Taking Weight Off of Easy Keeping Horses

We hear often from people that “My pony is so fat!” It is often followed with, “He doesn’t need to be fed anything – he so much as sees a bag of feed and he gains weight.”

Obesity in horses can lead to laminitis, overheating and numerous other health issues. Ideally, chubby horses should have their nutrition monitored closely. Three good practices to manage these types of easy keepers are:

  1. Limit their forage first and provide a controlled-calorie horse feed to complete the missing nutrients from the forage. This still allows the horse or pony to feel as though it gets fed, too.
  2. If monitored well, grazing muzzles work for overweight horses on pastures, allowing them only small bites of grass but maintaining free access to run with the other horses.
  3. Not surprisingly, most effective is daily exercise. Increasing the amount of calories burned each day reduces the amount that are stored away as fat.

Taking weight off of an easy keeper is no small task, but is well worth it in the long run. Keeping our equine friends fit will help ensure they stay with us for years to come.

Managing Horses with Gastric Ulcers

Last week a horse owner contacted me about changing her horses diet.   She stated that they are ¾ of the way through show season and he is just “off his game”.  It seems that the horse was showing a lack of appetite and not finishing his grain. In addition, his disposition seemed to have changed, being rather grumpy and his performance level was suffering.  A few times he had shown signs of mild colic over the past two months.

I suggested the owner contact her veterinarian, as it sounded like the horse may have an ulcer.  I explained that the percentage of horses with ulcers continues to increase, and that higher intensity levels of training are correlated with an increase in ulcer incidence.  The ulcers often occur in the upper third of the stomach, which does not have a mucus layer and does not secrete bicarbonate that helps to buffer stomach acid.  It is also interesting to note that ulcers have not been founded on pastured horses.  This is likely due to the fact that as a horse grazes, it produces large amounts of saliva, which contain the bicarbonate and amylase needed to provide a buffer for the stomach lining. 

The owner was not pleased with my answer, but agreed to call the vet.  Within the week she contacted me and said the horse had been diagnosed with a gastric ulcer.  He was now on medication, but we needed to make dietary changes as well.  I suggested the following “back to basic” steps to help manage her horses condition:

  1. Allow the horse to be turned out or hand grazed.
  2. If access to pasture is not possible, good quality hay is a must.  Recent studies indicate that legume hay is an excellent choice, possibly due to the high calcium content which may help to serve as a buffer.
  3. Breaking the daily rations into smaller more frequent meals also help keep saliva production constant and protect the stomach lining – more like “grazers” instead of “meal eaters”.
  4. High starch diets also tend to aggravate ulcers due to increased acid production. A high fat high fiber feed is ideal.

In essence, to help keep them from suffering the ill effects of ulcers,  we need to let our horses just be horses.

Management Practices: Reducing the Risk of Colic

Colic is one of the leading health problems facing horse owners. According to the USDA’s National Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) Equine Study 1998, about 4% of the horse population experiences colic each year. Colic rated second only to old age as the cause of death in equines. The same study indicated that horse owners most commonly identified “unknown” causes for colic, followed by gas colic and feed related.

Feeding management and non-feeding-related management practices can all have an impact on reducing the risk of colic.

The following management practices can aid in reducing the risk of colic:

  1. Parasite Control: Includes proper sanitation and regular deworming per program.
  2. Dental Care: Be sure to schedule regular dental exams as needed.
  3. Fresh Clean Water: A lack of water in both cold and warm weather may increase risk of colic.
  4. Consistent Diet: Avoiding sudden changes in either hay or grain may help reduce risk.  A survey by Dr. Noah Cohen et al in Texas indicated forage changes are associated with colic more frequently than changes in the grain portion of the diet.
  5. Avoid Starch Overload. Starch overload, or allowing undigested starch to get to the hindgut, is a major cause of gas colic.  Limiting meal size, maintaining equal feeding intervals, and selecting controlled starch feed products for a feeding program, may help reduce the risk of starch overload. 
  6. Feed Additives. Some feed additives, such as direct fed microbials and yeast culture, may also be beneficial in improving forage utilization and digestion.

Colic prevention—rather than colic treatment—is clearly much better for both the horse and the horse owner.

Feeding Senior Horses

Gayle's 23 year old Arabian, Scooter

I recently visited a horse owner that wanted to know when it was time to start feeding senior feed to her horse. She currently had him on a 10% protein sweet feed mix. She said he was underweight and not sure why, as she was providing the horse about 20 pounds per day, but he was not eating it all.  I explained that we often begin to watch horses for signs of being a “senior horse” around age 15-18.  Some may go much later in to life before showing signs, but somewhere in this age range is when we watch for signs of decreased muscle mass, decreased quality of hair coat, and an inability to maintain weight on their “normal” diet.

With this horse, I found small clumps of chewed hay on the ground around his feeder, or “quids” as they are called. This happens due to dental deterioration or loss, which inhibits the horse’s ability to chew his hay. Upon examining the horses manure, we noticed a lot of undigested grain. I suggested that the owner have the horse’s teeth floated, as well as have blood work drawn to check for Cushing’s or other metabolic issues. Once the horse’s teeth were taken care of, and any metabolic issues ruled out, we could move toward a more suitable senior diet.

As horses grow older their ability to digest feed and absorb nutrients becomes less efficient. Senior horse feeds will generally have the following elements to make sure older horses are receiving all the nutrition they need:

  1. Increased protein level in order to provide proper amino acids, such as lysine and methionine, for metabolic functions, muscle maintenance and hoof quality.
  2. Elevated fat content to provide extra calories, with the benefit of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids.
  3. Yeast cultures & direct-fed microbials (more commonly known as prebiotics and probiotics, respectively) to support nutrient digestion.
  4. Organic trace minerals that are more highly bioavailable than traditional trace mineral sources.
  5. Enhanced calcium and phosphorus levels to help guard against bone demineralization.
  6. Manufactured as a soft, high fiber pellet that is easily chewed. In cases where dental loss is extreme, the feed can even be mixed with equal parts warm water to form a mash.

Also, with senior feeds, if the horse is unable to chew any hay, the diet can be adjusted to 4 or 5 feedings of senior feed per day, to meet caloric requirements.