Kentucky Equine Research (KER) Horse Management Tips
Signs of autumn are all too familiar to horse owners—well-stocked haylofts, brown pastures, and a thicker haircoat. Seasonal changes affect how we care for horses, from both nutritional and comfort perspectives. Browse through the following collection of horse-management tips from Kentucky Equine Research, Equinews Nutrition & Health Daily, a world leader in equine nutrition.
Focus on Weight
Horse owners monitor weight almost subconsciously through frequent handling – perhaps the cinch is a bit snug, the blanket may be rubbing in places it hadn’t before, is more padding required under the saddle? When changes are noticed, dietary adjustments may be necessary to keep horses at optimal body condition.
Stick With Condition Scoring To Manage Your Horse’s Weight
While many owners do not worry about their horses’ body weight, others fret and fuss, altering diets and exercise regimens to maintain optimal body condition. But how do you know when you’ve reached your goal?
There are several options for measuring body fat: scoring body condition, measuring rump fat thickness plus other methods necessitating special equipment.
Unlike rump fat thickness and laboratory methods, body condition scoring is a quick and economical method of assessing body fat. Questions remain, however: Does body condition accurately reflect body fat? Does body condition apply to any breed of horse?
Using stock-type horses, researchers demonstrated that measuring body condition using the Henneke nine-point scale, but not rump fat thickness, “was a valuable predictor of body fat in stock-type horses.”
“Maintaining an appropriate body weight helps horses lead healthier lives, decreases the chance of developing hormonal imbalances that can lead to insulin resistance, equine metabolic syndrome, and laminitis, and improves reproductive efficiency,” added Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., a nutritionist for Kentucky Equine Research.
Understanding Weight Loss And Diet In Mature Horses
Mature horses that lose weight on an unchanging diet pose a puzzle for their owners. A nutritionist can suggest changes if the feeding plan needs adjustment, while a veterinarian could detect a problem with the horse’s health. These professionals may work together to sort out various facts indicating whether the horse is not ingesting the proper types or amounts of forage and concentrates, or is not able to absorb and use nutrients from these feedstuffs.
For the nutritionist, the first step is to review what the horse is eating daily. Horses faced with poor-quality pasture are likely to lose weight, especially if they are in an exercise program. Even with good pasture, increasing an exercise level or duration may use more calories than the horse is taking in. If grain is fed, a horse in hard exercise may need more of it to maintain body weight. It’s also possible that the feed product doesn’t contain enough energy for the work the horse is doing. The nutritionist can evaluate the entire feeding program and suggest changes – better hay, better pasture, more grazing time, extra small grain meals, inclusion of energy-dense fat sources – may help an active horse reach an acceptable body weight.
If plenty of food is available, the nutritionist or veterinarian can review the horse’s general health and herd status. Timid or old horses may not have access to pasture-fed hay. Horses that have recently lost a close friend may be too depressed to eat. Equines with dental problems, gastric ulcers, heavy parasite loads, or chronic pain are also likely weight loss candidates. Watching the horse eat will reveal more clues to weight loss, such as difficulty grasping, chewing, or swallowing hay or grain. Resolving these conditions along with care changes, should diminish weight loss problems also.
If a horse is eating well and is still losing weight, a veterinarian may suspect abnormal digestion, absorption of nutrients or a defect in the delivery of nutrients to the body tissues. Intestinal disorders; dysfunctions of the liver, pancreas, or kidneys; plus toxic conditions such as ingestion of poisonous plants can result in weight loss. If cardiovascular or respiratory systems are not working properly, nutrients and oxygen will not be delivered throughout the body, resulting in weight loss.
Another reason mature horses face weight loss may relate to metabolic diseases like polysaccharide storage myopathy or equine motor neuron disease. These conditions can cause a progressive loss of muscle tissue and mass, even when the horse is eating well. Horses that have some chronic skin disorders, or are recovering from severe streptococcal infections, may also face weight loss by losing protein and energy faster than they are consumed.
