Almost every horse owner has had experience with or knows of a horse or more likely a pony that is an ‘easy keeper’ or ‘good doer.’ Those that tend to either become overweight easily or seem to require fewer calories than most to maintain their weight. It is theorised that easy keepers have inherited genetic traits that have enabled their ancestors to survive on low quality forages or on limited feed, hence, when they have access to good quality forages and supplementary feed they do really well. It has also been suggested that there are a number of horses or ponies identified as easy keepers, are actually not genetically ‘easy keepers’ but rather are being overfed for their weight and workload. At Pryde’s we have had experience with both scenarios and in this article hope to provide you with some tips for managing your easy keeper this Spring.
Monitor weight and body condition
It is of utmost importance to regularly monitor (every 2-4 weeks) the weight and body condition score (BCS) of easy keepers, as this will determine how they are managed and any changes that may need to be made. If you have access to scales this is a good way to monitor their weight, if not a combination of body condition scoring, and weight tapes can be used. Keeping a record of measurements is a good way to determine if they are maintaining or gaining weight through Spring and if your management is appropriate. For reference an ideal body condition is a score of 5/9 (on the Henneke scale). A horse or pony with a body condition of 7/9 is overweight and a BCS of 8 or 9/9 is classified as obese.
Like humans, dogs and cats, horses that are overweight or obese are at greater risk of disease, including insulin resistance, laminitis, and heat stress, it also puts increased strain on joints and decreases exercise tolerance. Ideally, we want to prevent them getting to this stage but if they have, strategies to help with weight loss need to be implemented.
Incorporate an exercise program
Introducing or increasing exercise is an effective way to help manage or reduce the weight of your easy keeper. A balance of energy intake and energy expenditure is key for weight management, with a balance of calorie intake and expenditure needed for weight maintenance and a greater energy output than calorie intake required for weight loss.
If energy intake has increased through greater access to Spring pasture for example, this may be balanced with the introduction of exercise or an increase in the duration or intensity of exercise, whether that be ridden exercise or groundwork. For horses that are unable to be ridden or lunged such as aged horses, incorporating some hand walking may be beneficial. Exercise may be sufficient to maintain or help them lose weight, however, it may not be practical or enough, hence appropriate dietary management is needed.
Evaluate your feeding program
Easy keepers tend to maintain or gain weight much easier or on less feed than other horses, hence diet management is key to managing their weight. Coming into Spring with increased pasture growth often some form of calorie restriction is required to prevent excess weight gain, two main strategies can be used:
1) Remove or restrict energy dense feeds.
This can include grain, high fat, and sweet feeds, as well as limiting excess feeding of treats. A simple way to do this is to substitute an energy dense feed with a vitamin and mineral balancer pellet. This ensures vitamin and mineral requirements are still met without excess calories in the diet. It is important if they are housed with other horses that they are separated at feeding time, to ensure they are not getting more feed than they should be. An example of digestible energy provided by two different feeds is shown in the table below:
In some cases, this can be enough to moderate weight without having to change or moderate their forage intake. However, in cases of abundant pasture growth or when horses or ponies are already on a restricted diet to manage weight, managing forage intake is often necessary.
2) Moderate and manage forage intake.
Changes will depend on their current access to forage sources. If they have 24/7 access to good quality, lush, growing pasture, this is likely going to more than exceed their energy requirements, even if they are in light-moderate work. If they are still gaining weight, even with the reduction of energy dense supplementary feed, their pasture intake will need to be restricted. Simply restricting the amount of time, they spend grazing may not be enough, studies have shown that ponies given only 3 hours of access to pasture consumed up to 1% of their body weight in that period. Other methods may be more effective, such as only allowing them access to paddocks with less pasture, strip grazing – limiting them to a smaller area of pasture, cross grazing – allowing them access to a paddock following another horse(s), cattle, or sheep (depending on paddock size), or make use of a grazing muzzle. Each these restrict but do not eliminate grazing. Still allowing paddock turn out (if possible), encourages them to move around and exercise more (which can help with weight management) and helps prevent boredom and the development of stereotypical behaviour.
If pasture intake is being restricted using one of these methods, or if the horse is maintained on no pasture (due to lack of it or for weight management), it is important to ensure they are still receiving an adequate forage intake of 2% (with no pasture access, more forage needs to be provided) of their body weight per day (8kg for a 400kg pony). While it may sound counterintuitive to restrict their pasture intake and still provide them with alternate forage sources this helps to maintain gastrointestinal health and welfare. Substituting lush, growing pasture or high energy hay with a high leaf to stem ratio such as prime lucerne with low starch and sugar, mature hay sources is a great way to ensure adequate forage intake while moderating calorie intake. Hays that tend to be low in non-structural carbohydrates and hence digestible energy that can be incorporated into the diet can include mature and average quality lucerne, teff, Rhode’s grass or native grass hays. In cases where pasture access has been eliminated, the provision of hay in hay nets or slow feeders, over multiple times through the day is recommended to increase the amount of time they spend eating.
3) Ensure vitamin, mineral and protein requirements are met.
When feeding lower quality forage sources, it is important to know that these also tend to be lower in vitamin E, copper, zinc and selenium, which are essential for health and functioning. These forage sources also tend to be lower in quantity and quality of protein; studies in humans have shown that maintaining adequate amino acid intake is important to prevent muscle loss during energy restriction, which is also likely the case for horses. It is highly recommended that these diets are substituted with a low-calorie balancer pellet, that contains these vitamins and minerals as well as high quality protein sources such as soybean. Easy keepers, like any other horse or pony still also require adequate salt intake, so the provision of salt in their diet or access to a salt lick is recommended.
A balancer pellet such as EasiKeeper, which is specifically designed as a low calorie, high quality protein, vitamin, and mineral pellet, is ideal for easy keepers maintained on pasture or lower quality hay sources.
- Regularly monitor and record weight and body condition
- Introduce or increase exercise if possible
- Substitute energy dense feeds for low calorie balancer pellets
- Moderate pasture intake but maintain minimum forage intake
- Ensure vitamin, mineral and protein requirements are met
The above are general recommendations, it is important to consider each individual horse, their body condition, pasture access and environment to determine nutritional requirements. For a complete diet analysis and recommendations for your easy keeper please use our free feed selector or get in contact.
Written by Bethanie Clark BAnVetBioSc (Hons I)
Dugdale, A.H., Curtis, G.C., Harris, P.A., et al., 2011. Assessment of body fat in the pony: Part I. Relationship between the anatomical distribution of adipose tissue, body composition in ad libitum fed pony mares. Veterinary Journal 190, 329–337.
Longland, A.C., Ince, J., Harris, P.A., 2011a. Estimation of pasture intake by ponies from liveweight change during six weeks at pasture. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 31, 275–276.
Longland, A.C., Barfoot, C., Harris, P.A., 2011b. The effect of wearing a grazing muzzle vs not wearing a grazing muzzle on pasture dry matter intake by ponies. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 31, 282–283.
Geor, R. J., Harris, P.A. (2013). Obesity. Equine applied and clinical nutrition: health, welfare and performance. H. R. J. Geor, P.A. & Coenen, M. Edinburgh, Saunders/Elsevier: 487-502.