Feeding the easy keeper

The mistake a lot of us make with an overweight horse is just thinking that we shouldn’t feed it very much at all, and generally feed it a very low quality diet (straw for example) or lock it up so it can’t eat much at all. The problem with doing this is that while you will do a good job of restricting calories and causing weight loss, you will also be severely restricting protein, vitamin and mineral intakes, and in doing that, you are going to cause more health problems than you can imagine.

To feed your ‘easy keeper’ a restricted calorie diet without compromising its health you should do the following:

  1. Restrict access to good quality pasture or forage
    Because most pastures nowadays are designed to fatten cattle or sheep, they are now more like double chocolate mudcake than high fibre Allbran for horses, meaning horses grazing them will usually become grossly overweight. Thus we need to restrict their access to the pasture. You can do this in one of two ways. First, you can lock your horse up over a night or day period off the pasture or you can put a grazing muzzle on your horse. I like the muzzles as they allow your horse to be out wandering around and interacting with herd mates without having access to massive quantities of feed. It also still allows the horse to have its head down and be chewing all day which helps keep their gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts nice and healthy.
  2. Provide access to very low quality hay
    Because you are restricting your horse’s forage intake at pasture (or if your horse has no access to pasture) it is essential that you do fill your horse up with a high fibre forage. Suitable forages include weather damaged lucerne hay, cereal crop straw or a very, very mature or weather damaged grass hay like the stalky pasture hay in the photo (be careful to ensure all are mould and contaminant free).Your horse’s intake of pasture will determine how much extra forage you have to feed. Around 2% of your horse’s bodyweight (10 kg for a 500 kg horse) should be the minimum you feed to a horse with no access to pasture. If your horse does have access to pasture you should feed less than that, but the amount really depends on your horse and the quality of your pasture. Use FeedXL to work out how much hay is needed to meet your horse’s feed intake requirement, without overfeeding digestible energy.To extend the amount of time it takes the horse to eat its hay and help prevent boredom, put the hay into 2 or 3 hay nets as this makes it harder for the horse to pull it out and eat, so will keep the horse chewing for a lot longer.
  3. Add some high quality protein to the diet
    While you need to restrict your horse’s calorie intake (by restricting access to pasture and feeding low quality forage) you need to make sure that you still meet their protein requirements. Failure to meet protein requirements can result in muscle wastage, poor hair coat and terrible hoof quality.Full fat soybean or soybean meal contains the best quality plant protein available. You only need to add a small amount (up to 400 grams per day for a 500 kg horse on a diet of poor quality hay) to help maintain hoof and coat quality and avoid muscle wastage. You can also add a small amount of lucerne hay or chaff to the horse’s diet to add some quality protein.
  4. Ensure vitamin and mineral requirements are met
    It is essential you do not compromise the overweight horse’s health by restricting vitamin and mineral requirements. Adding a low dose rate vitamin and mineral supplement to an overweight horse’s diet will meet their vitamin and mineral requirements without adding unneeded calories to the diet. You should look for a ‘complete’ vitamin and mineral supplement that is fed at a dose of less than 100 g/day.
  5. Oils
    Over the years I have found that horses on restricted diets often lack shine in their coats, even though they are on well balanced diets with all their protein, vitamin and mineral requirements met. This is likely due to a lack of oils, and more specifically the omega fatty acids in the poor quality forage diets they are being fed. Adding a 1/4 of a cup of oil that contains both omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids (for example canola or soybean oil or commercial oils with added omega 3) to their diet per day will make sure they have their essential omega fatty acid requirements met to keep their skin and coat nice and healthy.
  6. Salt
    All horses should have constant access to a salt lick and easy keepers are no different. Always make sure your horses can get to salt. It should also go without saying that they must have constant access to clean, fresh water.

An example diet

To give you an idea what a well balanced diet for an overweight horse should look like, the following is an example diet for a 500 kg easy keeper:

  1. Restricted access (either with grazing muzzle or yarded overnight) to average quality pasture.
  2. 2 kg/day (approx 4.5 lb) poor quality meadow hay
  3. Up to 100 g/day (approx 3.5 oz) of a balanced vitamin and mineral supplement
  4. 60 ml/day Canola Oil
  5. 250 g/day (approx 9 oz) good quality lucerne chaff
  6. Free access to salt lick

If the pasture quality was ‘poor’ (dried, brown with seedheads present) some full fat soybean would be used to provide quality protein.

Why bother trying to get the weight off

What we often don’t recognise is that being overweight for a horse carries just as many health problems as it does for humans. In overweight horses we see increased levels of:

  • Insulin resistance
  • Laminitis
  • Increased bone and joint wear and tear
  • Lack of mobility; and
  • Heat stress

It is worth the effort putting together a diet for your overweight horse as he or she will be all the healthier for it. Just giving them poor quality hay or straw or locking them in a tiny dirt paddock is not a solution to weight problems. Remember, you must restrict the calories but provide for all their other nutrient needs, otherwise you will end up with a skinny, but very unhealthy horse!


Photo copyright © Nerida Richards – Equilize Horse Nutrition.

This newsletter by Dr. Nerida Richards was originally posted to the FeedXL user forums for FeedXL subscribers in September, 2009. If you would like be among the first to receive our newsletters then please consider subscribing to FeedXL.

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