Control Calorie Intake of Pasture-Kept Horses

Even a horse on pasture can become obese. Here"s how to restrict his calories as part of a weight-loss plan.
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A grazing muzzle helps©reduce the number of ©calories an overweight horse eats. Photo © EQUUS

A grazing muzzle helps©reduce the number of ©calories an overweight horse eats. Photo © EQUUS

Q: I've been told to feed 2 percent of my horse's body weight in forage each day. How do I estimate how much weight in grass (in our case a brome/clover mix) he consumes during turnout? He's about 1,250 pounds and turned out 12 hours a day with another horse on three acres. The grass is chewed pretty short, especially with the hot, dry weather we've had. How do I know how much hay to feed during the 12 hours the two horses are in the dry lot? Both are overweight (with a body condition score of about an eight).

A: It's hard to give you an exact answer based on the information provided here ("chewed pretty short," for example, can mean a half inch to three inches). But I can guarantee the horses will do their best to eat at least 2 percent of their body weight while out on pasture. That said, I still recommend offering them something to munch on for the 12 hours they are off pasture.

But if you are trying to get your horses to lose weight, you'll need to exercise a bit more control over their intake. I would strongly suggest giving them access to the pasture for only a few hours, preferably in the early morning when the sugar (and calorie) content of the grass is at its lowest level. Then, I'd restrict them to the dry lot and offer them 1.5 percent of their ideal body weight in grass hay, divided into two or more feedings, making sure they don't go for more than five or six hours without feed.

While getting horses to lose weight, it's important not to starve them, which can lead to other bad habits such as bolting their food or chewing on wood. "Slow feeders" or "nibble nets," which limit the amount of hay a horse can pull out in each bite, are a great option to make their controlled hay portion last longer and keep them occupied. Be sure to watch your horses to make sure one is not able to commandeer the entire ration of hay. Solutions might include putting the hay in a two-sided feeder or placing two portions in entirely separate areas.

Sarah Ralston, VMD, PhD, DACVN
Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey
New Brunswick, New Jersey

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #425.

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