Overweight in horses is something that occurs regularly. Research shows that as much as 55% of the recreational horses studied in the Netherlands are overweight. Often owners do not see to what extent their horse is overweight, or think that it can do no harm. However, being overweight does pose health risks.
There are several reasons why your horse can become overweight. Some breeds, especially the sober ones, are often more sensitive to this. It generally has to do with the horse receiving too much energy. If a horse eats more concentrates or roughage than their body needs, this will lead to weight gain. Not only the amount but also the composition and quality of the feed can cause your horse to receive too much energy. For example, one type of hay can contain much more energy than another type of hay, this has to do with the pasture management of the land the hay is harvested from. But there is also a lot of difference in the amount of energy per kg concentrates. The development of overweight can also be related to the movement that the horse gets. If the horse is normally ridden or trained every day and this suddenly stops, but their diet is not adjusted, they will also consume more energy than they use.
Does your horse have a proper diet that meets their energy needs, but are they still gaining weight? Then it can also be a metabolic disorder, such as insulin resistance. This can be caused by, for example, PPID or ovarian tumours.
Risks of overweight
An overweight horse is more at risk of various health problems such as laminitis, insulin dysregulation and reduced fertility. Laminitis is a very painful condition where there is inflammation between the hoof wall and the coffin bone. In the worst case, the coffin bone rotates and punctures the sole of the hoof. Usually the horse can no longer recover and has to be put to sleep. We also mentioned insulin dysregulation as a result of another condition, but you often see that it is a result of being overweight. In case of insulin dysregulation, the insulin levels in the blood are too high for too long, which is not good for many organs. The horse is therefore more sensitive to laminitis and EMS (Equine Metabolic Syndrome). In addition to these disorders, overweight also puts unnecessary extra stress the muscles and joints, which can lead to faster wear and tear.
It is important to keep a close eye on the condition of your horse. You can do this by regularly doing a Body Condition Score (BCS) of your horse. This gives you an indication whether your horse is at a healthy weight at that moment. Keep in mind the differences in breed, conformation and age. The horse is very overweight (obese) when you can no longer see and feel the ribs. There are a lot of fat deposits on the hindquarters and tail head, which creates a gullet and the spine is deeper (apple butt). In addition, a lot of fat deposits can be seen and felt on the neck and fat folds may even be visible. The shoulder blades are not visible and difficult to feel.
Weight loss tips
If your horse is overweight, it is important that they regain a healthy weight. First look critically at the diet. How much concentrates and roughage is your horse getting? How much energy is in this exactly? How much energy do they need to sustain themselves? If you want to feed less, don’t skimp on roughage. Roughage is very important for the overall health of the horse and the gastrointestinal system. You could, for example, look at roughage with less sugars/energy. To determine the values you can have your roughage tested, this cannot be seen with the naked eye. Limit grass intake if necessary, because it also contains relatively more sugars. Limit grazing time or fence off a strip of the field so that the horse does not have unrestricted access to fresh grass.
In addition to the diet, you can also make changes to your training schedule. By exercising, the horse consumes energy, which will speed up weight loss. Endurance training (i.e. training longer but less intensive) works better for weight loss than power training.
Make sure that your horse does not lose weight too quickly, this can lead to hyperlipaemia (or fatty liver). If a horse receives too little energy throughout their diet, they will use their fat reserves. This is useful in itself if you want the horse to lose weight, but if this happens too much/too quickly, this can disrupt the body’s fat metabolism. Fat-like substances may enter the bloodstream, causing the horse to stop eating and drinking. So make sure your horse’s weight’-loss diet is not too severe.
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