Today we’re going to talk about easy keepers and overweight horses and how to feed them.
To start, let’s define what an easy keeper is. These are horses that generally need less food, not more. They typically maintain their weight on forage alone or forage and a very small amount of concentrate. These horses are considered “metabolically thrifty”—i.e., they are good at using small amounts of food to maintain themselves. This isn’t just an abstract idea—the thrifty gene has actually been identified in several breeds and breed types, mostly those that evolved in harsh climates! Easy keeper status isn’t necessarily tied to activity level. In a barn with a warmblood and a Thoroughbred both working at third level dressage, it’s highly likely that the warmblood will require fewer calories to maintain their weight and condition.
An active, fit warmblood is a good example of a well-managed easy keeper. What happens when you don’t appropriately manage them? They become overweight, and eventually obese.
How can you tell if your horse is overweight?
The first tool every horse owner should have in their back pocket is knowing how to body condition score their horse. The Henneke body condition scoring system is a 1 to 9 scale that evaluates a horse based on subcutaneous (surface) level fat stores. A horse with a BCS of 5 is ideal, but 4 and 6 are also considered healthy. To learn more about it, click here. For a step-by-step guide, click here or here. The most important aspect to using BCS is that you can only accurately determine a horse’s score by actually putting your hands on them. Side note: one of the biggest fallacies I observe on the world wide web are commenters assessing a horse from a photo. Now, it’s fairly easy to ascertain if a horse is extreme on either end, but that’s about it. It is not possible to truly assess condition without looking in-person directly at the horse, and by putting your hands on them. Moral of the story—I’m officially telling you to go to the barn!
The second tool that owners can use to assess their horse’s weight and condition is something that literally can fit in your back pocket—an app called The Healthy Horse, developed by the University of Minnesota Equine Extension program. This app is the most accurate weight to estimate not only your horse’s actual weight, but also their IDEAL weight. This offers an objective way to evaluate your horse, which can be more helpful than someone saying “oh Tio’s looking pretty sturdy these days” (actually that’s me…talking about my own horse). It’s available in app stores for both Apple and Android devices, or for more information, click here to see my audition for Hollywood.
Okay. You’ve assessed that your horse is overweight. Now what? Here are some ways to control your horse’s weight.
Let’s talk forage first. Horses need, on average, about 2% of their weight of food daily. The majority of this should be forage in the form of hay or pasture. Generally, it is a best practice to have forage available to your horse as often as possible, with many people citing 24/7 as a necessity. However, what if 24/7 access leads towards excess weight gain?
We often use the terms “good quality” or “high quality” when it comes to the hay that we should be feeding our horses. Is there such a thing as hay that is too good? The short answer is yes. The “too good” part of hay quality is in reference to the energy content. Especially when we consider genetic disposition and activity level of the horse, some hay contains too much energy (calories) to be fed free-choice. Simply put, when horses consume more calories than they expend, they will gain weight. This can be a good thing—muscle gain for working horse or muscle and fat gain for underweight horses. However, for horses that are already at a healthy weight but not actively working and building muscle, this translates to excess adipose tissue (otherwise known as fat). A little extra fat is not always a bad thing, but excess leads to numerous problems including decreased athletic ability, decreased ability to regulate their temperature, and other significant health issues including as an increased risk of developing insulin resistance and laminitis.
What should you do if your horse is fat on free-choice hay?
- WEIGH THE HAY!! This is your new mantra. I say these words so often, I wouldn’t be surprised if I mutter them in my sleep.
- Feed no more than 2% of your horse’s weight in hay per day, and if they actively need to lose weight, you can feed as little as 1.5% of their weight. One train of thought is to feed 2% of their ideal weight or 1.5% of their actual weight, whichever is more.
- Use hay nets. Hay nets are a great tool to help extend out smaller meals to keep horses chewing for longer. Try a net with a one-inch hole size to stretch out meals, or even drop down to a smaller size if you have a horse that still finishes breakfast quickly. I’ve seen horses protest these constrictive nets—give it time and they will figure it out.
