Equine Weight Management

Horses are a dynamic and fascinating creature.  Their bond with people goes back for thousands of years.  The diversity the breeds introduce is extraordinary.  And each horse brings its own individuality.  What a fantastic animal!

The human-horse relationship has definitely changed as the years have progressed.  For the most part this has been good for the horse.  Management has improved, nutrition, parasite control, hoof health has progressed, dental care has evolved, and horses are living longer more productive lives.

Yet these improvements are not automatic and the horse depends on its owner or handler to make good decisions for her or his ongoing health.  One of the basics of these is weight management which also involves exercise management.

There is a body condition scoring system for horses called the Henneke Scoring System.  It uses a number system from 1 to 9.  One is an extremely thin animal and 9 is an extremely obese animal.  Body type differences between horse breeds and conformation are also used in the scoring system.  Thus the body condition score (BCS) of 5 will look different for a thoroughbred versus a draft breed.  Yet on a relative scale the BCS of 5 (4-6) is the desirable range for horses of any breed.

The basic question is why is weight management important for the horse?   The simple answer is that the underweight or the overweight horse is susceptible to various disorders which can lower quality of life and even shorten life.  A few of these will be addressed below.  First what can be done to maintain a horse in a healthy condition?  The basics of proper body condition begin with feeding a balanced diet for the age, breed, and activity of the horse.  Feed ingredients are best to be clean and stable to keep a horse performing stable and predictably.  Of course other basic care: hoof health, consistent exercise, parasite management, vaccination protection, environmental control, and dental care are important to the horse.  Returning to diet there are several areas to monitor: 1) Water is the most important nutrient for the horse.  Water should be clean, potable, and available to the horse at all times he or she is not being used.  Most horses do not like cold water and will reduce intake accordingly.  This is particularly important in the winter during freezing conditions.  2) Fiber is the next most important diet ingredient focusing on digestible fiber.  This is present in growing grass or hay.  These feeds need to be free of mold and dust to be palatable and healthy for your horse.  As a basic rule a horse will consume 1.5 to 2.5 pounds of hay per 100 pounds of body weight.  Be warned that some horses will consume substantially more!  3) Energy is derived from feed.  For maintenance needs hay or other forage will meet or exceed their energy needs.  As in all animals excess energy intake will lead to weight gain.  There are many other sources of energy for the horse.  A few examples are beet pulp, various grain products, various oil or fat based products.  4) Protein is also in feed.  The horse has several essential amino acids that she or he needs to consume.  Amino acids are the building blocks of protein.  These amino acids are available in good quality forages.  Other amino acids are formed by the micro-organisms living in the hind gut of the horse.  These are absorbed through the intestinal wall to provide amino acids for the horse to build and repair muscle tissue.  Protein needs of the horse are based on age, breed, use, and any health concerns.  5) Minerals: minerals are divided into macro-minerals and micro-minerals.  Macro-minerals are those needed by the horse in larger amounts.  Micro-minerals are those needed at a trace level.  Many minerals are present in the forages fed to horses.  The balance between the minerals as well as the absolute amount in the diet are important as minerals interact with each other.  In the Pacific Northwest we are generally low in the trace minerals copper, zinc, and selenium.  Whereas we are generally high in iron content in our local forages.  Supplementation of these trace minerals is always a good idea and is highly recommended for pregnant mares, growing horses, performance horses, and breeding stallions.  Be forewarned that over supplementation can also cause significant problems.  Thus limit the feed ingredients containing mineral supplementation.   Salt is a mineral that should be provided free choice to all horses when not in use.  6) Vitamins are the last major nutrient.  Vitamins are present in most forage and are supplemented in horse feeds and mineral supplementations.  Vitamins A, D, and E are the ones to watch closely.  With digestive disorders and with an aging horse vitamin supplementation is more critical.

So what are the tools to use to monitor equine weight management (EWM)?  1) Henneke Body Condition Scoring Guide 2) Equine weight tape 3) Scale to record body weight.  Monitoring and recording EWM allows the owner to identify when body weight is changing.  Often the rate of change in body condition is as important as the actual change.

The horse losing body condition may have one of many issues to investigate.  A few possibilities would be: feed change where some of the above nutrients are compromised, dental issues, digestive disorder, parasite issue, feed sensitivity, gastrointestinal compromise, as well as many others.

A horse gaining body condition would have other issues to investigate.  A few possibilities would be: overfeeding energy in the diet, change in activity use, forage change requiring less grain to be fed, and metabolic change in the horse particularly equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) or Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID) commonly called Cushings disease, or other issues.  The metabolic changes generally occur over time.  EMS generally occurs in middle aged horses that have been marginally over weight for some time.  As the disease progresses the horse becomes insulin resistant.  Blood glucose levels will climb and the pancreas will produce more insulin to bring down blood glucose.  The body responds poorly to the insulin level and the cycle progresses.  The chronic high levels of insulin induce repeated bouts of laminitis.  Some of these bouts are invisible to the owner and others can result in severe lameness.  Once the laminitis episodes have begun they are difficult or impossible to eliminate.  Thus prevention of EMS is far better for the horse than is any treatment.  Another concern with the horse adding body fat is the formation of lipomas.  Lipomas are benign fatty accumulations that generally occur in the horse’s abdomen.  Their concern is that the lipoma can enlarge and impinge on the horse’s intestine.  These can cause strangulation of a portion of the intestine leading to severe colic usually of sudden onset.  This colic will require surgery to correct the problem with a very guarded prognosis depending on the level of damage to the intestine.  Any owner experiencing this colic will not want to deal with another episode if possible.

Thus the potential consequences of ignoring equine body condition can be very grave.  Equine Weight Management (EWM) is best used proactively to keep a balance between nutrition, exercise, and life stages of the horse.  Yet if a horse is under or overweight, management intervention can turn the tide to bring the majority of horses back into balance.  Weight changes with horses are best handled slowly to either build body condition or to reduce it.  Sometimes medications can also help with the ongoing health of your horse.  We are here to help you.  Please call or inquire on how we can help you manage your horse’s body condition and quality of life.

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Normal Large Animal service ends at 1:00 pm on Saturdays. After hours Large Animal emergency service is available by calling our same phone number. After hours Small Animal service is available through Animal Emergency Care at 4176 Meridian St, Bellingham. Their phone number is 360-758-2200.