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.

20 thoughts on “Overweight Horses: Winter Management

  1. Regarding hand walking and lunge line work – what an interesting parallel to the world of dogs. I meet far too many people with overweight dogs who have fallen into the convenient trap of thinking that just turning them out alone into the back yard constitutes effective physical and mental exercise.

    We call them ‘companion animals’ for a reason! All of our pets thrive on time spent with their human owners. The mental stimulation of that shared time is as important as the physical exercise.

    And – you have a very nice blog here by the way 😉

    • Thank you for the compliment Janeen! Groundwork with horses is a great opportunity to strengthen the bond with your horse, as walking, running or a game of fetch is with your dog. This is only one of many parallels between horses and dogs…..Thanks for your comment!

  2. I am amazed at the number of horses over-grained or given molasses-laden grain year round that receive minimum exercise. Last summer I adopted a 14.1 H quarter pony that was rarely ridden and over-grained, so she weighed over 1050 lbs. As you mention in this informative article, I slowly changed and reduced her grain intake, as she is turned out on good pasture as much as possible. This winter, her daily intake is 7-9 flakes of hay grass (given in 3 feedings) and an adaquate amount of low-starch grain to provide vital nutritents. I monitor her weight every 3 weeks and she has lost over 60 pounds! I do blanket her when it drops below 30 degrees because she has less body fat. She looks wonderful and her hooves no longer flare out, plus she has more energy now.

    • Hi Vinnie,
      Thank you for adopting your pony and for sharing your story! As you mention, it is important to feed the appropriate amount of hay and the right feed, especially for ponies! I have a blog entry drafted special for feeding ponies, but it sounds like you have got it all under control. Thank you again and keep up the great work! ~Megan C.

      • I would be interested in reading that blog. I have an American Sport Pony, Dam is an Irish Warmblood and Sire is a Halflinger. She is 14.2hh but it is a constant battle to keep weight off of her, probably due to her breeding. She is a performance horse, I feed Safechoice with joint supplements. The bully idea is great, however my pasture bully is a skinny 16hh, 25 yr old QH mare. Always looking for better ideas to keep extra weight off of my ASP. Thanks for your post.

        • Hi Nicki-

          Thanks for your question and for using SafeChoice! Your sport pony sounds lovely – we always like photos so please share either on our Facebook page or the ratings and reviews on our website!

          It sounds like you’re doing all the right things for your performance pony. If you find that SafeChoice at the minimum feeding rate (0.25 lbs/100 lbs of body weight) is still too many calories, you might consider changing to either Lite Balance or Empower Balance. Both products have all the goodies like prebiotics, probiotics and organic trace minerals, but lower calories than SafeChoice.

          And remember, forage is just as important as feed in the weight equation. Good quality mature grass hay is the best bet for easy keepers.

          Here is the link to the blog post referenced above: http://www.horsefeedblog.com/2011/04/powering-ponies/
          Thanks again and let us know if we can help further!
          Megan C.

  3. I have 2 IR horses. I really appreciate your Lite Balance. Can you make it lower in NSC?? I have been on the websites of all of the ‘lite’ types/brands and Lite Balance seems to have the most ‘bang for the buck”. the most nutrition for the feed. But with these horses, we can not feed much. Your feed seems to give me the most nutrition for the ‘small scoop’ I can give. I read about minivit, but most horses do not like the taste. I guess Purinia has a wt management feed that is good. You get to feed what looks like a more normal amount, but it is low in carbs. But it is only a bit lower in carbs than Lite ???? It is very confusing. Around here, in upstate NY the feed store seem to carry “Safe Choice” but I think that it is not as good for IR as Lite Balancer. Many of us, have old dairy farms and horses are out on too much cow grass fields, with old cow type hay, in run in sheds. We do not have the blanketed, stalled horses of urban folks. IR is such a big PROBLEM, please help educate us on this and provide a feed for it Thank You

    • Hi Linda,

      Thanks for stopping by the Feed Room! You ask some great questions. In general, Lite Balance is a great product for horses with IR, but for your particular situation with the lush pastures and hay, I would recommend Empower Balance. It is considered a ration balancer, intended to be fed at a low rate, so don’t panic when you see the protein level.  Empower Balance has all the goodies in it, like prebiotics, probiotics and organic trace mineral, just like Lite Balance, but it definitely a better fit for your horses.

      In general, for horses with IR that are easy keepers, we recommend Empower Balance. If the horse struggles to hold weight, Life Design Senior is the perfect product.

      Thanks again for stopping by and please let us know if you have more questions!

      Megan C.

  4. I’m continuing to feed your mare and foal formula to my weanling. She has a nice thick coat and continues to show a nice steady growth rate

    • Hi Trish!

      Thanks so much for stopping by the Feed Room blog! I am delighted to hear that Mare and Foal is working for your filly! I raised both my boys on the product and they have turned out great! 🙂

      We always love to hear how our products are working for your horses. If you have a moment, we’d love to have you provide a rating and review on Mare and Foal’s page on NutrenaWorld.com. There is a spot to upload photos if you’re willing to share how your filly is looking.

      Thanks again for stopping by and please let us know if we can help further!
      Megan C.

