Overweight Horses: Winter Management

Feeding the overweight horse can be tough, but winter poses an even greater challenge with managing a delicate balance between providing enough energy to stay warm, yet not so much he is unable to shed those unwanted pounds.

When considering the feeding program for your overweight horse, first take into consideration the forage type, quantity and frequency he is being fed.  The overweight horse benefits most from grass hay over legume hay due to it’s reduced calorie content.   Most overweight horses do best on grass hay with a ration balancer to provide balanced levels of necessary vitamins, minerals and amino acids.

Consider how frequently he has access to his forage.  Is he limit fed or allowed free access anytime of the day or night?  Generally speaking, limit feeding the overweight horse is one half of a critical equation to helping him shed those pounds.  Forage should make up the bulk of any horse’s ration and the overweight horse is no exception.  His forage ration should be between 1.0-1.75 lb. hay per 100 lb. body weight, per day.  For a 1,000 lb. horse, this would range from 10-17.5 lb. of hay each day.

Next, consider his living arrangement: Is he kept by himself or does he share feed with herd-members?  If possible, put him in isolation from other members of the herd to help control his intake.  Overweight horses may be considered ‘survivors’ in the wild as they oftentimes bully their way into their herd-member’s food supply, but as domesticated animals, they need not exhibit this behavior when a consistent, good quality supply of food is provided.  Isolating him from those he can bully will keep his portion size to what you fed him.

Next, take into consideration how he is managed:   Is he kept in a stall, coat clipped in a heated barn?  Is he turned out on a regular basis?  Does he live outside with access to a run-in or loafing shed?  How he is managed can play into how to help him lose weight, yet stay warm during the oftentimes brutal winter months.  Horses that are most frequently stalled benefit from turnout, safe footing permitted.   Those  turned out full-time should be monitored for the need of a blanket should weather conditions deteriorate enough to warrant; moisture penetrating the thick winter coat as well as a biting winter wind can cut through the toughest of their protections.

Cooper and Ferris in a snowstorm

Ferris and Cooper enjoy turnout in the winter months; it keeps them fit and happy.

Finally, consider his activity level.  Winter in most parts of the United States bring snow, ice and/or frozen footing which can pose a challenge for horse owners.  Good footing is essential for reducing the occurrence of injury during exercise and this is no less important than in the winter months.  Here are a few suggestions for exercising your overweight horse when the footing is less than ideal.

  1. Hand walking – up or down the driveway, on a trail or around an arena is good for him and a great time to bond.
  2. Pasture turnout – solid footing permitting, turn him out for time to romp in the snow and work off some energy.
  3. Time on the lunge line – provides better control over his activity level than turnout and he can work faster than a hand walk.
  4. Trailer to a near-by indoor arena (if there is one close by) for lunge-work, saddle time or just some quiet hand walking.

Helping your overweight horse lose during the winter can be a delicate balance, but with some effort and creativity he can start out the New Year on the way to being a trimmer, healthier horse.

What is “Normal” for my horse?

We’ve all heard the warnings for proper horse care: monitor your horse frequently, and if something is not normal, call your veterinarian. But what is “normal” for your horse? While it is a good idea to pay attention to your horses’ vitals when you do not suspect that anything is wrong in order to establish a baseline, there will be times when that is not feasible.  What if you have a new horse on your place that you fear is not feeling quite right? Or perhaps you are taking care of a friend’s horse and are not familiar with how this horse normally functions?

The following is what is considered “normal” for most horses – following this chart when you suspect a problem will help pinpoint what is wrong and allow you to give a more accurate report to your vet.

  1. Temperature: Adults –  99.5°F – 100.5°F; Foals 100.5°F – 101.5°F
    1. To take your horse’s temperature: Use a large animal thermometer or a human rectal thermometer held in the rectum for 2 minutes. *Note – temperature will be elevated after exercise.
  2. Heart Rate: Adults – 24-36 beats per minute; Foals – 40-60 beats per minute.
    1. To take a heart rate: Using a stethoscope, listen at the wall of the chest, just below the elbow.
  3. Respiratory Rate: Adults – 12-24 breaths per minute; Foals – 32-54 breaths per minute.
    1. Note: respiratory rate may be influenced by stress, excitement, or exercise.
  4. Mucous Membranes: Mucous membranes should be pink and moist, with a capillary refill rate of 1-2 seconds.
    1. To test the capillary refill time: Part the horse’s lips to expose the gums. If you press gently and briefly on the upper jaw with your thumb you will see the blood is forced from the gum. Count how long it takes for the gum to return to its normal color.
    2. Always check mucous membranes in normal light or with a flashlight. Do not use fluorescent lighting, which can cause membranes to look unusually pale. Abnormal membranes are pale/white, blue, dark red, or purple in color.

Physical Exam:

  1. Look for differences in the left vs. right sides of the body.
  2. Check for discharge from the eyes, nostrils, mouth, rectum, vulva, sheath, wounds, abscesses, or any other evidence of trauma.
  3. Note if the horse has passed manure or if there is diarrhea on its tail.
  4. Listen on both sides of the flanks for normal gastrointestinal activity.
  5. Check to see if the abdomen is distended.
  6. Check to see if the horse is working hard just to breathe


  1. Is the horse alert and interested, dull or depressed, or acting differently than normal?
  2. Can the horse walk and move normally at the walk and trot?
  3. Is the horse bearing weight equally on all four limbs?
  4. Has the horse eaten or drunk and is there evidence of fresh manure?
  5. Note if the fencing/stall shows signs of a struggle.
  6. Be sure to check other horses at your facility for similar signs/symptoms.