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Obese horse

From: Susan

Dear Jessica,

I am trying to learn how to best feed my 14 y/o Standardbred mare (previously raced, not a broodmare), whom I have hopes to start training under saddle this spring & summer. When I adopted her she was severely obese with a body score of 9+. She could barely walk. Over the past year she has dropped 350 pounds and now has a body score of about 7, weighing in at aproximately 1300 lb. (weight tape). This is still too much weight for her conformation and puts her at risk for laminitis. She has a fairly nice flat back with very slight crease, no cresty neck, and some muscling of the hindquarters. She has been fully vetted and there are no metabolism related problems. I know that regular work will help take off some of these pounds. I have been feeding a Nutrena 10% pellet, but have been increasingly disappointed with its quality. Have thought about Strategy by Purina, but feel that this is too high a fat/starch feed for this mare, who has a tendency to get "hot/nervous." I am feeling that she needs to be fed a concentrate for a couple of reasons: (1)human dependence; (2) help build muscle; and (3) energy for under saddle training. Is this sound reasoning or could this mare thrive on grass pastures only with free choice minerals and salt? Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Sincerely, Susan

Hi Susan!

Let me begin at the end - with the question of feeding concentrates.

Horses that are fed concentrates do become very eager for their food, because the grain or pellets seem like (and usually are!) a special treat, above and beyond the horses' basic needs. Horses can learn to EXPECT food - either because we use small treats to teach them what praise means (e.g. most forms of operant conditioning, including clicker training), or because they learn that the person who walks into the barn at 6:00 a.m. will first give them hay, and then distribute pellets or grain. It can be very gratifying for some horse-owners when they hear their horses whinnying and kicking at mealtimes, because they imagine that the message they are getting from the horses is "My love! My best friend! I adore you! Where's my food?" In fact, the message is much less sentimental - it's more like "WAITRESS! Would you hurry it up? I don't have all day!"

If you want to build your horse's dependence on humans, don't try to do it through food. Your horse should be fed according to its actual needs, and that means, for most horses in light work, good hay or pasture, salt, and water. Giving a horse feed it does NOT need, or the wrong feed, to "reward" it or try to make it like you is not a good idea - from a health standpoint, it's just as bad as depriving it of the feed it actually needs because you're angry or annoyed with it. Feed your horse what it needs. There are much better ways of building a social relationship with a horse.

Domestic horses are, for the most part, utterly dependent on humans. Humans determine every aspect of the lives of their horses - what and when they will eat, whether they will have freedom of movement, whether they will have social interactions with other horses, whether their medical and nutritional needs will be met, and the activities in which they will have to participate. Horses don't typically get a "vote" in any of these things. When it comes to dependence on humans, horses rate with the average human infant or toddler.

I expect that what you actually want is not for your horse to somehow understand and acknowledge its utter dependence on humans - this isn't something horses understand in those terms - but for your horse to learn to see you as a companion and friend. If you want to become your horse's friend, spend social time (walking, talking, grooming) with your horse. Be nice, be reliable, be trustworthy. Horses are extremely devoted to their buddies - it's their nature to be companionable and sociable, and it's their nature to want to be with individuals (equine or human) they trust. The way to your horse's heart is not through its stomach, but through enjoyable time (both "quality" and "quantity") spent together.

Don't try to bribe your horse with extra feed. The stomach is, in a social sense, a dead end - horses in nature do not work to get their food, do not see food as a "reward", and do not reward one another with food. You can use food to train a horse to run to you across the field (and possibly knock you down when it reaches you), but this isn't actually useful in terms of creating a friendship between you and the horse. It may whinny and nudge your pockets, but it won't be doing these things because it adores you, it will be doing them because it sees you as a walking treat-dispenser.

Building muscle is a job for adequate, appropriate feed - not for excess feed. It's also the result of exercise, otherwise known as the "regular work" you know your horse needs. Taking your horse for long walks, first on the leadrope, then under saddle, will help her begin to build muscle - and at the same time, you'll be working on building your relationship with the horse.

You're right about the wisdom of using fat and starch judiciously - which, in this mare's case, would probably mean "not at all". ;-)

She should have plenty of energy for under-saddle training. For the first year or so, you're unlikely to be riding her hard for hours at a time, so she may not need any concentrates at all during that time, or even later. If, at some point during her training, years from now, she begins to get too thin and exhibits a lack of energy and enthusiasm, that would be the time to consider supplementing her diet with concentrates. But if your hay and pasture are good, this is very unlikely to happen. I see far more overfed horses than underfed horses - and the underfed ones are generally abuse/neglect cases. Don't "kill her with kindness". ;-) If you DO need to supplement her feed at some point, say in winter when pasture is gone and hay is lacking in quality, you might try a good-quality, high-roughage pelleted feed such as Purina Equine Senior.

It sounds as though you and your vet have already done a great job of improving your mare's weight and health, and now you both just need to continue your good work.

One warning: If your mare is an easy keeper, or an extreme easy keeper (what I call an "air fern"), even a good pasture may provide too much food. If you find that her weight loss slows or stops when she's on good pasture, don't wait until it reverses and she begins to gain weight! Make use of a grazing muzzle or a drylot so that she can still spend her time outdoors, but without the risk of weight gain.


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