Though absolute weight is not as important as weight gain or loss trends over time, check body weight on a regular basis using a portable equine scale or a weight tape. Weight may vary by season and exercise programs, but examine a horse that shows unexpected weight loss to find the cause and resolve the issue before it becomes severe.
Using Weight Tapes On Horses
The concept is simple. Wrap a weight tape around the horse, read the figures where the end of the tape overlaps the numbered section and you know how much your horse weighs! Easy and fail-safe, right?
Equine nutritionist Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., explains that a weight tape is a wonderful tool, but it may not yield an accurate, consistent weight for several reasons.
- “First, these tapes have no standards, so a horse’s weight value can vary depending on the tape being used. You’ll get a weight within a few hundred pounds of your horse’s actual weight with any tape.” Crandell said. “However, you won’t know if the reading is above or below your horse’s actual weight.”
- Second, one type of tape will be more accurate on some horse breeds than on others. Due to different conformations and body proportions, tapes tend to weigh Thoroughbreds 50 to 100 pounds light, and may underestimate the weight of a Warmblood by as much as 200 pounds, explained Crandell. “The same tape may be fairly accurate on a Quarter Horse or other equines that are heavier-bodied and shorter-legged compared to Thoroughbreds.”
Crandell emphasized that despite their shortcomings, weight tapes are useful in determining trends in a horse’s weight. When changing a horse’s feed management for example, putting it in a drylot or using a grazing muzzle to limit intake of pasture forage, a weight tape can indicate if month to month weight change is taking place.
Consistency creates the best results in using a weight tape. “Use the same tape each time and follow the directions in placement of the tape. Some tapes are to be placed over the highest point of the horse’s withers, while others are to lie slightly to the rear of this spot,” she said. Wherever the tape is placed, place it in the same position every time the horse is measured. Ideally, have the same person place and read the tape, pulling it snug but not tight around the horse’s body.”
When a true body weight is found by weighing the horse on an equine scale, use the weight tape soon afterward and record any difference between the two numbers. This will enable you to convert the numbers from the tape to the horse’s actual weight in the future.
Weight Gain in Skinny Horses: Four Tips
Achieving weight gain in skinny horses often requires reworking the diet to maximize energy consumption. Commonsense approaches to weight gain involve increasing forage quality and quantity, adding a suitable concentrate, or supplementing with a high-calorie additive.
Many horses are able to gain weight with daylong grazing on high-quality pasture. This is especially true when fresh grass is available. Not all horses can handle full-out access to pasture: consult a veterinarian if a horse has a history of metabolic disease or laminitis. “Do not let grazing recommendations for horses with medical conditions undermine sound practices for healthy horses. Typically, grazing is the horses most natural way to obtain nourishment,” said Catherine Whitehouse, M.S., a nutrition advisor at Kentucky Equine Research. “If healthy horses gain weight rapidly on pasture, then implement appropriate measures to reduce intake and slow or halt weight gain, such as the use of grazing muzzles, drylots, and limited grazing times.”
If a healthy horse is on pasture in late winter and remains on pasture as the spring green-up occurs, there is likely little need to worry about acclimating it to grazing. If a horse is introduced to spring pasture without the benefit of grazing during green-up, do so in short bouts, with the first session an hour or two long and then increasing by an hour or two daily. Gradual increases in grass consumption will help the microbes of the hindgut become accustomed to the new forage.
A healthy horse with a normal metabolic rate that requires neither weight gain nor weight loss would likely maintain condition on 1.5-2.2% of its body weight in forage per day. For a 1,250-lb (570-kg) horse, this would equate to 19-28 lb (9-13 kg) of forage daily.
Offer horses requiring weight gain additional forage, up to 3% of body weight. Maximal forage intake is 3-3.5% of body weight per day for most horses, though lactating mares and other horses with extreme energy needs might consume 5% of body weight daily.
Consider concentrates of energy-dense textured or pelleted mixes of cereal grains, protein sources, and molasses. Fortified concentrates are enriched with protein, vitamins, and minerals, with the level of fortification dependent on the intended class of horse.
