Summer Slim-Down (for a Belgian horse)

Q: I have 9-year-old Belgian gelding that I'm trying to slim down for showing this summer, but I do want to make sure he is getting all of his nutritional requirements, especially for the winter. He has free-choice access to pasture, which I know is not good, but we don't have the facilities or time to do scheduled time on pasture. He is pretty idle for a draft horse, but he does do more work in the summer. So, can you give me some ideas for a feeding regimen?

Megan Kelly, Jefferson, Ohio

A: The following questions need to be answered for an accurate discussion of this gelding's diet:

  • Is pasture the only component of this horse's diet, or is he receiving grain, concentrate, or supplements?
  • In what geographic region is this horse located?
  • Does this horse have any special health considerations such as equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) or equine polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM)?
  • What is the current (Henneke) body condition score of this horse?
  • What level of exercise will this horse be working toward?

Providing nutrition through grazing can serve many positive functions. The constant slow ingestion of forage as the horse moves around throughout the day helps maintain ideal peristaltic gut activity (characterized by wavelike muscular contractions) and minimizes the risk of common equine ailments such as gastric ulcers, respiratory disease, and colic. The difficulty in using pasture as the primary nutritional source lies in the inconsistency in nutritional value of different pastures throughout the seasons.

Good-quality forage should serve as the foundation of every equine diet. The horse needs to ingest at least 1% of his body weight in forage for proper gut function. Grains, concentrates, balancer pellets, and supplements can be used when deficiencies are present in the forage component of the diet. The only true way to know the nutritional value of the forage in a horse's diet is to analyze it. Analysis of this horse's pasture would be necessary to determine if the grass meets his nutritional requirements. Specific supplementation to account for deficiencies caused by the pasture could then be implemented in the horse's feeding program. In the case of an overweight horse, use either a balancer pellet or specific vitamin/mineral supplement to correct the diet without adding digestible energy that would cause weight gain.

One specific mineral that warrants some discussion is selenium. Many soils are selenium-deficient, leading to the need for supplementation. On the other hand, some areas of the country have plants with excessive selenium levels. Your soil's selenium level would be a good topic to discuss with your veterinarian, as oversupplementation of selenium can be toxic.

Accurately assessing your horse's body condition will be essential in determining how aggressive you need to be with his weight loss program. It will also be a good way to determine ideal weight once you have started this horse back into training. (The Henneke) scoring system for assessing body condition evaluates fat (accumulation or lack of) over six different areas of the horse. The neck, withers, shoulders, ribs, loin, and tailhead can be assessed and given an overall score from 1 (poor) through 9 (extremely fat). A score of 5 is ideal. A horse with a body condition score of 6 or 7 may correct to a 5 with an increase in exercise. A higher scoring horse will need more aggressive dietary restriction of digestible energy in addition to the exercise. If this gelding is overweight from pasture alone, providing exercise or decreasing intake will be the two options for weight loss. Exercise is the better option. A grazing muzzle to slow down consumption could be used, being careful not to restrict this horse to the point where the 1% forage requirement is jeopardized. Decreasing or eliminating grain or concentrate from this gelding's diet will be a big help in decreasing his digestible energy consumption. Again, conducting a pasture analysis would be necessary to ensure other nutrient requirements are being met.

As this gelding goes back into training, his diet will have to be adjusted accordingly. The body condition scoring system provides good reference points for these decisions. A sweating horse will also need salt supplementation--at least 1 ounce per each hour of sweating.

Special metabolic concerns such as EMS warrant further discussion with your veterinarian. A rich pasture may not be the best choice for a horse with this condition.

About the Author

Cindy Sharp, DVM

Cindy Sharp, DVM, is an Associate Professor of Equine Studies at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I.

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