I have an obese 15-year-old draft-cross gelding that I ride four or five times a week (two two-hour trail rides per week and then light to medium arena work on other days). Though he is sound, his sluggishness under saddle is frustrating. I thought his lethargy was due to arthritic changes, but a course of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications has not improved his energy. He is fed bright green hay (about six flakes a day) and a token cup of senior feed to mix with his vitamin/mineral and joint supplements. I wish he could go out to pasture, but he gains weight easily, and the farrier worries about him foundering. Can you help with a weight-loss diet?
Your current feeding program is providing appropriate nutrition for your gelding. Most of the calories are being supplied by the hay offered. To reduce caloric intake to facilitate weight loss, you may need to select a lower calorie hay. It is important to offer good-quality hay that is clean without obvious signs of mold, debris, or dust, but choosing more mature hay (lower caloric content) is more appropriate for many easy keepers compared to softer, immature hay (higher caloric content). Having forage analyzed is helpful in assessing the hay’s suitability based on starch and sugar values and digestible energy (caloric content).
Regarding his listlessness, have you considered that your gelding may be comfortable with you and the work you ask of him? Perhaps his slow demeanor is his new comfortable as he ages? Some horses have a laid-back temperament and use the least amount of energy necessary to complete the task. These horses tend to act like this year-round.
Being managed on a drylot with access to just hay can be boring due to reduced environmental stimuli. Some horses may respond with a decreased interest in their surroundings that may impact their performance under saddle. Does your gelding have companionship? Have you considered allowing him limited turnout (0.5-1 hour) with a grazing muzzle to see if this improves his mood and energy level? Restricted grazing is recommended for overweight horses and those with certain metabolic conditions, but consult with your veterinarian to see if a small amount of turnout would be allowable for your horse. Providing environmental enrichment encourages foraging behavior, which reduces boredom and keeps unwanted stable vices at bay.
Horses on all-forage diets should be fed a source of essential vitamins and minerals. By feeding a ration balancer or a vitamin/mineral supplement (Micro-Max or Gold Pellet in Australia), you can be sure all of your horse’s nutrient needs are met.
Because the arthritis treatment did not improve the sluggishness, you may want to discuss with your veterinarian about the possibility of testing for PPID. I suggest this based on his age and that poor performance and behavioral changes, such as dullness and lack of energy, have been identified as early signs of PPID. Identifying any underlying metabolic conditions can help develop an effective management and treatment program that will encourage weight loss and keep him at an ideal body condition score.
Supplementation with long-chain omega-3 fatty acids can be beneficial to help reduce inflammation and support healthy glucose and insulin responses. Kentucky Equine Research (KER) offers a high-quality fish oil, EO•3, which is a rich source of DHA and EPA. Adding EO•3 to the current diet may help if he is experiencing discomfort from arthritis.
When introducing a fish oil product, it is best to do so slowly, adding just a bit more each day until a full serving is reached 10-14 days after beginning. Most horses will readily consume EO•3 once accustomed to the novel taste.
Another consideration for horses with restricted access to forage is digestive health. Does your gelding display any signs of digestive discomfort? Offering a daily digestive buffer, such as RiteTrac or EquiShure, is recommended for horses on low-forage diets to support optimal health and function.
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