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Fit is the Best Color: How to Manage Your Horse’s Weight

Discover contributing factors to weight gain in horses and how to trim down your overweight horse.

Photo by Pete Ramey
The Henneke Body Condition Scale helps horse owners assess the varying degrees of fat in their horses by rating six key conformation points: neck, withers, crease of back, tail head, ribs, and behind the shoulder.

In the August 2009 issue of Horse & Rider, John Sylvester, PhD, discusses whether sweet feeds are OK to give to your horse. In the following article from our November 2007 issue, we give you the lowdown on how fat is "too fat," and what you can do about it. Plus, we provide you with some basic facts on equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) that could be contributing to your horse's weight problem.

Is your horse overweight? Would your vet think he is? What would your best horse pal say?

It seems America's media-coined "obesity epidemic" has permeated the animal population, horses included. And, as with humans, excess weight can make horses' everyday lives more difficult and lead to serious health complications--even death.

In this article, we'll discuss why so many horses are fat and getting fatter, plus explain why being overweight is so detrimental.Then we'll help you determine whether your own horse is carrying extra weight, plus offer experts' tips for trimming excess poundage and keeping it off.

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Horsemen of every era have appreciated a handsome horse in good flesh, but the wise horseman of today knows that fat really isn't "the best color."

Why the Weight?
Horses evolved to be free-roaming grazers. In the wild, they're able to survive on scarce pastures, storing excess weight during the summer in preparation for limited foliage in winter.

Yet, as domesticated animals, they often consume high-starch, high-concentrate grain feeds once or twice a day, with limited or no grazing access.

And that's not even mentioning the high-sugar treats we owners love to feed them.

Before the 20th century, horses were primarily used as work animals; their jobs transporting humans or powering farm equipment ensured regular exercise. Today,we use horses primarily for recreation, and some are more accurately classified as "yard ornaments."

Too much food, too little exercise--it's the guaranteed formula for weight gain. As it turns out, though, there are a few other surprising factors contributing to our horses' bulging sides.

The easy keeper. Some horses just don't need many calories to maintain optimal body condition. Kentucky Equine Research, Inc., conducted a survey and found that owners who describe their horses as "easy keepers" tend to find it virtually impossible to reduce their horses' weights by calorie restriction alone. Moreover, these owners assert they're not dishing out high starch feeds.

Photo by Pete Ramey
This photo gives a close-up view of this horse

Super-grass. Surprisingly, one of the primary weight-gain factors is vastly improved forage. Over the years, the nutritional content of forage has increased. As free-roaming grazers, horses thrived on sparse pastures and diverse forage. Today's forage is limited in species, primarily consisting of those grasses and legumes best for maximizing nutrition. Plus, genetic technology has further boosted the nutrition value of these forages, meaning horses are getting pasture and hays that are higher in starch and carbs than ever before.

The time of day a horse grazes can make a difference, too. Rhonda Hoffman, PhD, PAS, associate professor of equine science at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, explains that during photosynthesis, green plants produce glucose and other sugars, with oxygen as a byproduct in the presence of light. As a result, forage carbohydrates naturally rise throughout the morning and peak in the late afternoon due to continuous exposure to light. Plant carbs then decline overnight and into the early morning hours. That means horses that graze in the afternoon, as opposed to during the night or early morning, are likely to ingest two to four times as much sugar, starch, and fructans, and are therefore at a greater risk of obesity.

We like 'em plump. In many cases, we just prefer to see our horses carrying extra weight. For halter horses, especially, a "meatier" profile has traditionally been desirable. Emotionally, it's pleasant to feel that you're feeding your horse "plenty," but in reality the extra calories aren't doing him any favors.

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