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Weight Management Over the Summer Months

Weight Management Over the Summer Months

Horses that are overweight or obese are more likely to develop disorders and diseases such as laminitis, equine metabolic syndrome and insulin dysfunction. Excess body weight can also result in poor performance and increases the incidence of muscle strain, as well as osteoarthritis and other joint issues.

It’s our responsibility as horse owners to manage excess weight and reduce the risk of weight related health issues occurring.

However, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to equine weight management, so a more tailored approach is required to craft a weight management strategy that works well for you and your horse.

Weight management during the warmer months is especially difficult as your horse won’t have to use as much energy to keep warm as they do in the winter. Nevertheless, there are some benefits to dieting in the summer. A hot summer with little rain, for example, is great for dieting as there is little grazing and longer days meaning more time for exercise.

In this blog, we offer a range of ideas to help you create an effective weight management strategy that doesn’t leave your horse feeling bored and achieves results, even throughout the summer.

Health Implication Research

Before we begin looking into some of the simple, effective ways you can help manage your horse’s weight, it’s worth noting that you should never reduce your horse’s total daily feed intake (including estimated grazing, hay or haylage if offered, and bucket feed) to below 1.5% of their current body weight without first seeking veterinary advice.

You should also discuss finding a high-quality vitamin and mineral supplement with a vet or nutritionist, as horses on restricted diets still require a balanced diet.

To avoid the risk of your horse developing ulcers or colic, always ensure adequate amounts of fibre are provided. You may also need to take additional care and use a supplement such as psyllium if your soil is sandy, to ensure that sand colic is avoided. This is another area that’s worth discussing with your vet.

Recent research on restricting grazing shows that horses on weight management programmes which allow the horses to eat significant quantities in short time periods (e.g. horses that wear a grazing muzzle and only have it removed for a few hours on long grass, or those only allowed a few hours’ turnout) are at a higher risk in comparison to horses who have constant access to heavily restricted grazing.

We also recommend a gradual approach to any changes you plan to make to your horse’s diet or work should be taken in order to avoid gastro-intestinal disturbance or injuries.

Weight Management Strategies

There are four core areas that weight management strategies fall into; we’ve outlined the key areas of focus for each one so you can consider where effective changes can be made in your individual circumstances.

Grazing Reduction

Reducing grazing by either time or quantity involves making changes to the area your horse or pony grazes. Several options are outlined below to enable you to assess which would work best for your particular circumstances.

Paddock Configuration

What are your options?

  • Install a strip grazing system to restrict the amount of grass accessible
  • Consider a limited grass paddock
  • Keep horses on a track system which encourages greater activity.

What should you be aware of?

  • Safety with an electric fence
  • Supplementary forage such as low nutrient hay or haylage to provide extra fibre may be needed if grazing is severely restricted.
  • Social isolation can be stressful for horses so try to keep them in the same field as their friends wherever possible

Choice of Paddock

What are your options?

  • Rotating grazing by body condition – horses who don’t have weight issues should graze a paddock before those who need controlled grazing.

What should you be aware of?

  • You’ll need multiple horses to make sure the grass can be kept short
  • An appropriate worming and poo-picking programme is also essential

Choice of non-grass paddock

What are your options?

  • Yard or dust turnout, or a fenced school surface when not being used for exercise

What should you be aware of?

  • Supplementary forage will be needed to avoid ulcers or colic
  • You also need to consider implementing environmental enrichment to make sure your horse doesn’t become bored

Paddock Capacity

What are your options?

  • Increase the number of horses in any one paddock to reduce the amount of grass. This strategy will require careful ongoing management and assessment to ensure minimal but adequate grazing/fibre is available to all individuals in the group

What should you be aware of?

  • To ensure safety, make sure groups get along with one another and keep an eye out for bullying
  • Make sure an appropriate worming and poo-picking programme is in place

Type of animals in paddock

What are your options?

  • Co-graze horses or ponies with other animals such as sheep

What should you be aware of?

