Horses are designed to digest high-fibre
forages that are low in sugar.
An “easy-keeping horse” is one that can live on apparently little food. Easy keepers tend to be found most often in breeds originally developed to survive under harsh conditions. Most pony breeds are easy keepers, and hardy horse breeds such as the Arabian, Morgan, Fjords, and foundation-type quarter horse have this trait.
Many draft breeds are easy keepers, as are most mules and donkeys. The ancestral heritage of these horses has been metabolically adapted to survive in harsh, low-nutrient environments. When overfed with a rich, modern diet, the easy keeper is prone to obesity and other health problems.
Easy keepers are not always easy to distinguish from a normal horse that is too fat from simple overfeeding. However, an easy keeper will gain weight quicker and lose weight slower than an ordinary horse, and when fed a standard diet will gain, rather than maintain, weight.
Modern horse-keeping practices are a challenge to such animals leading to a number of health problems, including obesity, Cushing’s disease, insulin resistance, blood sugar imbalances, equine metabolic syndrome, and laminitis or founder. Fat deposits are held in reserve for when they will be needed – which is basically never in today’s lifestyle. These horses develop stubborn fat deposit along their tail head, overtop the orbits of their eyes and/or their necks, creating a cresty neck. Advancing clinical symptoms include failure to shed their winter coat in a timely manner, voracious appetites, abnormal sweating, long, curly hair coats, increased thirst, muscle wasting, and often founder.
Horses are designed to digest high-fibre forages that are low in sugar. Modern agricultural practices have selected for grass varieties that are the opposite – high in sugars and low in fibre. These grasses were chosen because they produced weight gains in beef cattle and increased milk production in the dairy industry. These type of feeds persistently elevate blood sugars in horses causing metabolic and hormonal imbalances. This is the root of many health problems.
Low-sugar, high-fibre feeds and time-limited grazing are nutritional keystones for the easy keeper. Fresh spring grass, late-fall grass that has been exposed to a light but not killing frost, overly grazed fields and drought-stressed pastures will tend to have high levels of frutan and non-structurals carbohydrate (NSC). These sugar groups are lowest in healthy summer and early-morning pastures. Other sources of high sugars are grains, processed feeds, and some supplements.
When choosing hay for horses, choose mature first-cut hay with large and numerous seed heads. These hays will appear browner.
Rainshowers are a convenient way to dissolve excess sugars. Sugar content in hay can be reduced up to 30 per cent with one good shower. When forage analysis is available, strive for NSC values between 10 and 15 per cent and protein values between eight and 10 per cent.
Returning the easy-keeping horse to seasonal weight flux is of immense benefit. Weight loss on summer pastures is difficult, yet weight loss during the winter season on well-stocked, snow-covered pastures is natural. Pawing integrates both movement and an ideal diet. The horse eats less and moves more. Movement is an asset to every horse, even more so for the sensitive easy-keeping horse.