Has anyone referred to your horse as an “easy keeper”? In the horse world, horses who gain weight easily are called easy keepers – but often, these horses require just as much maintenance as “hard keepers,” or horses who struggle to maintain an ideal weight. Horses who put on weight quickly may be easier on your grain and hay budget, but they are also prone to developing serious health issues like equine metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance or laminitis. These are all issues that can result in expensive vet bills, not to mention a lot of pain and heartache, so that’s why it’s important to institute practices that can help your horse maintain a healthy weight throughout his or her lifetime.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
To determine whether your horse is at a healthy weight for her age, sex and gender, you’ve got to figure out how much she weighs first. Your average bathroom scale isn’t going to cut it. Fortunately, there are a few ways to find out how much your horse weighs. The most accurate way is to find a livestock scale. If you regularly trailer your horse to your veterinarian’s office, your vet likely has a livestock scale that will give you an accurate number. Some boarding stables have scales available, too. But if you don’t have access to a scale, don’t worry. Here are two other ways to estimate your horse’s weight.
- Purchase a weight tape. Available at every tack and feed store, a weight tape can give you an estimate of your horse’s weight. Weight tapes have height markings on one side and weight markings on the other side. To estimate your horse’s weight with a weight tape, wrap the tape around your horse’s heart-girth and read the corresponding number. While this number is likely not entirely accurate, it’ll give you a good idea of how much your horse weighs. To track your horse’s weight using a weight tape, make sure you put the weight tape in the same spot on your horse’s body every time you use it.
- Do the math. There are a few different equations that can give you an estimate of your horse’s weight. One method is to take measurements of your horse’s girth and body length, then solve the following equation: girth x girth x body length ÷ 300. Keep in mind that this equation works best for adult horses, not foals or miniature horses. (You can also try this Adult Horse Weight Calculator tool, courtesy of The Horse. https://thehorse.com/tools/adult-horse-weight-calculator/).
In addition to getting an accurate or estimated weight for your horse, you should consider your horse’s body condition score. Developed in 1983 by Dr. Don Henneke, the equine body condition score (BCS) system is still in use today by veterinarians and horse owners throughout the United States. The BCS system ranges from 1 (emaciated) to 9 (extremely fat) and assesses six different areas of fat cover on a horse’s body. (To learn more about the BCS system, check out our previous blog HERE
Once you know your horse’s weight and body condition score, you’ll have the information you need to determine whether your horse is underweight, overweight or at an ideal weight. If your horse is at an ideal weight, congratulations! Keep up the good work!
If your horse is underweight or overweight, it’s time to start paying more attention to your horse’s diet, exercise and environment so that you can start working on the problem. At Fit Equine, we always recommend consulting your veterinarian for help with weight issues. Your veterinarian might also suggest that you consult an equine nutritionist. Both a veterinarian and an equine nutritionist can help you with the nitty-gritty details of what to feed, how often to feed, how much to feed and what kinds of supplements might work best to help increase or decrease your horse’s weight. But in the meantime, here are some basic rules of thumb to remember.
- Before embarking on a weight loss or weight gain program, schedule a thorough veterinary exam, including a dental screening, for your horse. Horses who are underweight may struggle with dental issues or have underlying health problems, while horses who are overweight may have equine metabolic syndrome or insulin resistance. All of these issues can contribute to weight problems. Alert your veterinarian to your concerns about your horse’s weight, and ask him or her to conduct the appropriate tests and examinations.
- Fewer calories + more exercise = weight loss. Just like with people, restricting calories and increasing exercise is one of the best ways to help your overweight horse lose weight. Your vet or a nutritionist can help you determine the best way to cut back on your horse’s calories, but you need to remember that horses are built to digest roughage 24/7. Generally, the most calorie-heavy parts of a horse’s diet are his grain, so a reduction in the amount of grain you feed or a change in the type of grain you feed will likely be your first steps toward reducing calories. Some types of hay are also more calorie-rich than others, such as alfalfa, so switching to a high-quality grass hay might be a good idea. In terms of exercise, consider incorporating more long-distance jogs, extra longeing time or more rides per week in general. Depending on your horse’s level of fitness, you may have to scale up his exercise gradually.
- Remember, all calories count. That includes treats! If your overweight horse loves peppermints or sugar cubes, switch to carrots or apple slices and feed in moderation. Your vet might advise you to eliminate all treats. If that happens, find other ways to reward your horse – like scratching his favorite spot.
- Don’t expect instant results. Just like with people, you can’t expect your horse to lose or gain a hundred pounds overnight. Healthy weight loss and gain takes time, so take things slow. Use a notebook and track your horse’s weight over time so that you can keep an eye on how things are going. Share the results with your vet at each check-up.
Maintaining your horse’s weight is a long-term investment in your horse’s health. Horse owners of easy keepers may have different struggles than owners of hard keepers, but it’s important to remember that all your efforts are for the good of your horse. And in the end, a healthy horse is a happy horse!