Feeding the “Fatty”

Some horses just seem to get fat on bitumen!

While friends are experimenting with wonderful smelling muesli-style feeds and pellets for their steeds, your horse has to be confined to a sniff of chaff each day.

Basic feeding rules demand that each horse be fed as an individual.

The problems of the overweight horse highlight just how difficult some individuals can be to feed. To cater to such a horse we need to appreciate why he is overweight in the first place.


Some breeds of horses are just very good “doers”. Lippizaners are bred to do well on very little feed, even in the face of strenuous work loads, and certain breeds of ponies are notorious for rapidly putting on excess condition. If your horse comes from a family of “fatties” you need to be aware of the problems and feed accordingly.

Excess Energy

Theory states that horses will eat to satisfy their energy intake, which is determined by rate of growth, temperature, work load, body weight and stage of reproduction. In theory, a horse will only intake sufficient energy from feed to meet these requirements. Present a horse with more feed than his body needs, the theory goes, and he will leave the excess.

So much for theory! This may be true of some types of horse and most hard working horses, but those horses prone to gaining weight will continue to consume feed well in excess of requirements. Don’t be kidded into thinking that horses have some kind of innate nutritional wisdom - they do not, and some will gaily eat themselves to death (by colic usually) if left to their own devices.

There is only one way that a horse will gain weight and that is for him to CONSUME MORE ENERGY THAN IS REQUIRED TO MEET THE DEMANDS OF MAINTENANCE AND WORK. You cannot get a horse to gain weight UNLESS you feed him more energy. This excess energy is converted to fat. Reduce his feed and work him more so that his body requires more energy than is met by feed intake and he will lose weight - this is hardly rocket science!


Some horses are just laid back, gentle souls who expend very little by way of nervous energy. They stand quietly in their paddock while other less calm individuals gallop furiously about. The calmer horse does as little as possible when worked and rarely gets stressed at a show. This type of horse is a bit of a sloth and needs less energy for general maintenance since he does even less when you are not riding him

The nutritional dilemma facing owners of such horses is to safely meet their nutritional requirements without gaining unwanted condition.

First and foremost - consider what feeds are offering him the major source of energy at the moment. If the horse is on hard feed with very little access to pasture, you have much greater control over his energy intake and the solution is in your hands. If your horse is grazing and only given a small (less than 2kgs) of hard feed a day then the pasture is the major source of energy and you have no option but to restrict his grazing.

One of the best tools you have to manage feed intake is a grazing muzzle. These will allow the horse/pony to take in limited quantities of roughage, but still drink normally. It is important that even overweight horses have SOME roughage moving through their digestive system and a grazing muzzle will allow you to turn them out or to have low quality hay in front of these types of animals without the worry of them gorging themselves.

There are some feeding rules that will apply to both situations:

  • Always make feed changes gradually, taking 2 weeks to accustom your horse to a new ration or feed
  • Do not feed more than 2.5 kgs of grain and/or concentrate at any one feed
  • Your horse will utilize his feed better if he is fed little and often
  • Horses in light to moderate work should receive no less than 50% of their total diet (by weight) as roughage
  • Horses are individuals and should be fed accordingly. The amount of feed offered and the quantity of concentrate used should be modified according to body condition, level of work and type of horse.
  • Ensure that your horse has access to supplemental minerals and major vitamins via his daily feed.
  • Do not deny the horse/pony access to feed completely for more than about 4 hours at a time. Use a grazing muzzle or use only low quality, grassy hay to keep energy intake under control but still allow some feed in the digestive system.

If you are using a prepared feed, either pellet or muesli-style feed, that is fortified with vitamins and minerals, remember that by restricting the amount of feed to avoid weight gain will also restrict the amount of micro-nutrients (vitamins and minerals) that he is receiving. Your normal feeds should be fortified with a more concentrated supplement, such as Groom™, that does not contain very much energy but will provide the essential vitamins and trace minerals to your horse.

For horses on full feed, you need to ensure that they have access to sufficient fibre. In these cases I recommend a fibre source lower rather than higher in energy that contains more fibre. Good quality lucerne is higher in energy and lower in fibre than oaten hay and so oaten or grass hay would be my choice for the overweight horse.

Remember that whenever you make a diet change to keep a close eye on the horse for his response. It is dangerous for a horse to lose too much weight too quickly. If your horse is not in work, remember to remove his rugs two or three times a week, stand back and have a good look at his condition. The use of scales, available at some vets, to weigh your horse is ideal but not always convenient. Either way you need to monitor your horses condition carefully so that his body weight does not fluctuate too much too quickly.

By Kentucky Equine Research - Last updated 16 November 2012

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