  • Implement an appropriate worming programme

Time at grass

What are your options?

  • Reduce the amount of time your horses are allowed to graze (e.g. stabling, yard turnout, etc.)

What should you be aware of?

  • Reducing turnout can do more harm than good for some horses, especially older or arthritic horses as a result of the limited movement
  • Environmental enrichment should be considered to avoid leaving your horse or pony feeling bored
  • Replace grazing/grass with supplementary forage

None of the above

What are your options?

  • Grazing muzzle

What should you be aware of?

  • A grazing muzzle may not be suitable for some horses. It’s essential to assess their behaviour to ensure they are not stressed
  • Laminitis can be induced with binge eating behaviour after the mask is removed
  • You need to ensure the horse can eat and drink effectively
  • It’s vital that the mask is removed daily

Supplementary Feed Changes

Another area you could focus on to manage your horse’s weight is the supplementary feed you offer.

Bucket Feed, Including Supplements

What are your options?

  • Consult a nutritionist to discuss nutritional needs based on age, health, workload and condition
  • Routinely re-assess feed and supplements to ensure they continue to meet requirements

What should you be aware of?

  • Ensure the overall daily diet is based on forage, with minimal bucket feed often only required to mix the necessary minerals and vitamins and/or medications
  • Make sure your horse gets enough food (at least more than 1.5% of the current bodyweight)
  • Limit the risk of health problems such as ulcers and colic by ensuring regular access to forage

Supplementary Forage

What are your options?

  • Discuss forage type and requirements with a nutritionist
  • Conduct a forage analysis to find out the nutrient and WSC content
  • Calculate the appropriate weight of forage required to meet both fibre requirements – both for gut health and motility and the psychological need to chew.

What should you be aware of?

  • A vitamin and mineral supplement may be required to ensure a balanced diet on a forage based regime.

Type of Supplementary Forage

What are your options?

  • Seek advice from a nutritionist
  • Conduct a forage analysis to find out the nutrient and WSC content
  • Some overweight horses benefit from swapping from hay to haylage or vice-versa, or using a low-calorie hay replacement
  • For a very low calorie option, oat straw can also be mixed in with other forage

What should you be aware of?

  • Commercial fed companies do offer nutritional advice, but independent nutritionists can provide advice on feed and supplements across a range of different companies
  • Haylage weighs more than hay because of the additional water content, so more weight needs to be fed in comparison to hay. You should adjust the weight of forage according to % dry matter and consult a professional if you require any assistance
  • Ensure your feed is weighed, use luggage or spring balance scales to weigh your haynet
  • Ensure high quality straw is used and is introduced into the diet slowly
  • Fresh water should be available at all times

Soak Hay

What are your options?

  • Soak forage to reduce the sugar content

What should you be aware of?

  • Consider all of the points listed above
  • Though research findings vary on the optimum time,  it is generally recommended forage should be soaked for 6-12 hours if possible
  • Each haynet will require fresh water for soaking.

Slow Forage Intake

What are your options ?

  • Use a trickle net or double-net hay
  • Divide the forage into several sections and place it in different areas to encourage foraging
  • Use purpose-built toys such as a Hayball

What should you be aware of?

  • Consider all of the points listed above
  • Observe your horse closely as some horses can become stressed with difficulty accessing forage
Additional strategies

Natural Thermo-Regulation

What are your options?

  • Avoid using rugs unnecessarily or consider using lighter weight to allow your horse the opportunity to burn calories naturally by keeping themselves warm.
  • Give your horse a trace or hunter clip

What should you be aware of?

  • Consider the horse’s age, type, hardiness, body condition and the amount of natural or artificial shelter available when deciding whether to rug less, not rug at all or clip your horse. It’s vital that the horse has appropriate shelter from the elements.

Encourage Foraging on Low Calorie Forage

What are your options?

