Winter is the ideal season for healthy weight loss in horses

Horse Health: Hay nets are a good way to prevent horses from overfeeding during the colder months

Is your horse carrying too much weight? The answer to this question is an important order of business, and best asked at the beginning of the winter season.

If the answer to this question is yes then the winter season is the ideal time to implement intervention. Weight loss is far easier in the colder snow-covered months when the horse’s metabolism is already working to that effect.

Stored body fat from the summer months, when the forage is good, acts as insulation and reserve energy for times when forage isn’t so good. Although it is appropriate for horses to gain fat stores during the spring and summer seasons, it is equally appropriate, if not essential to their health to lose those fat stores in the winter.

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Fat stores that continue to remain on a horse’s body year after year without loss become stale, hard, and a source of inflammation.

In the natural course of seasonal flux, horses would lose weight over the winter. It is extremely challenging to initiate weight loss during the summer months when pastures are rich and lush. Winter months provide the ideal window of opportunity offering four to six months of slow, effortless weight loss.

It is of advantage to offer such to the domestic horse. If your horse doesn’t lose any weight through the winter, there is no room for natural weight gain in the spring and summer.

The Henneke body condition score (BCS) system developed to assess fat cover on animals has been widely used for many years and is appropriate for use by veterinarians, horse owners, and caregivers.

This system scores horses on fat cover — visually and by palpation — at several locations on the horse’s body. A score of 1 applies to an emaciated horse and 9 applies to a very fat horse.

Generally, horses with BCS of 1 to 3 are considered underconditioned; 4 to 6, optimally conditioned; 7, overconditioned; and 8 to 9, obese. If your horse scores 7, adjustments made at the beginning of the winter season pay dividends for a leaner, healthier horse in the spring.

The simplest practice for weight loss in horses is winter grazing or pawing on well-stocked snow-covered pastures. These pastures easily meet the nutritional maintenance requirements of the adult horse.

The weather washes the sugars out of the grasses yet has little effect on its protein values. One can supervise their horse’s progress by tracking its body condition.

Placing your hands on the horse’s body, to feel through its thick winter coat, will tell you whether its condition is adequate.

It is acceptable to feel the ribs. It is not acceptable to feel backbone. Generally, horses that are three years of age and under, 25 years of age or older, heavily pregnant mares, and horses with dental problems are poor candidates for winter grazing.

If winter foraging is not an option for your horse, winter still remains the ideal time to limit feed for your horses. Central to weight control is simply not to overfeed.

Do not feed grains to horses that do not need it. For situations that require weight loss one could eliminate all grains, alfalfa hays, and processed feeds and move towards reducing available grass hays by up to 10 per cent. Weighing your hay on a scale provides a good benchmark for feeding an accurate amount of hay to your horse. A good starting point is 1.5 to 2.0 per cent of ideal body weight. Spread the hay out in as many feedings as possible. Followup assessments of your horse’s body condition allow further decisions to be made accordingly.

Creatively placing hay about on fresh blankets of snow provides a clean ground surface for horses to feed and can influence their movement. Feeding areas can become quite small in the winter and any means to influence greater movement in the horses will bring it benefit.

Round bale feeding is a common practice for a number of horses. If this is the chosen practice it is advisable to limit the time available for the horses to feed as some horses with unlimited access will quickly consume up to 40 pounds of hay within a day, while expending little energy to do so. Body conditions soar quickly, especially in mild winter conditions.

The introduction of creative designs for slow feed netting has brought a unique solution to considerably slow down and reduce a horse’s forage intake. It also contains the hay and eliminates waste, bringing benefit to both the horse and the owner.

Straw from cereal crops are not grasses and although horses can survive on these feeds there are better choices for healthy weight loss.

The provision of fresh clean water and appropriate minerals and salt will also be necessary to balance out the diet.

About the author


Carol Shwetz is a veterinarian focusing on equine practice in Millarville, Alberta.

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