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Is Your Horse Too Fat?

By: Ann Compton

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Battling my mare's bulge has been an uphill fight that I am thus far losing.

I am partly to blame because I feel bad when I feed the other horses and skimp on Topaz's portions. On the other hand, my 'horse-and-a-half,' has turned the - "How-can-you-do-this-to-me-when-you-know-I'm-starving" – routine into an art form. She nickers affectionately when her barn-mates are fed, paws for attention and stretches her nose around her stall guard, gingerly removing tendrils of hay from her neighbor's mouth.

Ironically, it was tough to put weight on Topaz from the time she was a yearling until we moved her home to live with us when she was 7. We struggled to beef her up while she lived at three boarding barns, adding supplements and changing grains among other things. But as soon as she became queen of her own barn, she blew up like a balloon.

How Do You Know Your Horse Is Too Fat?

The physical signs include a slight crease down the back, spongy fat palpable over the ribs, accumulation of soft fat pads on the tailhead, and the beginnings of fat deposits along the withers, behind the shoulders and all along the neck.

The ribs are still palpable at this stage but it's difficult. When horses get fatter it becomes very difficult or even impossible to feel the ribs. The fat along the neck, withers, shoulder and tailhead are obvious. There is an enlarging crease along the back. At this point, a normally 1,000-pound horse is getting up near 1,100 to 1,150 pounds.

Tips to Keep The Weight Off

There are no diet pills or low-fat foods to help the hefty horse slim down. You just have to reign in the food and exercise the animal. It's really a function of calories in and calories out. The problem is that adipose tissue (fat) is very dense: only 10 percent to 20 percent is water. The rest is just plain fat. It is more dense than protein or carbohydrates, so it requires a great amount of work to get rid of.

Here, however, are a few suggestions to help get your horse on the path of health and happiness:

  • Before you begin a weight reduction program, have your veterinarian check your horse's thyroid. A thyroid deficiency may cause a horse to be overweight, although this is probably a rare cause. In most horses with obesity, the thyroid cannot be implicated, and it is important not to over-interpret thyroid (T3 and T4) levels in the blood.

    Many things falsely decrease T3 and T4 levels, such as phenylbutazone. Horses with Cushing's disease, due to the effects of cortisol, may also have decreased thyroid levels.

    On the other hand, if your horse seems strangely fat but you have NOT been feeding too much, and the values of these hormones are very low, there may be a problem. Horses with obesity and laminitis are an example of a subset of horses that appear to have real hypothyroidism. In any case, if thyroid hormones are low, and you've ruled out overfeeding and under-working as the cause, supplementation with thyroxine may expedite your diet plan. This drug must be given under the supervision of a veterinarian.

  • Grass is a big culprit in putting the pounds on horses. It is very difficult to diet a horse that has free access to pasture. I must say that when Topaz is out to pasture she never lifts her head – unless she hears the music of the grain bucket being filled. You can confine the more plump horse to a mud or dirt paddock if possible during all, or part, of his turnout time. Unfortunately, this may result in chewed fences if the horse is easily bored.

  • Hay presents still another conundrum. "Just don't feed as much" is the advice commonly given. But we also are told that, when kept in the stall for prolonged periods of time, hay helps to stave off boredom as well as performing the very important task of keeping the digestive system working – a must to prevent colic. In the past I have split flakes in half and fed hay sparingly when there is grazing grass nearby. Topaz retaliated by poking her head over the stall door and snatching hay from her barn-mate's mouth. When he occasionally popped up empty-mouthed, however, she repaid his previous kindness by biting him.

  • Many articles on equine weight reduction recommend the elimination of all grain from the chubby horse's diet. My veterinarian disagrees, noting that if your hay is not top quality, your horse may be missing essential nutrients. The most likely nutritional deficiency from poor quality hay is vitamins, especially vitamin A, which can be supplemented. My veterinarian suggests cutting the grain ration down as much as possible. I feed 1 pound twice a day of 11 percent pellets – and still Topaz's girth expands.

    If you reduce grain intake, do it gradually so your horse can become accustomed to the change. Read the ingredients on the back of the feedbag, too. Some grains are higher in fat than others. And feed grass hay instead of alfalfa, which is higher in caloric content. Make sure that your horse continues to get a salt block and plenty of water.

  • Experts say that slimming down a horse requires a balancing act of exercise and feed management. I think the key thing missing from my mare's weight reduction program is adequate exercise. When I work her rigorously she is trimmer and content, and I can feed her normal portions – which makes us both feel good.

    In fact, most veterinarians agree that the major culprit in obesity in horses is inadequate exercise, coupled with feeding the horse like an athlete. Moderate exercise has several beneficial effects, including a mild reduction in appetite over time, the conversion of adipose (fat) tissue to energy, improved fitness and less boredom and preoccupation with eating.

    Ride consistently, but don't overdo it. Avoid heavy gallops and too much jumping until the horse has lost weight. Jumping puts additional stress on the legs of heavy horses. Stick to energetic walking and as much aerobic trotting as your horse can handle. You will know when your horse is losing weight because he or she will be more eager to step up the workouts.

    Horses are, of course, different from humans. But they react to weight problems in a similar manner. Those trotting around with extra poundage usually like to binge and are prone to being pasture potatoes. And, like us, they need some incentive to look better and feel fit. They'll be happier when they are - no matter how they resist.

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