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Managing Weight and Body Condition in Horses: Strategies for Feed Management

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A horse’s body weight and condition impact energy levels, agility, and the horse’s ability to perform, which is why it’s so important to monitor both of these factors regularly. Monitoring both the weight and condition of your horse allows you to get a clear idea of their general health and well-being and allows you to make dietary changes quickly if needed so that your horse doesn’t experience significant changes that compromise health or performance.

Factors Affecting Weight and Body Condition

Over or under-feeding a horse are the most obvious reasons a horse’s weight and condition will change. This isn’t always as obvious as it sounds as the energy the horse consumes from grass which you can’t see, can change very quickly. A week of warm, wet weather can mean the grass grows rapidly and if you don’t restrict your horse’s access, they can gain weight in a matter of days. Before you know it you have an overweight horse that needs to go on a diet!

A change in workload can also have an effect on a horse’s body weight. If you or your horse are ill it means your horse’s exercise level will drop and so they aren’t using as much energy. If the diet isn’t adjusted, they can gain weight and they may also lose muscle tone if the rest period is prolonged. A dietary change is needed to address both issues. Adding alfalfa is a relatively easy way to supply additional quality protein that will help to maintain muscle tone in a scenario such as this.

Measuring Weight and Condition

Measuring Weight and Condition

There are a few ways that you can measure the weight and condition of your horse. The first is by using weigh tape. This tape estimates the weight of your horse based on measurements, including girth and length – and whilst not as accurate as other methods, they’re a great place to start. If used regularly, weigh tapes show you if your horse’s weight is going up or down, even if the absolute number isn’t the most accurate. Another way of taking your horse’s measurements is body condition scoring. This is an evaluation of how a horse’s body fat and muscle are distributed around its body. This method involves visually assessing and palpating various areas of the horse and scoring them from 1-10, with the optimal range being between 4-6.

Strategies for Feed Management

Once you’ve measured the weight and condition of your horse, you may find that you need to put a strategy in place to manage these factors, whether your horse is overweight and needs to lose weight, or underweight and could do with gaining. Here are a few strategies to think about.

Weight Gain

If your horse is losing weight – whether that’s through increased exercise or using more calories through the winter – there are a few considerations to think about. The first is increasing forage intake. You could do this by offering more access to pasture, improving the quality of the forage you are feeding or using better-quality feeds in the bucket. Alfalfa is higher in energy and protein than Molassed Chaffs for example. You could also introduce oils into their diet as a dense energy source. You could do this by supplementing vegetable oils, rice bran or even supplements that are high in added oil

Weight Loss

If you’ve scored your horse and you think they’re overweight, you’ll need to adjust their diet to avoid issues such as laminitis in the future. To do this, limit access to pasture to help monitor calorie intake. Your horse should still have access to conserved forage such as hay so they get the fibre they need, but they should not be overgrazing. Concentrated feeds that contain starch and sugar are very calorific, so remove or reduce the amount you’re feeding your horse and instead explore high-fibre feeds which are low in sugar and starch – these could be a good option if your horse is a good-doer. Soaked beet pulp and hay cubes can help give your horse bulk, without additional calories.

As well as this, you’ll need to ensure your horse is getting the vitamins and minerals it needs from a calorie-controlled diet. If you suspect there might be something missing, you could add supplements to ensure your horse is benefiting from the nutrients it needs to thrive.