When transitioning your horse from a laid-back winter to a demanding work regimen, it’s important to evaluate body condition and adjust diet accordingly.

It’s no secret that diet and exercise go hand in hand. Usually when we embark on a “health kick,”
we drink more water, eat more fruits and vegetables, and cut back on greasy foods.  These lifestyle changes increase our energy at the gym and in the saddle. Horses are no different, and preparing them for a busy spring schedule requires a fresh look at their diet and body condition.

“Nutrition is very important in our diets, and the same goes for horses. If you’re not well-fed and you don’t have enough energy, then you’re not going to be able to perform your job well,” says Leslie Schur, DVM, of Desert Pines Equine Medical and Surgical Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.

“The biggest things that affect performance would be energy depletion; in other words, not feeding our horses enough calories and not getting enough fluid intake,” she says.

Horses get energy through carbohydrates, fats and protein. While many owners focus on protein intake, those levels are usually met with good-quality forage. Schur explains protein requirements for most horses, those ridden a few times a week, is about 10 percent. Performance horses and those in
demanding jobs may require 12 percent protein. Unless the horse is being fed low-quality hay, Schur says, its protein requirements are likely being satisfied.

She says it’s easy to get overwhelmed studying numbers and calculating the dietary needs of every horse.

“They’re all individuals,” she explains, “And there are going to be some that stay fat in the face of everything, and there are going to be others you have to pour the feed in to keep the weight on.”

Instead of stressing over figures, she recommends taking a step back and looking at the overall condition of your horse prior to beginning a conditioning program.

“Sometimes it’s hard to take a keen look at your horses and realize if they’re thin or they’re fat. You see them every day,” says Schur.

She explains you can determine whether diet needs to be adjusted by using the body conditioning scoring system, a scale from 1 to 9 that estimates the amount of fat a horse carries. A BCS of 6 is considered ideal, with BCS 1 being emaciated and BCS 9 being morbidly obese.

“You need to get their weight where it needs to be before you start to exercise them. But, if they’re too heavy, they should go into some sort of light work,” she says.

Schur cautions that any horse intended for demanding performance events ought to be started in a slow conditioning program over the course of four to six weeks to reduce the risk of injury.

“[For overweight horses] the conditioning program needs to incorporate weight loss and cutting back on feed. You may need to take a close look at your horse’s diet, including what you’re feeding on hay, what you’re feeding on grain, and where you can make adjustments,” she says.

Schur recalls being called out to a barn where the trainer was concerned about a horse’s hocks and wanted her to do a lameness exam. But when she arrived and took one glance at the horse, she immediately knew the issue wasn’t the hocks; it was the horse’s weight. At 200 pounds overweight, the horse wasn’t able to perform and move they way it was expected. Addressing its weight through diet and exercise cleared up the problem.

On the other hand, too-thin horses must improve their BCS score before going back to work.

“The horse must have energy to perform, have energy reserves, and be able to build muscle and have strength,” Schur says.

Sometimes, it’s not a lack of nutrition causing weight loss, but a more serious medical condition. According to Schur, dental issues, parasitism and sand colic can all affect weight. For example, a painful toothache may discourage a horse from eating, and sand colic can cause a horse to look unthrifty. Contact your veterinarian if you suspect a medical issue.

Even with a healthy horse, losing or gaining pounds takes time, says Schur.

“I like to give them six weeks. [Changes] may start happening in the first week or so, but you’re not going to notice. It’s unfair to look at the horse and say it’s not working if you don’t give it time,” she says.

Many horses on a hay-only diet consume enough calories for intense riding. Schur says it’s important to look at hay quality, and recommends her clients use a company called Equi-Analytical Laboratories, which tests core samples of hay for protein, sugar and starch levels. Local agricultural extension service offices can also provide information.

Often, owners lament they cannot feed alfalfa to their horses as it makes them “hot,” but they still need a way to provide calories. Instead of using sugar-rich carbohydrates, many opt to add a top dressing, such as vegetable oil, to grain, or switch to a high-fat commercial grain mix.

“There are good products with straight fat supplements that can help [horses], some with low-carbohydrate and low-starch feeds,” says Schur. “There are a number of manufacturers producing those to add calories back in, but not add a lot of extra sugars.”

Another way to adjust energy is to feed a ration balancer.

“Let’s say we have some hay analyzed and it’s low in essential amino acids,” says Schur. “Ration balancers are something you would add to [provide] enough vitamins, minerals and those essential amino acids to complete their diet without giving them a lot of extra calories.”

Ration balancers also limit over-supplementing, Schur says. Excess nutrients the body doesn’t absorb are passed through waste, she explains, but she adds that the horse owner’s pocketbook is going to take the biggest hit.

Changes to the diet must be made slowly, she says. Since horses are hindgut fermenters, any feed modifications can cause bacterial flora in the gut to go into disarray. A carbohydrate overload, for instance, can cause endotoxemia, in which bacteria quickly multiply or die off, and trigger diarrhea, laminitis or other harmful conditions.

“Even if you’re changing from one load of alfalfa to the next, it’s ideal to slowly introduce it over a 10- to 14-day period,” says Schur. “You can do this by mixing a little of the old [hay] in with the new, and after 10 days or so, they’ll be eating all new [hay].”

She says the same method can be used for adding or changing grain.

With spring’s arrival, you may be eager to put in a full day of riding. Before doing so, however, take a moment to evaluate your horse’s body condition and assess its diet. Asking too much too soon from an overweight or too-thin horse can lead to painful injuries. With a little preparation and patience, your can set up your horse for success.

This article was originally published in the April 2014 issue of Western Horseman.


Write A Comment