- As an added bonus, nets and other hay feeders have been proven to reduce waste, saving you a significant amount of money, and paying for themselves within months. For those of you that struggle with mud season, the more hay you keep off the ground, the faster it will dry out.
- Keep your horses on a dry lot. Many horses simply cannot handle pasture access. These horses need to be kept in a dry lot and meal-fed limited hay. Unfortunately, research has demonstrated that restricted grazing doesn’t work—horses and ponies learn that they will only be out on the grass for a few hours and will just gorge themselves in the time available.
- Consider the type of hay you are feeding. Look for mature grass hay—this will have more fiber and less energy than less mature hay. Many horsemen will say first cutting hay is more mature than second or third cuttings. This can be true, usually because by the time fields are dry enough in the spring for hay cutting equipment, the grass is fairly mature. Don’t rely on this alone—look at the hay before you purchase, if possible. Seed heads are one indicator that the hay is more mature.
- Teff is a type of warm-season grass that is becoming very popular amongst horse owners because of its nutrient composition—it’s essentially a “diet hay” because even at lower maturities, it is lower in energy than other grass hays. Horses that are used to tastier hay may protest at first—it can help to mix this hay (or any lower quality hay) with something they are used to.
We’ve discussed forage, now let’s talk concentrates.
Even if your horse is overweight, it is still very important to ensure their diet is balanced and meeting all of their nutritional requirements. The trick is providing this nutrition in a condensed form. There are a couple of options that range in feeding rates.
- “Light” formulas, such as Woody’s Easy Keeper. These are formulated to be fed at 2 to 4 pounds for an average horse and are ideal for active easy keepers that don’t need a full portion of a performance feed.
- Ration balancers, such as Woody’s Ration Balancer. These have a 1-to-2-pound feeding rate for the average horse and make up for what is lacking in the hay in a small amount of calories.
- Vitamin & mineral supplements, such as Woody’s All In. These are formulated to be even more condensed than a ration balancer and therefore add even fewer calories to your horse’s diet. Not all vitamin and mineral supplements are created equally—make sure the one you use is comprehensive and contains all essential nutrients.
- Forage balancers. Forage balancers are becoming popular lately, however, they often are missing many essential nutrients and need to be fed with a carrier (aka a pound of hay pellets or beet pulp) which often defeats the purpose of limited calories (compared to a ration balancer).
Beyond limiting intake, the other most important aspect to managing overweight horses is finding ways to increase their energy expenditure through exercise.
Voluntary exercise is the movement horses will naturally do on their own accord. If your horse isn’t naturally apt to run around the field on their own, here are a few tricks:
- Space out hay and water from each other and from the gate
- If you can, spread out hay into multiple small piles
- Find a friend for your horse that encourages them to move through playing
- The “Paddock Paradise” track system is a newer concept that encourages more voluntary movement by creating tracks, or paths, for your horses to travel throughout the day. This requires time and money to create but may work for your horses and management style!
Involuntary exercise is movement through intentional work. This can mean:
- Taking your horse for walks
If you are limited in your time or capability, consider finding a partial or full lease for your horse, or see if a lesson program can use them! For many reasons, I don’t get to work my horse, Tio, as often as he needs so he is working as a lesson pony. I snuck out to watch one the other day, and he was having a great time with a giggling young girl taking him over some poles. This helps keep him trim and he loves all of the attention from his adoring students.
Remember to be patient when it comes to weight loss. You should work with a PhD nutritionist or a veterinarian if your horse is obese or if you suspect metabolic issues, but it is generally better to make small changes. This keeps your horse’s digestive system steady and will make it easier to determine the correct amount of feed your horse needs to maintain their target weight.
To summarize, the two key aspects to weight control are managing food intake and exercise. Because forage makes up the bulk of the diet, it’s worth your time and efforts to get that dialed in. Pair the right forage with an appropriate feed and a few laps around the arena, and your horse will be well on their way to a 5 BCS! If you need help with an appropriate feeding program, reach out to us here or here to visit our product selector!
Now get off your computer and get on your horse! I’ll see you at the barn!