  • Horses in the wild will typically walk long distances to find forage. Get creative to encourage increased movement and foraging behaviour at home
  • Encourage movement while foraging by using rougher grazing land, woodland (if trees are safe), tracks or yard areas
  • Hang portions of supplementary hay from bushes, trees and in hay-balls, etc.

What should you be aware of?

  • As a result of the limited choice of forage, dieting horses can face boredom and depression. To combat this, get creative with food sources. As an example, you could try splitting some of the forage ration into several haynets to hang in different areas.

Exercise Increase

Adapting the amount and way you exercise your horse will have a positive impact on their weight over time.

Riding/Driving

What are your options?

  • Set challenging but achievable goals
  • Plan fun rides at locations such as farms or beaches, etc.
  • Track the speed and distance of rides with an exercise app
  • Find a sharer or pay a professional to help if you have limited time

What should you be aware of?

  • Build up exercise gradually to avoid injuries. Walking at a smart, forward pace for gradually increasing length of time will build fitness and increase weight loss. Gradually introducing trotting and cantering will help your horse burn more calories. If you’re unsure of what your horse is capable of, you should consult your vet or a professional instructor for more information on exercise and training
  • Track your progress over time by noting the times you ride and how long for

Medium Energy Non-Ridden Exercise

What are your options?

  • Driving
  • Lunging
  • Long-reining
  • ‘Pony’ from another horse (ride and lead)
  • Advanced equine agility
  • Advanced in-hand dressage
  • In-hand hacking or jogging with your horse

What should you be aware of?

  • Group together with a friend to plan activities with each other, share a riding diary and motivate each other
  • Team up with others for transport-sharing
  • Slowly build fitness over time
  • Seek support from a trained instructor
  • Consult a vet to discuss what your horse is capable
  • Wear a hat and hi-vis even if you’re doing activities from the ground
  • Join online clubs or take part in monthly challenges

Gentle Non-Ridden Exercise

What are your options?

  • Horse-walker
  • Basic agility
  • Basic in-hand dressage
  • Gentle in-hand hacking with horse
  • Basic long reining

What should you be aware of?

  • Consider all of the points listed above

Increase Field Movement

What are your options?

  • Use a track system
  • Encourage movement by increasing enrichment in field

What should you be aware of?

  • Ensure the field is set up in a manner that is safe for the horses
  • Make sure the herd get along well with each other to reduce stress and any risk of injuries

Common Issues

There are a few common barriers that you might experience when attempting to manage your horse’s weight over the summer months, however, many of these issues can be overcome with simple solutions.

Are You Short of Time?

One of the most common barriers to sticking to a weight management plan during the summer months is a shortage of time, but there are a variety of options if you find yourself too busy to stick to a proper plan by yourself.

For example, you might want to find a sharer or pay a professional to help you school or hack your horse. Alternatively, you could find someone you can pay to help you out with yard chores and give you more time to spend exercising your horse. Another option that might work for you is to rearrange your horse’s routine to allow more time for exercising; this might include sharing chores with another horse owner or altering your turnout times.

Although it might be challenging to find someone you trust enough to help you care for your horses, it’s not impossible. Ask around for recommendations for professionals and sharers to find someone reliable.

Are You Unable to Restrict Grazing or Exercise?

For overweight horses or those with laminitis or equine metabolic syndrome (EMS), exercise for weight management is often out of the question and a yard can seem perfect in every way but still not be right for your horse.

 If you’re not able to restrict grazing on your yard to help you manage your horse’s weight, you may want to consider moving somewhere that it’s easier to prioritise your horse’s health.

You could also consider finding other horse owners with overweight, laminitis or EMS horses who you can work with to create a mutually beneficial setup in one yard.

Are You Doing Everything Right but Still Not Seeing Any Weight Loss?

It can be difficult to know what to do when you’ve tried a variety of strategies and exhausted all of your options, but your horse still doesn’t seem to be losing any weight.

Some horses take a little longer than others for results to be visible, so be patient and continue with your strategy for at least a month before reassessing your tactics.

