Chronically obese horses face daunting task to lose weight

December 5, 2011

A handout titled “Assessing energy balance” by the University of Kentucky looks at the overweight horse’s nutritional needs. In the section titled “My horse is too fat,” it says quick weight gain in a horse is easier to turn around than chronic overweightness. For example, a horse whose diet wasn’t reduced when it quit exercising has an easier time losing that weight than a horse that has been obese for a long time. The chronically obese horse likely has some lameness issue that may have been caused by being fat, so it’s dietary needs are very low, meaning it’s difficult to reduce a diet enough to get this horse to lose weight.

The article gives a lot of numbers, unfortunately in kilograms, but it basically says that a normal horse should consume 1.5 percent of its body weight, or 15 pounds of food for the 1,000 pound horse. To lose weight, the horse has to cut back. We’ve done the numbers-crunching too many times, and it all comes down to how many calories are in the feed you are feeding, with hay having a lot of variables.

But, here’s what I found interesting in this article and not in a good way. It says a horse being given fewer calories has lower maintenance requirements because all the things associated with eating — chewing, digestion, nutrient absorption and pooping — are reduced. So, if you reduce the feed for your horse, the horse’s calorie requirements are even lower and you have to reduce the feed even more to get the weight off.

Adding insult to injury, as the horse loses weight, those needs to go down even further. So, a horse that’s on an extreme diet isn’t going to get to come off that diet if it wants to maintain that weight.

Not surprisingly, the article cautions that feeding a low enough level of food for the obese horse to lose weight might not be the best for the digestive track or the horse’s mindset.

And, it suggests rather than restricting average quality hay, feeding a low-calorie hay. A three-hour search online of “low calorie hay” will get you nowhere. Look for more material on that in the next post.


Editor’s note on June 15, 2015:

I wrote this post before reading Juliet Getty’s post on treating the insulin resistant horse. I no longer think counting calories is a good way to treat a laminitic horse. Read Getty’s article for an excellent summary of everything that goes wrong in the insulin resistant horse and how to approach treatment.

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