Weight Loss in Horses and Ponies

How to support your skinny horse or pony?


Valerie De Clerck, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine




Nearly 16% of geriatric horses and 6% of mature horses is underweight or too skinny. If your horse is too skinny, it is important to determine the cause of the weight loss with an equine veterinarian and nutritionist before setting up a feeding and management plan for your horse or pony.

Image: Moderately thin horse with Body Condition Score of 4.

IS MY HORSE TOO SKINNY?


You can determine whether your horse is in good shape by using the Body Condition Score Tool


The Body Condition Score (BCS) is a way to visually asses the amount of fat and muscles of your horse. The BCS ranges from 1 to 9, with 5 being the ideal score, 1 being extremely skinny and 9 extremely fat.


WHY IS MY HORSE OR PONY LOSING WEIGHT?


The most common causes of weight loss in horses and ponies are anorexia, higher energy requirements, malnutrition, malabsorption and parasites.

1.Anorexia


The horse refuses to eat. This usually occurs when the horse is sick or is in pain.

2. Higher energy requirement


Various physiological and pathological conditions can lead to a higher energy requirement.

Sport Horse


The more a horse exercises, the more energy it needs. On average, a trained horse needs 15% more energy than an untrained horse.

Pregnant and lactating mares


In the last 3 months of gestation the energy requirement of the mare increases with 35% and during lactation it doubles.

Senior horses


In older horses the ability to digest and absorb nutrients declines which might increase the daily energy requirement.

Horses recovering from surgery or disease


10% extra energy is needed to recover from a surgery and up to 60% extra energy is required to recover from a serious illness or infection.

Horses living in extreme weather conditions


The horse needs extra energy when the ambient temperature is below -5°C and above 15°C. A rule of thumb is a 2,5% increase for every degree Celcius below 5°C and above 15°C.

3. Malnutrition


The quantity or quality of the food is insufficient to meet the energy requirements of the horse.

4. Malabsorption


The horse is eating enough, but the nutrients are not properly digested and absorbed in the intestines. If the quality of the food is good, then the reason your horse is loosing weight is often inflammation of the intestines.

5. Parasites


Worms in the intestines eat the nutrients that your horse needs and they cause inflammation of the intestines.

WHAT CAN I DO WHEN MY HORSE IS TOO SKINNY OR UNDERWEIGHT?


1. Treat the underlying disease or parasites


It is important to always consult your veterinarian when your horse is underweight. If the weight loss is caused by an underlying disease or parasites, your veterinarian will first have to treat your horse for these pathologies. It is also important to check the teeth of your horse.

2. Analyse the diet of your horse


Once the underlying causes have been treated or ruled out, it is important to analyse the diet of your horse and improve the feeding program. You can contact Ghent University for a detailed analysis or you can use the following website to estimate the concentration of different nutrients in hay and grain diets or pasture diets.

3. Increase the dietary energy through fat supplementation


The more a horse exercises, the more energy it needs. Often these horses are fed a higher quantity of cereal grains, which contain high levels of sugar. BCS MIX is an excellent source of extra energy through 3 different vegetable oils and fish oil.

Feeding too much grain (and therefore sugar!) to horses is a risk factor for the development of gastrointestinal problems such as colic and related pathologies such as laminitis.



Instead of feeding extra grain to a horse it is better to increase the energy density of the diet by feeding extra fat, which also has a positive effect on performance.

Benefits of fat supplementation

1. Lower heat production during exercise and less sweating

2. Reduction in breathing effort and therefore faster recovery

3. Glucose-spearing effect during exercise. This means that the muscles are using fat as the main energy source, leaving glucose (sugar) for the brain. This improves the focus of the horse.

4. Supplement your horse with BCS MIX


BCS MIX is an excellent source of energy combining three different vegetable oils and cod liver oil.

 

BCS MIX also helps to maintain a healthy body weight (Body Condition Score) and digestion in horses by working on 5 levels: (1) providing extra energy, (2) improving digestion of the food, (3) anti-inflammatory effect, (4) supplement vitamin deficiencies and (5) good palatability.

SCIENTIFIC REFERENCES


  1. Ireland JL, McGowan CM, Clegg PD, Chandler KJ, Pinchbeck GL. A survey of health care and disease in geriatric horses aged 30years or older. Vet J. 2012;192(1):57-64. doi:10.1016/j.tvjl.2011.03.021
  2.  Ireland JL, Clegg PD, Mcgowan CM, Mckane SA, Chandler KJ, Pinchbeck GL. Disease prevalence in geriatric horses in the United Kingdom: Veterinary clinical assessment of 200 cases. Equine Vet J. 2012;44(1):101-106. doi:10.1111/j.2042-3306.2010.00361.x
  3.  Jensen RB, Danielsen SH, Tauson AH. Body condition score, morphometric measurements and estimation of body weight in mature Icelandic horses in Denmark. Acta Vet Scand. 2016;58(1):19-23. doi:10.1186/s13028-016-0240-5
  4. Smith BP. Large Animal Internal Medicine. 4th editio. Elsevier; 2009. 
  5.  Warren LK. The Skinny on Feeding Fat to Horses. Journal of Chemical Information and Modeling. doi:10.1017/CBO9781107415324.004
  6. Delobel A, Fabry C, Schoonheere N, Istasse L, Hornick JL. Linseed oil supplementation in diet for horses: Effects on palatability and digestibility. Livest Sci. 2008;116(1-3):15-21. doi:10.1016/j.livsci.2007.07.016
  7. Vervuert I, Klein S, Coenen M. Short-term effects of a moderate fish oil or soybean oil supplementation on postprandial glucose and insulin responses in healthy horses. Vet J. 2010;184(2):162-166. doi:10.1016/j.tvjl.2009.01.013
  8. Mélo SKM, Diniz AIA, de Lira VL, et al. Antioxidant and haematological biomarkers in different groups of horses supplemented with polyunsaturated oil and vitamin E. J Anim Physiol Anim Nutr (Berl). 2016;100(5):852-859. doi:10.1111/jpn.12456
  9. Cordeiro H, Filho M, Hunka MM, Souza LA De, Emília H, Cordeiro C. Use of oil-rich diet for gaited horses during physical training Over the last few decades , the increasing popularity of equestrian sports such as endurance and pacer riding events has led to changes in dietary standards for these athletes , in terms of b. Acta Vet BRNO. 2019;88:25-31.

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