your horse is overweight.
If any of the following methods indicate that your horse if overweight or obese, you should consult with an equine nutritionist and veterinarian to develop a weight loss program.
The gold standard for getting an accurate weight measurement of your horse is to use a scale, likely available with your nearest equine veterinarian.
Of course, we also understand that not everybody has easy access to this tool. If you’re unable to get your horse weighed on a scale, proceed with using one of the methods described below.
Girth Height Ratio
Who ever said you wouldn’t use math outside of the classroom? Okay, besides you that one time. The girth-height ratio is a reliable, easy-to-implement method of getting a quick snapshot of your horse’s weight.
To put it into practice, first take a flexible tailor’s measuring tape and measure the circumference of your horse’s girth in inches by running the tape behind both elbows and straight over their withers. Record this measurement.
Next, take a carpenter’s measuring tape or a sturdy six-foot ruler and measure the length of your horse’s torso on one side, in inches, from the point of their shoulder to the point of their hip. Record this measurement as well.
Next, you want to apply the two measurements taken to the following formula:
[(girth)2 X length] / 330 = body weight
By using this formula, you should get at least a semi-accurate picture of your horse’s current weight.
Body Condition Score
A horse’s body condition score is a numeric value assigned on a scale from 1 to 9 that measures the amount of fat deposited across six areas – their neck, withers, spinous processes and transverse processes, tail head, ribs, and behind the shoulder.
This score allows horse owners to have a reliable overview of their horse’s general health. A score of 1 would indicate that a horse is far too thin to be healthy, while a score of 9 would indicate that a horse is far too fat to be healthy. Generally speaking, a horse’s body condition score should fall between 4 and 6 to be categorized as being of normal weight.
To evaluate a horse’s body condition, start by visually assessing their ribs. If the ribs are easily seen and felt, then the score for the ribcage will be below a five and vice versa if the ribs are not easily seen or felt.
Next, look at their shoulders. A horse’s shoulder with a body condition score of greater than five will be bulging with little deposits of fat behind it. A bonier shoulder indicates a score that will likely be below five.
A visual assessment of their withers should follow. A very thin horse with a body condition score of below five will have little to no fat deposited between the top of the shoulder blade and the spinal vertebrae, making them easily discernible. A horse with a body condition score of five, however, will possess withers that are slightly rounded.
You should then spend some time looking at their loin, which is the area of the back just behind where a saddle sits. If the horse has a body condition score of five, the loin area will be relatively level with no bumps, dents, or creases along the spine. As the score begins to increase, fat will begin to build up on either side leading to the formation of visible creases.
Next on your list should be the tailhead. A horse with a very low body condition score will exhibit an easily discernible tailhead, while a horse with a body condition score of seven or greater will have a tailhead that feels soft and plush.
Finally, look at their neck. If your horse is a proper weight, the neck should blend smoothly into the rest of their body. If your horse is overweight, however, their neck will look and feel quite thick with fat deposits at the crest.
As you assess each area of their body, remember to assign them a score of 1 to 9. You can consult this chart as you assess each area to get a better understanding of what each score means.
After each area is evaluated and assigned a score, you then want to average the scores together to get a final overall body condition score. If your horse has an overall score between 4 and 6, they’re likely to be able to perform almost any activity you give them without too much trouble.
However, if your horse scores above 6, they may be less tolerant to high levels of activity. A score of 6 or above will likely require consultation with an equine nutritionist to begin contemplating ways to bring their weight down.
My Horse is Overweight – What do I do?
So, you’ve determined that your horse is a bit husky and you’re wondering what the best course of action is. We understand completely. Not only are horses with a high body fat percentage less capable of comfortably working, but they’re also predisposed to a number of concerning health issues including mainitis, hyperlipidemia, orthopedic stress, and less effective body temperature regulation.
With the stakes set so high, it’s only natural that caring horse owners like yourself are determined to help your hooved friend get back down to their target weight. Noting that most horses gain weight the same way that all animals do (via taking in more calories than they expend), the target of any worthwhile weight loss program must be to either reduce their calorie intake without sacrificing essential nutrients and vitamins, increase their exercise levels, or both. However, caution must be used if increasing exercise is the route taken, as overweight horses can quickly become overstressed by a sudden jolt in activity levels.
Set Realistic Expectations
The first step in getting your horse to lose some weight is to set realistic expectations. Just like with humans, weight loss is a journey, and a difficult one at that. It can take many months for your horse to reach his target weight, and he may plateau or even experience a mild regression of progress along the journey.