If you’re still not seeing results, you might consider consulting a veterinary professional or qualified equine nutritionist to discuss alternative strategies.

If you are still concerned with the lack of weight change, you should consider consulting a vet for professional advice. The trouble you’re having managing your horse’s weight might be the result of a metabolic condition like EMS, which will require veterinary assistance.

Are You Struggling to Assess Your Horse’s Weight?

Many horse owners find it really difficult to assess their horse’s weight.

To make this easier, you could ask a vet, farrier, instructor, saddler, nutritionist, physio or any other professional to help you condition score your horse or team up with a friend to condition score each other’s horses.

It can be difficult to have completely honest and transparent conversations about weight, so make sure that whoever is helping you condition score knows that giving you their honest opinion is the best thing they can do for you and your horse.

How to Measure Your Horse’s Weight Change

For accurate progress tracking, it’s important to measure weight changes at regular intervals. Pick a significant day in the calendar that you’re likely to remember, such as the first day of the month or the day you get paid.

There are several different methods you can choose from to measure your horse’s weight changes, you might choose one or a combination of a few, but it’s important to stay consistent with the methods you use to gain an accurate view of the impact your weight management plan is having.

Weight Tape

Using a weight tape is a very quick, simple and effective tool for measuring weight change over time and is often used alongside Body Condition Scoring (BCS). Put simply, it involves using a weight tape or a piece of string to measure your horse’s girth area.

Body Conditioning Scoring (BCS)

Body Condition Scoring is a formalised, universal numerical scale used to assess the amount of body fat a horse has based on visual characteristics.

The scale spans from one to five, with one being very poor and five being very fat, three is generally considered to be a healthy weight.

BCS is great for assessing gaining an appropriate assessment of your horse’s body condition at a specific point in time as well as measuring change over extended time periods (e.g., several months).

It’s also a suitable method for an accurate assessment of the amount of body fat your horse has, rather than its overall weight.

However, it can sometimes be tricky to judge the scoring of a horse, especially on heavier breeds or horses with Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID). You might want to enlist an impartial friend to help you be objective in your assessments.

This method is also best suited for long-term weight management programmes as it can take a while for changes to be visible at BCS level.

Photographs

Photographing your horse is one of the simplest methods of measuring your horse’s weight change over time, however like BCS, it takes a while for major changes to be visible and it is best suited for measuring change over a longer time period.

When taking photographs of your horse, use the same angles each time and ensure the horse is standing squarely on flat ground for accurate comparisons.

Weighbridge

A weighbridge is a user and horse friendly method of determining the exact weight of a horse. This is the most sensitive method and is often used in conjunction with BCS to make accurate comparisons with previous, future or ideal weights.

Weight Calculation

Using a weight calculation is much more accurate than a weight tape and more convenient than a weighbridge. It’s also useful for measuring weight change over longer time periods and can be used in conjunction with BCS.

You’ll need two people for this method as it requires you to measure the horse’s body length, neck and girth circumference with a tape measure. You’ll then need to use one of the following formulas to calculate the weight:

(weight in kg) = (heart girth2 x body length) / (11,880 cm3)

An alternative formula to calculate the weight of the horse in pounds is:

(weight in lbs) = (heart girth x heart girth) x body length / 330

Your Horse’s Wellbeing

Now that we’ve covered how to monitor and track your horse’s weight over time, it’s worth stressing how important it is to also monitor your horse’s physical and mental wellbeing.

If you have any concerns about how your horse is doing, don’t hesitate to consult an equine professional who knows you and your horse well. This might be your instructor, vet or farrier.

It’s also vital that you continue managing your horse’s diet carefully once the desired weight has been achieved so that all your hard work isn’t wasted.

Check out our wide range of high fibre forage and horse feeds here or if you have any questions about how to manage your horse’s weight this summer, please don’t hesitate to contact us directly on our helpline 01803 527274.

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