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Weight Loss in Horses
Revised: December 31, 2020
Published: July 09, 2007

One of the major health problems in humans as well as many domestic animals is obesity, and horses are no exception. Horses that are overweight have more problems with arthritis as they get older and also have poorer performance than horses at a normal weight. Also, horses that are overweight are more likely to develop laminitis and founder, which is a major and potentially deadly problem. Some horses are overweight because they are simply fed too much or have access to large amounts of lush pasture while some are more susceptible to gaining weight because they are insulin resistant. Regardless, getting them to lose weight is critical and is not easy to accomplish and today I am going to talk about methods to help your horse lose weight.

Horses evolved eating very small meals by grazing about 16 hours of a 24-hour day and in most cases, horses are not fed in that manner today. Many horses are kept in stalls and are fed two meals a day, which is not the best method of feeding horses. Certainly a restricted diet is necessary but for a horse to lose weight, they must be fed about 60 percent of their maintenance requirements. You may be surprised by this but just decreasing calories by a small amount may prevent weight gain but will not cause weight loss to occur. So again, you would want to feed about 60 percent of the amount a horse of healthy weight would eat at an ideal weight. When feeding smaller amounts, one thing that will help is to feed in a hay net with small openings. Researchers at the University of Minnesota conducted a study that revealed horses fed on the ground ate twice as fast as those eating out of hay nets with small openings, and the longer it takes the horse to eat, the more natural it is for them. They eat less and also have a decreased chance of developing stomach ulcers.

Lush pastures can be a problem for horses as the pastures are high in carbohydrates and can cause horses to gain weight quickly.  A recent study out of England indicated that horses and ponies that gain weight are more than twice as likely to develop laminitis than if they lose or even just maintain their weight.  Laminitis is a painful and potentially deadly foot condition that develops in horses and can lead to founder.  The study revealed that British native pony breeds and horses and ponies with a history of laminitis as well as those with foot lameness or soreness after trimming were more susceptible to laminitis with weight gain.   The study included over 1,000 horses over a 2.5 year period. Horse owners weighed their horses routinely with a special weight tool and estimated a body condition score. 

They also found that horses were at a greater risk of laminitis when shod or trimmed at intervals longer than 8 weeks and those horses required a longer time to respond to treatment.  Make sure your horse’s feet are trimmed at least every 8 weeks, in most cases.  Future investigations need to be started concerning the use and effect of grazing muzzles and the length of time a susceptible horse can safely graze and not develop laminitis.  It was also found that some horses gained weight even when the owners were trying to get them to lose weight so it is important for horses owners to use a method to weight their horses and not just try and determine weight from observation.  

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