Feeding to Achieve a Moderate Body Condition

Every horseperson has seen the telltale signs of a thin horse: the disproportionately skinny neck, the protruding spine, the row of ribs, and the jutting hipbones. Thanks in part to advances made in feeding management, veterinary care, parasite control, and dentistry, educated caretakers can fatten horses safely and easily. But when is it time to switch from a "weight-gain" diet to a "maintenance" diet, and how can the diet be altered in the safest way possible for the horse?

Most equine veterinarians and nutritionists use a body condition scorecard to determine a horse's need to lose or gain weight. Scores range from 1 to 9, with 1 denoting extreme emaciation and 9 signifying obesity. Most healthy horses have body condition scores between 4 and 6. This is not to say, however, that healthy horses cannot be thinner or heavier, and certain life stages (e.g., a lactating mare with higher energy requirements) might prompt scores outside this range.

Examples of horses that are typically thinner than ideal include athletes that are frequently asked to perform strenuous exercise, aged broodmares in the first two to four months of lactation, and horses recovering from illness. In these cases the horses are incapable of consuming sufficient calories to fuel both weight gain and work, regardless of whether the work involved is actual performance, growth, lactation, or tissue repair. Yet once the workload is reduced (less strenuous exercise or weaning of a foal, for example), weight gain can be accomplished.

A body condition score of around 5 seems to be most appropriate for the majority of horses: sufficient fat cover so that ribs cannot be seen but can be felt, with no excessive fat deposition around the shoulders, over the withers and topline, or around the top of the tail.

Diets formulated for weight gain often contain high-quality forages and concentrates that are rich in energy. As with any species, horses gain weight when they consume more calories than they use. Once a horse has reached his target weight and a condition score of around 5, it is time to rethink his ration, as a continuation of the weight-gain diet can lead to obesity.

The first components of a weight-gain diet that should be removed are any high-calorie supplements. Feed additives rich in fat such as vegetable oils and rice bran are widely used to pack on pounds, but as the horse reaches an ideal weight, high-calorie supplements should be tapered off gradually.

The next consideration is the amount of concentrate, as it delivers more calories per pound than forage. Owners should carefully read the feeding instructions that appear on the feed bag. In order to ensure the horse receives optimal vitamin and mineral nutrition, he should consume at least the minimal amount indicated.

For instance, if the feeding instructions state that a mature horse in light to moderate work should be fed six to eight pounds per day, the minimum that can be fed is six pounds without risking nutritional deficiencies. If less than six pounds are fed per day, a well-formulated vitamin and mineral supplement can be added to make up for nutrient deficiencies caused by the lower grain intake. If this horse were eating eight pounds of the grain in order to gain weight, reducing his consumption by one-half to one pound per day (accomplished over the course of several days) should lead to a slower rate of gain, or even equilibrium.

If the horse maintains his body condition on this new amount of feed for several weeks, further reduction by another half pound per day is warranted. If owners are feeding less than the recommended amount, feed manufacturers can suggest a low-calorie feed that will supply the horse with the required protein, vitamins, and minerals.

The final part of the diet to consider is the forage. For most horses, a combination of hay and pasture make up the forage allotment. It is not unusual for horsemen to add alfalfa to a diet for weight gain because the legume contains more calories per pound than grass hays. Once moderate body condition is achieved, alfalfa can be removed from the diet and good-quality grass hay can be fed.

In some cases, horses might have access to lush pasture. As long as the pasture is introduced slowly (increasing by half-hour increments per day to be safe), calorie-rich pasture grasses can do much to increase body weight. As the horse reaches a desirable body condition, grazing might have to be limited if he continues to gain weight. Reducing grazing time or using a grazing muzzle might be appropriate for a horse that tends to get too fat on pasture.

All changes made to a horse's diet should be accomplished over a period of several days to avoid health problems such as diarrhea, colic, or laminitis. A step-by-step approach to instituting changes in a diet will help horse owners keep their formerly underweight charges in moderate body condition.

Owners should contact a reputable equine nutritionist or veterinarian if a particular nutrition question or problem arises.

Article reprinted with the permission of copyright holder Kentucky Equine Research (KER). Visit www.ker.com for more horse health and nutrition information.

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