Study: Fat Ponies Will Work for Food

Study: Fat Ponies Will Work for Food

With the feeder on, ponies walked for almost two hours twice daily, traveling an average of 3.7 times more than when they did not use the dynamic feeder.

Photo: Melody de Laat, BVSc, PhD

Roly poly ponies might be cute, but they’re at risk for a number of potentially life-threatening health conditions, such as equine metabolic syndrome and laminitis. Key to preventing obesity and its sequela are appropriate management strategies, including dietary restrictions and exercise. Of course, finding the time to exercise a pony—one that might be too small to ride—can be a challenge for some horse owners.

But it turns out, some ponies might be willing to work themselves … as long as there’s food involved. In an innovative study, researchers in Australia tested a novel dynamic feeding device and studied whether exercise alone could effectively decrease body fat.

Melody de Laat, PhD, BVSc, of the Queensland University of Technology, in Brisbane, and colleagues employed eight mixed-breed ponies with body condition scores (BCS) of five or greater (on a 9-point scale). The ponies consumed diets including lucerne (alfalfa) hay fed at 2% of body weight and a vitamin-mineral supplement divided into two meals. The researchers housed the ponies in individual drylot paddocks, each of which contained a custom-made dynamic hay feeder with two sliding doors that opened alternately on each side for five minutes. This allowed the ponies access to hay set in an internal hayrack, but required them to walk to the other side to continue feeding.

The team collected data on each pony when the dynamic feeder was on (alternating doors) and off (one door open, not forcing movement). De Laat and colleagues used GPS tracking devices to measure how far the ponies traveled each day. They also determined the ponies’ body weight, BCS, cresty neck score (CNS), and insulin sensitivity before and after each treatment phase. They collected percent body fat data only during the “feeder on” treatment.

With the feeder on, ponies walked for almost two hours twice daily, traveling an average of 3.7 times more than when they did not use the dynamic feeder. This achieved the team’s goal of inducing persistent low-intensity exercise, de Laat said.

Additionally, ponies’ average BCS decreased from 6.53 to 5.38, CNS decreased from 2.56 to 1.63, and body fat percentage decreased by 4.95%.

Initially, the dynamic feeding system did not appear to influence ponies’ insulin sensitivity. However, the team noted that three particular ponies weren’t as food-motivated as others and did not eat from the dynamic feeder consistently. Because this might have influenced the results, the team removed the data from these ponies and evaluated the remaining information again. This time, they found that insulin sensitivity did improve with dynamic feeder use.

Take-Home Message

In combination with a restricted diet, consistent low-intensity exercise associated with a dynamic feeding system decreased body fat percentage, BCS, and CNS in obese ponies. Additionally, the dynamic feeding system could improve insulin sensitivity.

“Low-intensity exercise of enough duration can be difficult to achieve in ponies that are not ridden regularly, if at all,” de Laat said. “The dynamic feeder enables a pony owner to exercise their pony without longeing or walking the pony.”

Having said that, she added, if owners don’t have access to a dynamic feeding system they could consider walking their pony by hand—just bring him along on the daily dog walk.

“It is also important to make sure that the pony is pain-free before an exercise regime is started,” de Laat cautioned.

The study, "Sustained, Low-Intensity Exercise Achieved by a Dynamic Feeding System Decreases Body Fat in Ponies," was published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine

About the Author

Kristen M. Janicki, MS, PAS

Kristen M. Janicki, a lifelong horsewoman, was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Animal Sciences from the attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and later attended graduate school at the University of Kentucky, studying under Dr. Laurie Lawrence in the area of Equine Nutrition. Kristen began her current position as a performance horse nutritionist for Mars Horsecare, US, Inc., and Buckeye Nutrition, in 2010. Her job entails evaluating and improving the performance of the sport horse through proper nutrition.

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