Feeding the "Fatty"
by Dr Nerida Richards
Problem: You have an overweight horse.
Question: What should you feed it to get it to lose some weight and keep it healthy?
Answer: A restricted calorie diet that still meets protein, vitamin and mineral requirements.
How: Read the rest of this article to find out.
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 ‘fatty’ 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 wholegrain vitawheat 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 (doesn’t really matter which one, I generally will do whichever is longer, so over winter, I use the night, and over summer, the day). 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 forage
Because you are restricting your horses 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 one in the photo right (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 is really up to you and your horse. For a 500 kg horse grazing decent pasture for 12 hours a day, a 2 kg piece of hay to eat during ‘lock-up’ time is enough.
3. Add some high quality protein to the diet
While you need to restrict your horses 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 (available as Pryde’s Protein Pak) contains the best quality plant protein available. You only need to add a small amount (2 cups 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 horses 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. Pryde’s 300 Pellet lends itself well to the fat horse’s diet as it is fed at less than 100 g/day and has everything they need to stay healthy. It is also on a soybean base which gives you the added benefit of providing some high quality protein as well as the vitamins and minerals.
Through experience with my horses over the years (I have somehow ended up with all easy keepers!) I have found that on the diets they consume, their coat quality is often not that great (good, but not great), even though they are on well balanced diets with all their protein, vitamin and mineral requirements met. I started to ask why a few years ago and discovered that it was likely due to a lack of oils, and more specifically the omega fatty acids in the poor quality forage diet they were being fed. I suspect this is the case with most horses kept on a “Jenny Craig” type diet. Adding a ¼ of a cup of oil that contains both omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids (I use the Pryde’s Easi Oil which is 100% cold pressed canola oil that contains both omega 3 and 6) 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.
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 (this is the my horse Quilla is on at the moment … she is your typical, almost always overweight Galloway).
1. Restricted access (either with grazing muzzle or locked up overnight) to moderate quality pasture (stalky, mature but green kikuyu).
2. 65 g/day 300 Pellet
3. 40 ml/day EasiOil
4. 1 dipper good lucerne chaff
5. Free access to salt lick
(she also gets 50 grams each of limestone and dicalcium phosphate to prevent bighead on the tropical pastures)
If she was on dry brown pasture or stalky, poor quality hay I would also add some full fat soybean (2 cups per day) to this diet. However at this stage the protein quality in the grass is good enough for her. With a little bit of exercise 3 or 4 times a week this diet works well in keeping the weight off her.
This is Quilla with her muzzle on. She is a little podgy here as this was just after she had the Equine Influenza, so she hadn’t been exercised for a while and she had had 24 hour access to pasture without a muzzle (to keep her head down and nasal passages drained). You can see why she needs a muzzle!
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 with problems like:
§ Insulin resistance
§ Increased bone and joint wear and tear
§ Lack of mobility; and
§ Heat stress
being seen at increased levels in overweight horses. 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!
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