Mature horses in need of weight gain may benefit from concentrates containing a variety of energy sources, such as starch (corn, oats, barley), fat (vegetable oil, rice bran), and fermentable fiber (soy hulls, beet pulp, alfalfa meal). Feeds intended for performance horses often feature these blends, as do feeds manufactured for senior horses.
“Typically, fortified concentrates are formulated to be fed at a level of intake between 5-13 lb (2.2-6 kg) per day. A common mistake made with concentrates is to feed less than the minimum recommended level, a practice that leads to suboptimal vitamin and mineral nutrition. Therefore, follow the manufacturer’s recommendation in determining how much to feed” said Whitehouse.
While feeding one or two meals daily is the standard practice for many horse owners, skinny horses sometimes do well when fed the total amount of concentrate split among three or four meals daily. Some horses simply process small meals more efficiently than large meals, Whitehouse explained.
High Calorie Supplements:
Historically, a very popular supplement was corn oil. Research indicates that it may not be the best, due to its high omega-6 content. “Other vegetable oils offer the same caloric benefit but with higher levels of beneficial omega-3s, such as canola and soybean oils,” explained Whitehouse.
Fish oil provides the highest quantity of omega-3s, and the numerous health benefits associated with them, but is generally not used as a source of supplemental calories.
Horses have different palates when it comes to oil. Many horses accept vegetable oil added to their concentrates if introduced gradually over a period of weeks. Vary the amount of oil fed depending on the caloric needs of the horse, but consider working up to a total daily amount of between one and two cups (250-500 ml; 8-16 oz), split between meals.
Another high-fat supplement beneficial for skinny horses is stabilized rice bran. Highly digestible and palatable, rice bran contains about 20% fat. Like vegetable oil, it is usually top dressed onto concentrate meals. Typical serving size for rice bran is 1-2 lb (0.45-0.9 kg) per day, divided among feedings, though more can be fed if necessary.
Look to Exercise for Equine Weight Loss
Most horse weight-loss plans center around pasture restriction and decreasing the amount of feed offered. Recent data show that adding exercise to a weight-loss program not only decreases body weight but also improves insulin sensitivity. In short, exercise helps control circulating blood sugar levels in response to a “normal” amount of insulin.
“Many health concerns exist for overweight horses, including the fact that horses with excess condition are at risk of developing insulin dysregulation and equine metabolic syndrome, both of which put horses at risk of developing laminitis,” explained Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D. a nutritionist for Kentucky Equine Research.
To determine the impact of exercise on obese horses, researchers from North Carolina State University’s Department of Animal Science recruited 10 obese horses and either restricted their diet or exposed them to daily exercise (walk/trot combination). Both treatments were equivalent in terms of the energy (number of calories) that was restricted through the diet or expended during exercise. After 4 weeks, the researchers found:
- Both the diet and exercise groups had similar decreases in certain body measurements, including weight, girth-to-height ratio, and cresty neck score;
- Horses in the exercise group had significantly greater losses in neck circumference; and
- Exercised horses also had a tendency to have improvements in insulin-to-glucose and insulin sensitivity index (both measures of insulin dysregulation) as well as improved leptin concentrations. Leptin is a hormone released by fat tissue that can negatively impact insulin sensitivity.
EO-3, a fish oil rich in omega-3 fatty acids, also supports the well-being of easy keepers, as it improves glucose tolerance and reduces body-wide inflammation.
*Moore, J.L., P.D. Siciliano, S.E. Pratt-Phillips. 2019. Effects of diet versus exercise on morphometric measurements, blood hormone concentrations, and oral sugar test response in “obese” horses. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 78:38-45
About Kentucky Equine Research
For 30 years Kentucky Equine Research has developed innovative solutions to the health and nutritional challenges inherent in equine management. The results of studies conducted at its research farm, as well as advancements in equine nutrition from institutions around the world, are applied and thoroughly tested in the creation of KER products.