Many pony breeds look much as they did when they were wild — something pony breeders are proud of, using words like “classic” and “original” to describe their ponies. What we forget, however, is that these pony characteristics also include a metabolism that doesn’t fit well with traditional domesticated feeding routines.
Ponies are compact and tough, able to survive under sparse conditions, eating vegetation that makes straw look like the equine equivalent of a French meal. While this is especially true for pudgy “Thelwell” ponies, even six-figure show ponies who more closely resemble sleek Thoroughbreds may have a “pony metabolism.”
If there were an equine Weight Watchers, it’s a sure bet that most of the members would be ponies. Obesity is so widespread in ponies that some people consider it the norm. Overfeeding is certainly part of the cause, but research shows it’s deeper than that.
Ponies and people with type 2 diabetes (the kind you get later in life) generally have four medical characteristics:
Abnormal blood sugar
Before full-blown diabetes occurs in people, they go through a stage that has a direct parallel in ponies — hypoglycemia or low blood sugar. The key to maintaining a healthy, trim pony is to manage him in a way that suits his natural metabolism better.
Basic Diet: The first rule of feeding ponies is avoid grain. Feeding grain worsens the metabolic problems that predispose ponies to obesity and laminitis. Concentrated, easily digested carbohydrate sources, like grains, cause a rise in blood sugar that triggers even more insulin release and over time makes insulin resistance worse. It’s best to allow the pony to graze at will on natural forage and provide late-cutting hays.
Even this diet contains some soluble carbohydrate — the kind that the small intestine can digest and produces a sudden rise in blood sugar. However, hays and late growths of grass have much less soluble carbohydrate than grains and far more fiber. The more mature the grass or hay, the lower the level of easily digested carbohydrate. A pony can thrive on hays that are too stemmy and mature for horses (it still must be clean!). You will save money and do the pony a favor at the same time.
Exercise: Most ponies require so little food for maintenance (about five pounds of hay per day for a 500-pound pony) that getting them to lose weight requires an increase in exercise. There are other benefits, too. Research on insulin-resistant people and laboratory animals clearly shows that daily, low-level, aerobic exercise decreases insulin resistance.
We recommend 45 minutes to an hour of low-level exercise (sustained walking for a really out-of-shape pony, moderate trotting otherwise), sufficient to get the pony’s heart rate about 90 to 100. This is best as 45 minutes to an hour straight, not broken up into short sessions. If you don’t have a pony-sized rider available and he doesn’t drive, longe the pony or take him along on a lead shank when you ride your horse, if you can do this safely.
Protein: When protein levels are inadequate, outward signs of dull haircoat, changes in hoof quality and loss of muscle mass will be seen. Unfortunately, late-cutting grass hay can run as low as 7% protein for a total protein deficit of 68 g/5 lb of hay, if aiming for a 10% protein diet.
So, for every pound of hay fed, you will need to add 4.5 grams of protein to the diet for each percentage point below 10%. A protein/mineral supplement, such as Triple Crown 30, works well. A half a pound per day will give you enough protein to supplement five pounds of 7% protein grass hay and meet any vitamin or mineral needs as well.
Vitamins and Minerals: The National Research Council guidelines for horses are safe for ponies. As a rule, any vitamin-mineral or protein-vitamin-mineral supplement formulated for horses on grass hay can be used in ponies. Just adjust the dosage for the lower body weight.
Your pony’s mineral status may also have an important role to play in his metabolic stability.
Chromium, a trace mineral, has important influences on insulin sensitivity. Insulin-resistant people put on chromium supplementation show marked improvement or even a return to normal in insulin sensitivity. A reasonable dose, based on human studies, is 0.5 to 1 milligram/day of chromium (200 to 400 micrograms/kg) for a 500- to 600-pound pony. (Chromium dosages have not been established for horses. It also has a narrow safety margin. Do not over-supplement.) You can get chromium as high chromium yeast to be added to the feed from Uckele (800/248-0330; 1 lb. GTF Chromium $20). The NRC has not approved chromium in equine diets yet. Discuss chromium with your veterinarian.
Zinc is also important for normal insulin sensitivity, but most supplement levels are adequate.
Magnesium is perhaps the most important mineral to your pony. Magnesium deficiency can worsen the insulin-mediated contraction of arteries that may play a central role in laminitis in ponies. Magnesium deficiency also leads to increased clotting inside vessels, another factor in laminitis, while magnesium supplementation greatly decreases the effects caused by endotoxins, believed to be involved in laminitis. In fact, magnesium supplementation is anecdotally reported to help ponies with heavy, thick cresty necks. Visible improvement in cresty necks is reported to occur within two weeks.
Grass hays, if fed around 2% of body weight (too much for some ponies), come close to calcium needs. However, calcium:magnesium ratios vary widely. If calcium level is not a problem, supplement with a pure magnesium source, like Quiessence from Foxden Equine (540/334-1892).
The key to successfully feeding ponies is a combination of adequate regular exercise and a diet appropriate for the pony’s natural insulin resistance:
Feed late-cutting grass hay.
Use a commercial protein/mineral supplement to correct for hay protein level below 10% and deficiencies in minerals.
Also With This Article
Click here to view ”Syndrome X Symptoms And Ponies.”
Click here to view ”No Crash Diets.”
Click here to view ”Forget Hypothyroidism.”
Click here to view ”Safe Treats.”
Click here to view ”Laminitis In Ponies.”