Weight Loss for Hefty Horses – The Horse


Offer small, frequent meals

“Another strategy that I think is the coolest way to approach feeding horses these days is to take them back to their roots when they were eating small forage meals over the course of the day,” by way of slow feeders and nibble nets, said Burk. “We’ve domesticated the horse and bring large meals to them … why not make them work for it?”

This tactic not only makes your flakes of hay last longer but also helps buffer gastric-ulcer-causing stomach acid because horses are chewing and salivating more.

Feed low-NSC hay

You can try reducing sugars and starches (nonstructural carbohydrates, or NSCs) in your horse’s diet by feeding low-NSC hay such as bermudagrass or teff. Laminitic, pre-laminitic, and metabolic horses, in particular, require very low NSC levels. Find out if your hay is low-NSC by sending samples off for testing, or simply soak a haynet full of it in a tub of water for 30-60 minutes, then drain and feed.

Soaking “reduces water-soluble carbohydrates such as glucose, sucrose, fructose, and fructans,” said Burk. “It’s a great way to reduce NSC content by as much as 30%.”

2. Increasing Exercise

Burk offered several ways to increase your horse’s voluntary exercise:

  • House him in large pasture (at least 2 acres), and separate feed and water sources spatially so he has to work to get to them.
  • Add a pasture buddy to encourage play.
  • Install a dynamic feeding system with sliding doors that allow horses access to forage from only one side. When one door shuts, they have to walk around a fence to the other side of the feeder to continue eating.
  • Create a track paddock, which is a path around paddock filled with hills, logs, and enrichments. You move hay sources around every day so horses have to find them.

Ways to increase involuntary exercise include long hand walks, longeing, riding, exercisers, swimming, and leasing the horse out so someone else can ride him if you’re not able to. Burk recommended exercising horses three to four times a week for 30 to 45 minutes and increasing the intensity of the work gradually.

3. Administering Medications or Supplements

Burk said there’s no good research showing that medications or supplements reduce adiposity (fat levels) in obese horses. Veterinarians might recommend them, however, in weight-loss-resistant horses as a last resort, she said.

Specifically, the drug levothyroxine sodium (Thyro L) has been shown to be effective at inducing weight loss and increasing insulin sensitivity in healthy horses but not in overweight ones.

While various metabolic supplements on the market aim to improve insulin sensitivity, Burk said no studies have proven any to be effective at weight loss. There’s no magic bullet, she said.

Take-Home Message

Obesity in horses is a very serious health and welfare problem that owners must address. Its negative impacts include health issues such as laminitis, reduced performance, and financial cost to the owner. Fortunately, you can achieve weight loss through these changes in your horse’s diet and exercise, said Burk.


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