Winter weight-watching helps horses get in summer shape

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Horses and especially ponies are metabolically programmed to gain weight when grazing is plentiful, which will carry them through the winter when grass is in short supply. Unless it gets very cold and your horse has a large clip, being unrugged will encourage your horse to burn off a few extra pounds keeping warm.
Horses and especially ponies are metabolically programmed to gain weight when grazing is plentiful, which will carry them through the winter when grass is in short supply. Unless it gets very cold and your horse has a large clip, being unrugged will encourage your horse to burn off a few extra pounds keeping warm.

As the northern hemisphere moves into the winter season, an equine nutritionist is urging owners to take steps now to work on their horse’s “summer body”.

“Unrelenting rain, brown porridge gateways and mucking out akin to painting the Forth Bridge are some definite downsides to winter,” says Clare Barfoot RNutr, Marketing and Research and Development Director at feed manufacturer Spillers.

“But being able to use the season to help your horse’s condition is a positive that owners of good doers can embrace.”

The colder months can help shift those persistent surplus pounds as nature intended, and your horse can step into spring looking trim and ready for the sunshine months ahead.

To help horses achieve their best body, Barfoot has compiled her favourite winter weight-watching tips:

Cut calories not nutrients: Balancers are the ideal way to provide vitamins, minerals and protein without excess calories and those high in lysine may be of particular benefit for horses on calorie-restricted diets because it plays a key role in supporting muscle and topline.

Restrict forage: Ad lib forage isn’t the answer for weight loss, but it should never be restricted to less than 1.5% of current bodyweight (dry matter) which on average, equates to about 9kg of hay (11kg if you intend to soak it) or 10-12kg of haylage (fresh weight) for a 500kg horse without grazing.

Don’t be deceived by winter grass: Grass grows for most of the year and it contains calories. If the grass is long enough to poke through the holes, try using a grazing muzzle to restrict intake. Alternatively set up a strip grazing system — the latest research has shown that it can be a useful tool for restricting weight gain.

Soak your hay: Soaking hay helps to reduce the sugar content and this means fewer calories. Remember, though, that each haynet will also contain less ‘hay’ and more water post-soaking so you will need to increase the amount of hay you soak by about 20% to compensate.

Buy some straw: Clean, high-quality straw is useful for good doers and overweight horses to decrease the energy density of hay. It can be used to replace up to 30% of the hay ration but should be introduced slowly.

Extend meal times: Adding low-calorie chaff, a short fibre or a soakable fibre to meals will help bulk out the bucket and extend eating time without compromising your horse’s waistline.

Serve forage little and often: Dividing hay / haylage / straw into as many smaller servings as possible helps to prevent long periods without forage. Using multiple, double-layered, small-holed haylage nets can also help to make restricted rations last longer.

Resist that rug: Horses and especially ponies are metabolically programmed to gain weight when grazing is plentiful, which will carry them through the winter when grass is in short supply. Unless it gets very cold and your horse has a large clip, fewer rugs or no rugs at all will encourage your horse to burn off a few extra pounds keeping warm.

Saddle up: Yes, it’s a challenge to find the time and the inclination to ride when the weather is rubbish, but you need to find your mojo for the good of your horse’s waistline. Exercise will help burn excess calories and a recent study found that even small amounts of exercise can help to support a healthy metabolism.

Check your progress: Monitor your horse’s weight, body condition score (BCS) and belly girth regularly to keep track of gradual changes. It can take several weeks to see results so don’t be disheartened.

What about poor doers?: Let’s not forget that we don’t all own a good doer. Winter can also be a challenge for poor doers. The key here is to prevent weight loss before it starts by identifying the cause – which may involve an underlying medical complaint, poor dentition or simply that not enough calories are being fed. Then, ensure good quality ad lib forage is available, ideally in the field as well as the stable and choose fibre and oil-based feeds as a source of safe extra calories, fed as several small meals throughout the day. Also remember to keep your poor doer warm to ensure they don’t waste valuable energy generating heat.

 

» For more advice on feeding your horse or pony this winter contact the Spillers Care-Line on 01908 226626 or helpline.horsecare@effem.com.

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