June 21, 2021
Overweight in horses is a subject high on the agenda of many Friesian horse owners. Friesian horses are so-called good-doers and that means they are prone to overweight. Dr. Anneke Hallebeek is a veterinarian and has specialised in equine nutrition. In an article featuring in the July issue of Phryso she explains how overweight develops and what can be done about it.
We’re in the middle of the grass season and many horses, at least during day-time, are out grazing in lush, green pastures. By now most horse owners have realised that horses cannot be kept in stables 23 hours a day, with just an hour’s exercise in the indoor arena. Horses are active animals that need constant movement and in their natural habitat they travel many kilometres per day, foraging all the time by nibbling away at some grass here and some herbs there. The way in which horses are kept in the Netherlands is a far cry from their natural conditions, but many horse owners do their best to fulfil their horses’ natural needs as much as possible. And that’s quite tricky, Dr. Anneke Hallebeek acknowledges: ‘We would all like to give our horses unlimited access to hay or grazing so that they can eat all day to prevent problems with the digestive system, such as stomach ulcers. But most horses will develop far too much overweight when they can eat all day long. Since grazing on a very close-cropped field is unhealthy for both horse and field and rich pastures are too much for most horses, doing the right thing is not always that easy.’
When is a horse considered to be overweight? Hallebeek explains: ‘A horse with overweight has too many fat reserves. These fat reserves are partly situated in the abdominal cavity, which makes them invisible from the outside. Fat reserves under the skin however, are clearly visible and can be felt too.’ What you can do is take a good look and test if you can feel too many fat reserves under the skin. You can do this by putting your hand on the horse’s rib cage: ‘You must instantly feel the horse’s ribs under your fingers. If you really need to push to be able to feel the ribs, then the fat layer is too thick. You should be able to feel the ribs but not see them, is an old, but still very apt equine saying .’
Anneke Hallebeek explains: ‘Overweight develops when the relation between energy intake and energy need is out of balance. Energy needs obviously differ in individual horses. The energy need depends for instance on training but also on age, a growing youngster needs more energy and a mare that’s nursing a foal also needs adequate nutrition.’ Hallebeek often comes across owners who overestimate their horses’ energy need: ‘Horses that are trained under saddle for just an hour per day don’t really need extra feeding. They do fine on just grazing and/or good-quality hay and maybe an extra supplement for vitamins and minerals.’
Step up training
If your horse is a bit too heavy then you are keen to find out what to do about it. As with people, it’s all about keeping an eye on intake and exercise. ‘If a horse is overweight then it’s not an option to make drastic changes to your feeding regime,’ Hallebeek warns, ‘that can definitely upset the horse’s digestive system. The most effective way to make a horse lose weight is by burning fat, so more intense training is the key. By stepping up the intensity of the training the energy need increases. If you still keep feeding your horse the usual rations then it will lose weight.’