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Supporting a Healthy Weight in Horses

Horses with elevated body fat are at greater risk for many health problems including insulin resistance, equine metabolic syndrome (EMS), laminitis, abdominal fat tumors or lipomas, joint and bone complications, reduced reproduction efficiency and cardiac stress leading to exercise intolerance. Keeping horses within a normal body condition range is advantageous to health and performance.

Understanding Body Condition Scoring

Understanding the body condition score (BCS) of a horse can be a helpful tool to monitor general weight. Body condition scoring is based on criteria from the Henneke Body Condition Scoring System and categorizes horses within a range of 1 through 9, with 4-6 being the normal range. A BCS of 7 is generally considered overweight; BCS of 8 is fat and 9 is extremely fat. Both BCS 8 and 9 are considered obese. A recent survey at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine found that a staggering 51% of the horses had a BCS that was greater than 6 and would be considered fat. Furthermore, of those considered fat, 19% had a BCS of 8-9 which is considered obese.

Amongst other disease states, obesity is a key risk factor in Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS), described as metabolic and endocrine abnormalities resulting in insulin resistance and laminitis susceptibility. Horses with EMS are typically overweight and may show regional adiposity. Body fat can cluster in particular regions such as a cresty neck, fat going down the spine or over the tailhead. It can also be seen on the shoulders, chest and even over the eyes. When body fat is elevated, it increases circulating insulin levels which can lead to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance can be a major factor in the development of the debilitating disease, laminitis.

Download Body Condition Score Chart

Simple Solutions

Many cases of overweight horses have to do with an imbalance between energy intake and output. Simply stated horses are fed more calories than they burn off in exercise. Knowing how much a horse weighs can be very helpful in figuring out how much the horse should be consuming for energy. Some veterinary clinics have walk-on scales for horses which can give a horse owner a very accurate number for weight. However, a simple body weight tape also allows for a good estimate as well.

To support weight loss in a horse, he must consume less calories than he is burning. Restriction or elimination of grains and concentrates is encouraged. Good quality hay at a reduced rate of 1.5% the horse’s body weight is a healthy way to encourage weight loss. Testing the hay for sugar and starch content may help tailor the diet; hay with less than 12% NSC is good for horses needing to lose weight. Putting hay in a slow feeder can allow the horse access to small amounts of fiber throughout the day which is critical for gut motility. Supplement with a source of omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamin and minerals such as Platinum Performance® Equine to balance the forage-based diet. Any dietary changes should be made slowly, over a 7-10 day period.

Exercise is extremely beneficial to support weight loss. Exercise burns calories which facilitates weight loss and boosts lean muscle tissue. Building muscle increases the horse’s metabolic rate which is the rate that he burns energy at rest. Exercise also increases insulin sensitivity. If horses have been sedentary for an extended period of time, they need to slowly be introduced to increased levels of exercise. Start with simply increasing walking and build up over weeks to increased movement and intensity.

Targeted Nutrients to Support Weight Loss

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Can help support normal, healthy levels of inflammation and healthy insulin levels. In contrast, excess omega-6 fatty acids can be a detriment to most horses, especially those that are overweight.

Chromium & Magnesium

Critical nutrients in glucose metabolism, with the potential to help move glucose into cells where it can be burned for energy.

Carnitine

A nutrient that supports glucose utilization and insulin sensitivity, while helping to transport fatty acids into the mitochondria of the cell where they are converted to energy.

Learn More About Metabolic Health

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