Monday, August 1, 2011

Keeping Horses Lean

I don't like to see any "points" - hips, sacrum, shoulder - on my horses, but I don't want them to be fat, either.  My objective is for them to be lean, well-muscled and fit. I like to be able to feel the last rib or two as I run my hand along their barrel, and I'd like to see a suggestion of ribs when they're in motion.  And I certainly don't want to see any accumulation of fat over the loins, a thickened crest on the neck, or tailhead fat, or fat on the belly in front of a mare's udder (what I call a "pooch").

Here's Maisie from a few years ago displaying tailhead fat - notice that bump in the smooth curve from the high point of the rump down to the tail:

and a "pooch":

Why do I care that my horses not get fat?  Just as with people, when a horse is fat it puts extra stress on joints and soft tissues, making injury more likely, and being fat can predispose a horse to metabolic problems (particularly if the horse is genetically primed), including insulin resistance and foot problems such as laminitis.

So, what can I do to keep my horses at a healthy weight?  First, reduce or eliminate concentrated feeds - most pleasure horses do not need much if any grain, and even a horse in heavy work will benefit from nutrient-dense but low NSC (non-structural carbohydrates that are easily digested) feeds, and some of these feeds are also high fat.  My horses get a vitamin and mineral balancer pellet that is formulated for our area, and rice bran or beet pulp if needed in winter for weight maintenance.  Quality forage is the foundation of a good diet for horses.  Oils can be good, but they very widely in their omega 3/6 ratios.

Second, maximize movement.  The more turnout the better, and regular work on the line and/or under saddle is desirable.  I'm wrestling a bit with the turnout situation right now - due to the amount of grass we have - way more than our tiny herds need - 24/7 turnout was leading to undesirable weight gains, particularly for Dawn.  (I don't like it when someone meeting my mare for the first time tends to ask: "When is the baby due?")  My horses are generally stalled for part of a 24-hour period - right now this tends to be during the day due to the heat - and get a controlled portion of hay during this time.

Pie's looking good right now - he's only on the grass part-day and in a dry-lot paddock the rest of the time.  Drift was starting to chub up, but now that he's on solo turnout he's on a sparse pasture for part day and in a small paddock with minimal grass the rest of the time, and I've been riding him regularly, so he's starting to look better.  Dawn is frankly fat, although she doesn't have the dreaded tailhead fat or a crest (yet), so I've reduced her hours of grass turnout to control her intake.  More riding would help her as well.  All three get good-quality grass hay spread through the day so they're eating small meals continuously, which is how horses are designed to eat.

We're keeping an eye on the "battle of the bulge"!


  1. Weight management is important - for humans as well as horses. Our two horses are out 24/7, but since we live in the high desert there's no grazing for them. We feed twice a day - in the early morning and early evening. I know that constant grazing would be more natural, but it's not feasible in our circumstance. For us, weight management is easier in the summer than the winter, but I guess that's probably the case with many horses.

    We give our horses a very small amount of grain (rolled barley) as a carrier for their supplements - ground flax, Quiessence (used for weight management for our Icelandic Horse who's a very easy keeper), Fastrack (probiotic), and diatomaceous earth (parasite control).

    Thanks for the post.


  2. We are smack in the middle of the worst drought I've ever experienced. There is little except a few crispy nubs of grass. Hay is simply not available locally, or if it is, it's old and of such poor quality, I wouldn't feed it.

    We feed an extruded pellet feed the primary ingredient of which is alfalfa. Beet pulp and grass minerals are added. So far, all the horses at the farm still look good. That said, we still have August in front of us.

    I'm of the "feel ribs but can't see them" school.

    For all intents, mine are turned out 24/7.

  3. We struggle with this issue with some of our horses. Those who tend to gain weight have grazing muzzles and the others have free grazing rights. They are out all day and since the property is rolling they get lots of exercise walking from the back fields to the front for water.

    Blue is my fattest so he's getting the most work now under saddle. Everyone else is in good weight. It's important to watch their weight so they don't develop problems. Good post.

  4. Timely post Kate, as this is something I'm kind of struggling with too. Bonnie has her typical "grass belly" but I don't ride her as much as I should, and frankly she's been heavier - far heavier.

    Rosie though - Draft horses are so different then "normal" type horses. It's hard for me to determine what is "under weight". What I think looks good, my trainer says "she could use a couple hundred more pounds". She is well muscled from all the riding (hours a day, at least 4 or 5 days a week) and in my opinion looks better than she ever has. She is NOT skinny LOL! She is still 1800 to 2000 pounds of beautiful power. I feed her four pounds (2 in the morning/2 evening) of rolled oats with two squirts of flaxseed oil, 12 hours of grazing, decent grass pastures, and 1/3 bale of hay in her stall during the day.

  5. Good post, all my horses (except jamaica) are out on pasture 24/7. But our pastures are big (over 100 acres) ant they move around alot out there, maybe not enough to really excersize, but at least they are moving. They are all a little on the chubby side, but not to the point I would worry about them being fat, I can still feel ribs and mostly they are more out of shape than fat.

  6. I struggle with this topic everyday, but on the flip side. My problem is putting on the weight. I feed grass hay because the vet recommended it but then I also feed sweet feed, cracked corn, beet pulp mash, and oil, in varying amounts, to all my horses. I want to go back to feeding straight alfalfa hay and forget feeding all the extra feedstuffs. I'm going broke feeding my horses and still they look thin.

  7. Fantastyk Voyager - a couple of things you might want to check, that can result in trouble keeping weight on (assuming you've got worming and teeth covered) - thyroid levels can affect weight, and in a senior horse, consider Cushings. You might want to give rice bran a try - a lot of horses like it and it's good for putting weight on. And there are some good high fat feeds like Ultimate Finish (and others) that will put weight on without the carbs in sweet feed.

  8. Yep, good post. My lot, are on a small hillside, the ground dries fast, poor grass, and get a couple of pounds of rolled Barley each a day. I hate to see fat or thin horses, and try to keep mine "just so", but they swing up and down, this year has been the best. I think I have got it about right, Gracie has enough weight, can feel her ribs, but they are`nt visible, no neck crest, yet she has good coverage on her rump. Sunny, has a reallly good look about her now. But gonig into the winter, I like the horses to have some condition.

  9. It's so hard to keep them the correct weight. It's nice to know everyone else struggles and not just me! My horse is out over night but has to come in for a few hours in the day to have a break from the grass, he is slowly getting back down to a good weight!

  10. I share Fantastyk Voyager's challenge. Ultium (high fat/low carb), wet beet pulp, and probios help my guy, but if there is a drop in hay quality he drops weight just as fast. He is strong and healthy, but it can get frustrating when most people are used to seeing a "6" or higher on the condition scale. At least I know that his joints are not suffering. ;)

  11. good post. it always depends on the horse of course... exercise, metabolism. I've found that when you're trying to put on weight, if a horse's exercise stays the same, it takes at least 2-3 weeks to notice a change... have you noticed this? of course we also have a horse who can put on a belly faster than it takes me to shut the door to the feed room!
    - The Equestrian Vagabond

  12. I find it easier to control weight in the winter than the summer; free choice grass hay in the winter, and they come out perfect but in the summer they bulk up because of the grazing. Lately my chubby girls have been restricted to a half day of grazing and I'll reevaluate after a couple of weeks. Beamer is doing fine though. No grain at all for any of them, but since weaning is coming up, I want to put Rio on a supplement.


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