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Horse Weight Loss Requires Diet Changes, ExerciseBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · March 6, 2017

Mirroring the epidemic in humans, the number of horses suffering from obesity continues to increase at an alarming rate, primarily due to excess nutrition and lack of exercise. One way to lose weight, regardless of species, involves restricting caloric intake. According to a recent study*, however, dietary restriction alone isn’t a cure-all.

“Excess body weight and inactivity both contribute to inflammation in the adipose tissue—setting up the horse for a dangerous, body-wide pro-inflammatory state and insulin resistance (IR). Both of these are major predictors of metabolic dysfunction, including equine metabolic syndrome, which is associated with laminitis,” explained Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., an equine nutritionist for Kentucky Equine Research (KER).

Although caloric restriction alone can result in weight loss, new data show that dietary changes alone may not be sufficient to reverse metabolic dysregulations that accompany excess body weight.

Research in rats* revealed that animals fed a high-fat diet and exercise-trained had improved insulin resistance and exhibited more frequent spontaneous physical activity compared to animals that underwent caloric restriction alone. In other words, insulin resistance persisted in the non-exercised rats despite those animals losing weight and adiposity (fat stores) during the study.

“These data suggest that exercise alone has metabolic benefits that can’t be achieved with weight loss alone,” Crandell said.

If your horse is not currently suffering from any musculoskeletal injuries or bouts of laminitis that necessitate stall rest or inactivity, consider some of the following exercises to get started:

  • Hand-walking;
  • Longeing or long-lining;
  • Hill training;
  • Interval training (trotting for 30 seconds, recover for 30 seconds, repeat); and
  • Light hacks or trail riding.

It is important to introduce exercise slowly to ensure your horse stays sound. Recall that “light” exercise is defined by the National Research Council as only 1-3 hours of exercise per week involving 40% walk, 50% trot, and 10% canter. This amount of exercise is typical of horses involved in recreational riding and those starting a training program.

To support your horse’s joints when embarking on a training program, consider KER•Flex, which contains high-quality glucosamine HCl and chondroitin sulfate in a palatable powdered formula, to provide broad-spectrum support of joint health. Synovate HA helps manage horse joint health proactively by preventing the loss of hyaluronic acid. In Australia, look for Glucos-A-Flex.

*Welly, R.J. T.W. Liu, T.M. Zidon, et al. 2016. Comparison of diet versus exercise on metabolic function and gut microbiota in obese rats. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 48(9): 1688-1698.