Practical Tips for Managing Obese Horses and Ponies

Practical Tips for Managing Obese Horses and Ponies

Promote weight loss and help improve insulin sensitivity via dietary restriction (i.e., muzzle use or turning out in a drylot with restricted access to hay).

Photo: Erica Larson, News Editor

As every busy horse owner knows, it's not easy picking and sticking to a weight loss program, be it for us or our horses. Although many of us have been educated about maintaining our horses at an appropriate body condition, pasture after pasture is still filled with fat horses and ponies.

"Part of the problem is that dietary guidelines and suggestions need to be practical if they are to be instituted and adopted," explained Pat Harris, MA, PhD, VetMB, Dipl. ECVCN, MRCVS, head of the Equine Studies Group at WALTHAM Center for Pet Nutrition at the 12th Congress of The World Equine Veterinary Association, held Nov. 2-6 in Hyderabad, India.

According to Harris, "The best way to manage an obese horse or pony is to prevent it from becoming obese in the first instance. It is imperative that owners recognize that their horse is obese then initiate a diet and management plan that includes regular monitoring and reviewing."

Key practical management strategies of obese/overweight animals include the following:

  • Promote weight loss and help improve insulin sensitivity via dietary restriction (i.e., muzzle use or turning out in a drylot with restricted access to hay);
  • Increase physical activity (where possible);
  • Avoid certain feeds that can exacerbate insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia (such as grains, high starch containing feeds and "lush" pasture forages); and
  • In some cases (and with a veterinarian's advice) treat with levothyroxine sodium or other medications, although the efficacy of all of these has yet to be proven.

"Currently, diet and exercise modification remain key to any management plan," emphasized Harris. "Any weight loss program needs to be targeted to the individual animal and a process to monitor and review during and after the weight loss has been achieved must be established."

But don't go overboard, cautions Harris: "The absolute maximum weight loss per week we recommend to try and achieve is 1% body weight after the first week. A more realistic, but often still challenging weekly target is 0.5%/week after the first week, which is equivalent to 20 kg for a 500 kg horse after about eight to 10 weeks."

A full summary of the presentation titled, "How can we practically manage obese horses and ponies? A review of current knowledge," will be available for free on the International Veterinary Information System.

About the Author

Stacey Oke, DVM, MSc

Stacey Oke, MSc, DVM, is a practicing veterinarian and freelance medical writer and editor. She is interested in both large and small animals, as well as complementary and alternative medicine. Since 2005, she's worked as a research consultant for nutritional supplement companies, assisted physicians and veterinarians in publishing research articles and textbooks, and written for a number of educational magazines and websites.

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