  5. Older horses in the winter can really fool you. A beautiful coat, but you can feel ribs with your hands. Nutrena senior is vital for these horses. Thank you for such a great product.

    • Hey Tamara,

      Thank you for stopping by and for being a user of our Life Design Senior. You are absolutely right – even in the winter, it is important to do a regular BCS (body condition score) as the long winter coat can hide weight loss or even gains. Maintaining a healthy weight over the winter months means a strong start come spring. Thanks again!

      Megan C.

  6. I have a 25yr old Arabian Mare who I have struggled to keep weight on during season changes and moves. We put her on your Life Design Senior last year and she loves it! She does have a jaw issue so I soak her feed and give her beet pulp since she is not eating as much hay as she used to. We recently moved and not suprisingly, she lost weight. She has gained some of it back but I’m concerned I’m feeding her too much grain. When I taped her, she measured at 700lbs, but I think she might be less than that based on her overall size. She is getting 8lbs of the Life Design Senior per day, plus beet pulp, plus whatever hay she eats on her own (I have a hay net that is kept full at all times). Is this too much? While she isn’t getting fat (I’m not sure that is possible with her), I’m concerned that she may be getting too much of a good thing here.
    Thank you for your help.

    • Hi Stephanie,

      Thanks for stopping by the blog and for asking your question. Sounds like you have done all the right things for your mare. If you estimate her weight to be 700 pounds but you still believe she is underweight, you will want to feed her to the TARGET body weight. In other words, if you estimate she needs an extra 100 pounds, you can feed her to the 800 pound feeding rate. Once she gets there, you can back her off to maintain the desired weight and body condition score. Remember in to increase her rations slowly.

      One great aspect of feeding Life Design Senior is that it is formulated as a complete feed. In other words, you don’t need to offer hay with this feed, as it has enough fiber that is easily digested for our senior friends. One suggestion is to cut out the beet pulp and increase her LD Senior amount. It will ensure all the nutrients she needs are appropriately balanced. An 800 pound horse fed LD Senior without hay (or with very little hay) can be fed up to 12 pounds a day for maintenance. If she is in light work, she can have up to 14 pounds a day.

      If you find she is still struggling to hold her weight, I would recommend top dressing her feed with a fat supplement, such as Empower Boost. It is balanced correctly to be top dressed with any commercially balanced feed and provide a concentrated source of calories…plus it smells yummy!

      I hope one or all of these suggestions help you and your mare. Please feel free to let us know of any more questions. Best of luck!

      Megan C.

    • Hello Leanne!

      Thank you for your questions and for feeding SafeChoice! The best method to determine insulin resistance is definitely by working with your veterinarian. They will be able to provide the most accurate test and help you with any management questions you may have.

      As far as feed options, while SafeChoice Original is a good all-around feed for many horses, it may be too high in starch and sugar for horses with insulin resistance. Therefore, I would recommend you try SafeChoice Special Care. In addition, feeding good quality grass hay versus a legume is recommended. If possible, soaking the hay to remove additional sugars will help manage the amount of sugar in your horse’s diet.

      Finally, weight management is key. A good routine of turnout and exercise, in addition to the feeding tips listed about will help manage the condition in your horse. I hope this helps! If you have any additional questions, please don’t hesitate to let us know!

      All the best~
      Megan C.

  7. Would like some more info. on the Empower Balance. I have 2 overweight horses, but want to feed them something that has all the “good” stuff in it, but won’t put any more weight on them. The protein level concerns me. Can you explain? Thanks.

    • Hi Lori,

      Thanks for your question and you’re right take a closer look at the protein percentage in Empower Balance. This feed is considered a ‘ration balancer’ which means the recommended feeding rate is lower than your average commercial feed.

      The important thing to remember when it comes to the percentages of nutrients in feed is how much (in pounds) you’ll be serving your horse. Here is a quick example to bring this to life. For a 1,000 pound horse at a maintenance activity level:
      Empower Balance is fed at 1 lb. /day
      30% protein x 1 lb = 0.3 lbs. of protein consumed
      In comparison to SafeChoice Original, for example:
      14% protein x 2.5 lbs = 0.35 lbs. of protein consumed

      When you get to this apples-to-apples comparison, Empower Balance actually provides slightly less protein per day than SafeChoice Original – both at the lowest feeding rates. We have added a handy tool on our web pages(the Feeding Directions tab) that helps equate the pounds of feed recommended for each horse, based on activity level and body weight.

      It’s also a good idea to buy a feed scale to have handy, especially when you’re looking to change feeds. We offer a scale on our E-store here, or any hardware store should be able to get you one. At the same site, we have also added a cup with approximate measure marks for both Empower products, though I do encourage everyone to have a feed scale!

      Thank you for your question and please let me know if we can help further!

      Best~
      Megan C.

      • OK, that makes sense to me. I have fed another product the same way. They had a cup, like a coffee cup, and that cup full held exactly 1/2 pound.

        • Another thing I have recently been informed of is that high protein causes acid in the joints. I am assuming that because they are not neccesarily consuming that much protein per se that it shouldn’t be an issue.

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