If any of the above happens, don’t fret. Just revisit the feeding and exercise program you’ve crafted and consult with your equine nutritionist and veterinarian about whether changes ought to be made. Remember: patience and consistency are key to successful, healthy weight loss.
Re-Evaluate What You Feed Your Horse
Next, you need to think about where the horse’s excess calories are coming from. It’s well understood that horses consume their calories from pasture, hay, grains, and/or concentrated feed. However, most people underestimate the importance of hay and pasture in a horse’s diet – if your hay and pasture are of good quality, your horse can likely derive much of their needed caloric intake from these two sources alone. Concentrates, while certainly beloved by our galloping buddies, have the most calories per pound of feed. Therefore, it can be assumed that a reasonable first step in reducing total caloric intake is to reduce the amount of concentrate/feed being fed.
It’s important to remember that the average horse requires about 2% to 2.5% of their body weight in forage in order to maintain their weight. Overweight horses who are receiving this amount of forage or more can benefit from a slight reduction in the amount consumed each day. However, remember that it is critical that the amount of forage given each day makes up at least 1% of a horse’s bodyweight. With regards to what type of feed is best, it’s recommended that horses consume forage that is high in fiber and low in sugars and starches such as mature grass hay. Not only is mature grass hay high in fiber, but their thick stems require more chewing and, as a result, uses up more calories to eat.
In addition to feeding hay, you may want to consider giving your horse a daily dose of ration balancers rather than a regular horse feed.. Ration balancers deliver high concentrations of essential vitamins, minerals, and protein that are otherwise missing in most forages but, caloric “fillers” are missing from these feeds. Consequently, a ration balancer help your horse get their necessary nutrients without extra unnecessary calories being consumed.
Restrict Pasture Feeding
It may just seem as though the issue is due to all of the additional calories that we provide to our horses. Maybe the best solution is to just let them eat exclusively from the pasture, right? After all it’s all just grass… right? …Wrong! In reality, horses evolved from eating on pastures that were much less calorically dense than the lush pastures that horses often graze on today. Pastures today can provide a seemingly limitless supply of calories to especially hungry horses.
With that in mind, it may be advisable to limit your horse’s access to pasture. The best way to do this is to put your horse in a dry-lot where you can limit the amount of food your horse has access to. However, confining your horse to a dry lot presents a picture of them just standing around, a little bored, just waiting for more food. This does not help to burn off calories!. To combat this, consider pairing your horse with a younger horse who will keep the older horse mobile.
If this solution is untenable, either due to the lack of a dry lot or because dry lot placement is not working, consider fitting your horse with a grazing muzzle. Muzzling your horse will allow them to eat very little at a time, thus reducing the likelihood of them gorging themselves on all that sweet, sweet pasture..
However, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you can just muzzle a horse for a few hours and that this will solve an overeating problem. A horse who is used to having more calories and is only muzzled for four hours per day will try and find ways to make up for those lost calories in the remaining twenty hours of the day!. You must keep the muzzle on whenever they’re at pasture to see real progress. Remember: consistency is key.
Get Your Horse Moving
While you’re finagling the diet portion of your horse’s weight loss program, you need to also be thinking about ways to get your horse active. Regular exercise is the single best way to increase the total number of calories used per day. Horses who are deemed capable of exercise should work out three to four times per week for a duration of between thirty minutes and one hour.
Beneficial exercises include, but are not limited to, lunging, trail riding, walking, trotting, participating in riding lessons, and competing. However, any forms of exercise must be introduced slowly and gradually increase in intensity as the horse demonstrates greater capability. Slow increases in exercise levels will prevent the development of metabolic issues or exhaustion. Remember to never simultaneously pair an increase in exercise intensity with an increase in exercise duration, as this can quickly overwork your horse and potentially lead to injury.
While guiding your horse through weight loss may seem like an arduous, perhaps even overwhelming, task, just remember that you’re not alone! Remember to lean on the expertise of your equine nutritionist and veterinarian if you have any questions or concerns about the progress your horse is making.
Simultaneously, don’t forget to be attentive to any other developments in your horse’s health. Neglecting to treat certain disorders or ailments like White Line Disease or skin infections such as Scratches can stymie your horse’s ability to comfortably proceed with any exercise regimen or dietary adjustments.
If you notice your horse is beginning to show symptoms of either of the above, reach for Banixx Horse & Pet Care! This topical antimicrobial solution delivers instant, odor-free, sting-free relief for a variety of fungal and bacterial maladies without relying on pesky steroids or antibiotics. Simply identify the affected area, apply Banixx to it twice daily, and wait for your neighing buddy to feel better. Delivering relief to your horse really can be that simple.
For more tips on how to keep your horse happy and healthy, stay up to date with our horse page!