Wellness Wednesday - Fit not Fat: Balancing a Healthy Weight in Performance Horses

Photo: Rebecca Arnold
Photo: Rebecca Arnold

A couple of years ago a European dressage judge who was judging for the first time in the US, looked out to the warm up arenas and commented to the scribe: “there are a lot of fat dressage horses in America.” The number of fat horses in the US is increasing; whether they be dressage, pleasure, or show hunters, according to the Maryland Cooperative Extension at the University of Maryland. Horses with a high body fat percentage are at greater risk for laminitis, hyperlipidemia, heat stress, oxidative stress, increased stress on joints and connective tissue, and decreased athletic performance.

Two studies, one conducted in 1998 by the National Animal Healthy Monitoring System reported a 5% prevalence of obese horses. A study done in 2006 by the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech reported 51% of the 300 horses in the study were overweight or obese.

The BCS scale (Body Condition Scale) measures the amount of fat a horse stores on his body  including the neck, withers, shoulders, ribs, loin, and croup.  The BCS ranges from 1 (extremely thin ) to 9 (extremely fat). Horses store fat when they are consuming more calories than their bodies can use. Most horses need to be maintained on a BCS of 5-6. Performance horses and elite equine athletes need to be maintained at a body score of 4-5 to avoid carrying excess amounts of fat that can inhibit performance.

Reducing sugars in the horse’s diet is one step to attaining and maintaining a healthy BCS score. Sugars are everywhere in the equine diet, including supplements. Because so many ingredients in equine supplements are made in laboratories with various petro-chemical derivatives, sugars have to be added for some degree of palatability.  

Switching to feed that contains no molasses, soaking hay, and using grazing muzzles are excellent ways to help your horse to a healthy performance weight.   Seek feed that is minimally processed so that your horse gets the nutritional benefit of whole food and the inherent fiber, nutrients and enzymes.

Increasing the exercise routine of overweight horses is paramount to attaining and maintaining a healthy weight. Giving a good school in the morning, and then going for a walking hack in the afternoon will burn more calories. Access to tred mills, aquasizers, swimming are all excellent ways to burn more calories, increase fitness.

Using nibble nets and Snack A Balls are great ways to control the hay consumption of horses that eat hay like Hoover vacuum cleaners. The horse’s digestive system needs to eat 22 hours a day, so when a horse goes without hay or forage for over a few hours the insulin and blood sugar levels can become imbalanced, which will tell the body to store more fat, not burn the fat. For the horses that gobble their hay these nibble nets and Snack A Balls help the hay to last a longer time, thus cutting down on fasting time.

Dressage horses are athletes and we need to feed them as athletes not as couch potatoes!