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Fighting Obesity in Horses: Cold Weather as a Diet ToolBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · December 3, 2016

The onset of winter provides relief for horse owners that must contend with easy keepers. Strict feeding strategies, such as the daily use of grazing muzzles and restricted access to pasture, often yield to more relaxed management approaches as consumption can be more easily monitored.

One critical element of this tactic involves pasture decline. During the growing season, pasture can wreak havoc on an easy keeper’s waistline and can predispose a horse to metabolic mayhem, least of which is life-threatening laminitis in the short run and body-wide problems, such as insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, in the long run. As fall segues to winter, pasture stops growing, and little risk comes to obese horses that graze dormant grasses.

“One remarkable point about metabolic problems in horses revolves around the concept of year-round obesity versus seasonal obesity,” explained Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., a nutritionist with Kentucky Equine Research (KER). “Metabolic problems, in my experience, seem to affect horses that are consistently obese, season after season, more often than those whose weight fluctuates with the time of year and forage availability, much like horses lived through in the wild.”

How can owners of obese horses take advantage of this seasonal benefit? Keep these tips in mind:

  • Know your horse’s body condition. By having a clear vision of how much fat he carries in certain regions, you can better gauge weight loss throughout the winter. Even though he might be wooly in his winter coat, take photographs each week to document his weight. With camera phones, it is simple to snap and organize photographs. Be sure his coat is in the same state of fluff during each photo session, so comparisons are more consistent from week to week.
  • Get a baseline body weight and record weekly. Whether you use a weigh tape to track fluctuations or an electronic scale, try to weigh your horse each week. Note this weight with the appropriate photograph, so now you have two measures of body metrics.
  • Continue a forage-based diet. Depending on the size of the paddock or pasture, horses can derive a great deal of energy from dormant pasture, so resist the urge to throw hay to obese horses if there is plenty of dried forage available in the grazing area. An overweight horse grazing a well-managed 10-acre field might not require additional forage until snow falls. Crandell offered one caveat, “If you’re unsure if a dormant pasture can sustain a horse, check with an equine nutritionist. The premise of this weight-loss strategy involves making sure overweight horses have sufficient forage for gastrointestinal well-being without overconsumption of calories.”
  • Modify diet as weather patterns shift. Horses should not be expected to root or dig for forage in inclement weather. “If snowfall covers pasture grasses, offer overweight horses minimum of 1% of body weight in mid-quality hay. Should temperatures nosedive into the single digits (Fahrenheit), increase hay to 2% of body weight until temperatures rise or snowmelt occurs,” advised Crandell.
  • Supplement all-forage diets. A forage-only diet does not supply all of the nutrients necessary for optimal health. For these horses, a ration balancer or vitamin and mineral supplement provides a concentrated source of nutrients in a low-calorie form. Though recommendations vary among products, ration balancers typically are fed at 1-2 lb (0.45-0.9 kg) per day, while vitamin and mineral supplements, such as Micro-Max (or Gold Pellet in Australia), are fed in smaller amounts, mere ounces.

“Winter offers a great opportunity to knock off unwanted weight. I know how easy it is for horse owners to view their pastures in the off-season as brown seas of unusable forage, but that doesn’t have to be the case. For many horses with weight problems, allowing them to graze dormant grasses is a healthy compromise,” Crandell summed up.