Healthy Weight Loss for Horses

Managing an overweight horse can be difficult. If your horse is kept on a livery yard, options can be limited, and as an owner you can be subjected to all manner of pressure from other *ahem* ‘helpful, well-meaning experts’.

Sadly, fat shaming has come to the horse world. As has shaming the owners of said horses.

While it can be the case that a horse is over-weight due to neglect. I find it happens more often due to ignorance, misinformation, or basic lack of a suitable environment (often due to yard rules).

'Get Tough' with Fat Horses?

All too often I’ve heard people proudly proclaiming how they’d be tough with an overweight horse. They’d lock it in a stable with only 1 slice of hay a day and that would sort it right out! I’ve heard people bullying owners who don’t follow this plan.


Is a starvation diet really the answer though? I’ve never heard of anyone starving to health. Isn’t the phrase ‘starving to death’? 

We all understand as people, just how damaging a starvation diet is for someone trying to lose weight. For some reason, however, starvation diets are still recommended and used for weight loss in horses.

All horse sense is thrown out of the window, like an overweight horse has suddenly ceased to be a trickle feeder. Like fat is shameful and horses should be punished for it. Locked up in solitary confinement, with hardly any food, and kept as cold as possible to make them shiver off that weight.

Being overweight is a form of malnutrition. Having a deficiency or imbalance of vitamins and/or minerals will increase a horse’s need to eat – they ‘need’ more food in the hope they will get the missing nutrients. If the nutrients aren't present in the food they’re eating, the drive to eat won’t stop.

Not having enough food in the gut, causes imbalances to the gut bacteria, and can cause gut problems such as ulcers. Wrecking the gut function is never going to increase their health. Horses are trickle feeders, because their gut is always digesting… even when there’s nothing in there to digest

Horses are herd animals, they are social creatures, and when removed from a social environment, they will want to eat more through stress or boredom, either way they are born to be social and eat – shutting them away on their own on a starvation diet confiscates 2 of their most fundamental drives.

That’s stressful!

Shutting them in a stable to reduce their access to food, also dramatically reduces their movement, which causes stress, and has negative effects on gut function, circulation and the metabolism.

Being cold is stressful. Stress affects the endocrine system, sending the hormones all over the place. That can cause weight gain. The endocrine system is massively important when it comes to weight loss, health and healing.

While you do need to restrict sugar intake, we must understand that doing this by restricting all food intake will also dramatically reduce the all the macro and micro nutrients (things like protein, fats (they’re not all bad) vitamins and minerals).

Soaking hay can help to reduce the sugar content, but sugar isn’t the only thing lost. Soaking hay removes many of the micro nutrients in there too.

Being fat doesn’t stop you from being hungry. It doesn’t remove your need for good, healthy food. It doesn’t reduce your fundamental need to be around others. We simply can’t address a health problem in horses, like being overweight, by applying an unhealthy solution that ignores all their most basic needs.

So what can you do?

Allow turnout and movement.

A smaller restricted paddock or turnout yard, corral, or something similar will be far better than box rest. Somewhere big enough that they will move about but small enough they don’t have acres of grass available.

Tracks are popular for this, but they’re not the only way. You’d be amazed what you can do with some electric fencing, a little imagination and a dash of determination. If you’re short on imagination, ask for help on social media (sometimes it’s helpful to ask those busy bodies what they would do!)

Years ago, I had a client who went to the tip and picked up all their old carpet…. Yup she carpeted a corner of her field for her laminitic pony. It was a stroke of genius if you ask me and didn’t cost anything but a bit of electric tape and some time. Not all yards will allow this, but you never know…

In winter grass restriction can be anywhere from impossible to unavoidable, usually due to your level of mud issues. Use your imagination, work with what you have. Don’t assume that the grass is ok. The grass can still be too rich even in the dead of winter.

Have a companion. Your horse will move a lot more if they have a friend to interact with. They will move a lot less if on their own with nothing to interact with other than grass.

If you can’t find a way to allow your horse movement and restrict the grass intake (assuming the grass is the problem) have a serious think about moving your horse to a more suitable facility. It’s really difficult when your environment is working against you.

Go and see some other yards. Not everywhere is the same, and a yard a little further away, with better facilities can save you hours of chores and worry.

Check your grass

If your horse is getting grass, check that it’s not rye grass. If it is rye grass, you’re going to have trouble. That’s the equivalent of trying to create a diet for a human when you’re only allowed to select dishes from a McDonalds menu.

Check your feed

Feed isn’t just to put weight on horses or increase their energy intake. Feed can be forage based. There are loads of freeze-dried grass chaffs on the market. These often have far fewer additives and fillers than the molassed or unmolassed chaffs out there. Don’t believe the word ‘happy’ or ‘healthy’ in the title, it’s just a name. Look at the ingredients.

If chaff isn’t your thing, then there’s also plenty of good grass nuts and hay nuts on the market. Personally, I soak nuts before feeding, even the ones that don’t need soaking. I like to see how much they expand. You’d be surprised, try it and see 🙂

Unmolassed sugarbeet can also be helpful.

Add a good quality broad spectrum supplement to their feed. Having a good balanced diet reduces hunger and makes sure the body has the nutrients it needs to heal.

Restriction

Muzzles can help restrict grass intake. Some horses don’t seem to mind them. Other horses just can’t handle it, so decide what is best for your horse. Muzzles also restrict a horse’s ability to groom and interact with the rest of the herd, so please make sure your horse gets some time with his friends without a muzzle.

Haynets and hay feeders can be an awesome way to restrict food intake. There are so many options here, it’s almost impossible you don’t already know of at least a few.

If you’re finding your current hay feeding options aren’t making your life easier, then have a good google and ask on social media. There’re so many different systems now, both home-made options or made for you.

Boredom Busters

As with hay restriction options there’s about a bajillion options here too. Have a look around the interwebs, you’ll find all kinds of weird and wonderful home-made options as well as a variety of products for sale.

Exercise

How much exercise is needed will depend on where you’re starting from. If a horse is very overweight, it might be a bad idea to add the weight of a rider on top.

When you calculate just how overweight your horse is, take a moment to think how many riders that is. It could be they are already carrying the weight of a rider. In some cases, they’re overweight by more than their rider weight carrying ability.  If that’s the case, you may be getting fit with your horse!

Being overweight is tough on joints. While lunging is a good way to exercise them without a rider, be mindful of the joint strain.

If they have laminitis too, you may find exercise isn’t the right option. You still want movement, but not ‘work’.

Exercise is awesome if your horse is healthy enough to perform that level of work without causing harm.

Soaking hay

First up – check you don’t have rye grass hay.

I mentioned above that soaking hay is a problem as it removes a lot of nutrients. That doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t soak your hay. Just be aware of the lack of nutritional content if you do, and supplement those nutrients elsewhere (like a feed – yes, it’s ok to feed overweight horses… if you feed the right things).

Soaking hay tends to be one of the last things I suggest. It can be problematic for many reasons – lack of running water and/or lack of drainage can be an issue for many (has been for me in the past) back problems or other health issues making it too heavy to carry (it’s ok to find a system you can use without breaking yourself!) Freezing temperatures can also cause problems, both with water supply, and the hay freezing

Don’t even get me started on how long it should be soaked for, double soaking, fresh water for each soak, rinsing it, fermenting issues in summer and whether you should/could soak haylage.

Overall, for me, soaking hay is high cost in terms of effort and often low return in terms of results. If you’re getting results from doing so *high five* please continue! Seriously – don’t stop doing something that is working for you because of a blog post written by someone who has never met you, seen your horse, or yard, or hay.

I’m just saying that the vast majority of my clients are delighted to be able to stop soaking their hay, as implementing other strategies has been more effective. I do still have a few clients soaking hay – for any number of reasons specific to their case – it’s individual after all 🙂

Other things

I always find L94 from Trinity Consultants helpful when needing weight loss (they have other longer term products - ask them, they're very helpful). Extra electrolytes are often a good idea too. I've said it before, but I'll say it again... A general supplement will be essential as well.


What things have you done when trying to get your horse to lose weight? What's worked well, or not been very effective... tell us all about it in the comments below...

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  • Jayne says:

    My horse fractured her splint bone recently and was put on 8wks box rest. 1 week after I’d put her on a diet and changed to hay instead of haylage and started soaking it, upped the excersise, etc. Now with just a little over 2 weeks left to go before the vet comes back out and hopefully gives us the all clear to come back in to work again.
    We had a feed company visit us and they brought a weighbridge, gave us advice on how much our horses should be having in a 24hr period. I gave mine lots of small nets so she could have more, to keep her occupied as she was stuck in. She’s done really well. She’s lost the equivalent of around 7stone so far. She’s 16.2
    TB X I’D and wasn’t hugely overweight but had gotten a bit cresty and a large bottom and pads at the sides. She’s a big girl anyway looks more draught than TB but is looking really good now. I said I’d keep soaking my hay until the box rest is up then stop. With the amount of nets she’s having a day and I’ve to do 3 days in advance as she won’t eat it wet, it’s bloody hard work. !!
    But I’ll never stop weighing her nets again, AND she’ll NEVER get to the size she was so I have to repeat all of ghost I can tell you.

  • Toni Semple says:

    I live in Montana, USA on 40 acres of overgrazed former cattle land. Despite the number of opportunist weeds and crummy grass, I have two Arabian mares who just look at it and get fat.

    All four of my horses are housed in a barn at night during the frigid weather, but out during the day. I feed them Timothy hay in slow feeder boxes twice a day. I weigh the flakes so that they are only getting 10% of their total weight each feeding. They get a bucket in the evening with soaked beet pulp and Timothy pellets, senior feed for the two who aren’t fat and a metabolic feed for the fatties, as well as a mineral supplement. This arrangement works well in the winter. (And offering soaked pellets in the winter provides consistent water intake if your horse isn’t a good drinker in cold weather. Heated waterers are a must in my climate.)

    During the spring, summer and fall, they are out on pasture 24/7 with the two overweight mares wearing grazing muzzles. You must introduce the muzzles when the grass is still short so that they learn how to crop the grass through the little hole at the bottom. Both girls are no longer fat and have resolved their laminitic issues.

    It is critical that you find a way to weigh your horses weekly. I use a weight/height tape. It isn’t fully accurate, but the point isn’t accuracy, it is consistency. It’s a great way to assess just how well your chosen feed practices are working. Maybe it’s my own craziness, but I’ve kept a weight chart for the past three years and can refer back to what was going on in terms of weight loss or gain any given day, month or season. It’s an excellent way to avoid the guilty feeling you have when you are limiting hay intake. Progress is my friend.

    I have learned many other valuable keys to assess weight, foot health, etc. from Debs’ posts and online education forums. Thank you, Debs!

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