Feeding Ponies

Feed your roly-poly pony the way Nature intended to prevent obesity-related diseases such as laminitis and equine metabolic syndrome.

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Feeding Ponies
Depriving a pony of the pleasure of free grazing on lush grass by strapping a muzzle over his nose might seem cruel, but muzzling ponies is indeed loving them. They’re simply not built for that kind of gastronomical luxury. | Photo: iStock

Feed your roly-poly pony the way Nature intended to prevent obesity-related diseases

You know the adorable little black pony that Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler’s daughter rides in that awful, tragic scene of “Gone With the Wind”? Gorgeous, sleek black coat; slender, athletic body; and a flowing mane and tail?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always wondered: What kind of pony is that? Because the only ones I grew up with were stout, round, and fuzzy.

The expectation that ponies be plump has developed over the decades because these little equids tend to be such “easy keepers”—putting on and keeping weight so easily. That cute stout-and-round look, however prevalent, really isn’t in our ponies’ best health interest, say modern-day researchers. These scientists now know overweight ponies are at greater risk of developing conditions such as equine metabolic syndrome (EMS), laminitis, and insulin resistance. So maybe the “Gone With the Wind” pony look is the one we should all be aiming for.

To reduce the risk of obesity-related conditions—which might affect up to one-third of all ponies—there’s only one real solution: Feed ponies properly. Feed them off a pony menu, with appropriate restrictions, monitoring, and exercise.

Pony History, Genetics, and Metabolism

Most modern pony breeds (technically, those 14.2 hands and shorter) descended from ancient horses living in harsh climates—primarily the cold, rough lands of northern Europe, including Scandinavia, the British Isles, and Iceland. The ponies became emblematic for survival; they had adapted to glacial temperatures and low-quality forage in low quantities. The sparse grasses they found were often tough and bitter.

Their evolutionary adaptation occurred over hundreds of thousands of years. It should be no surprise, then, that our rough-and-tough ponies still haven’t adapted their metabolism to a “new” world of plentiful and rich foods, says Simon Bailey, BVMS, PhD, FHEA, Dipl. ECVPT, MRCVS, associate professor in preclinical veterinary sciences in the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Melbourne, in Australia.

Modern pony breeds descended from horses living in rugged climates with metabolic adaptations to low-quality forages. It's now in their genetic nature to gain and maintain weight easily. | Photo: Thinkstock

Bailey’s research group has been investigating breed-based metabolic differences in horses and ponies as part of an ongoing study in association with the WALTHAM Centre for Pet -Nutrition, led by Pat Harris, MA, VetMB, PhD, Dipl. ECVCN, MRCVS, in Leicestershire, U.K. So far, they’ve found that ponies—along with certain horse breeds such as Morgans, Andalusians, and some Warmbloods—tend to gain and maintain weight more easily than other breeds, simply because it’s in their genetic nature to do so. Their latest research results also indicate that these same ponies and horse breeds are frequently prone to insulin resistance.  

Such tendencies put ponies at an increased risk of developing other metabolism-related health concerns, as well—namely EMS, which can lead to laminitis, and obesity, which can lead to joint inflammation, arthritis, navicular syndrome, and reduced performance, explains Shannon Pratt-Phillips, PhD, associate professor of equine nutrition and physiology at North Carolina State University. Obese ponies also can’t sweat well, which prevents them from cooling their bodies appropriately.

Sugars, Starches, and Insulin (Oh My!)

While it might seem counterintuitive, obesity doesn’t necessarily fuel high insulin levels and cause insulin resistance; just the opposite can be true.

Insulin is a hormone that normally signals fat, muscle, and liver cells to clear glucose (a simple sugar resulting from carbohydrate digestion) from the bloodstream and store it as glycogen. Insulin resistance is a reduced sensitivity to this hormone that causes the animal to produce more insulin. This can be effective in maintaining blood sugar levels in the short term, but it leads to excessive weight gain or fat storage in the long term.  

In his recent studies, however, Bailey found differences in insulin resistance between breeds and types even in the nonobese state. “That supports the idea that ponies and certain types of horses have subtle genetic differences which manifest as metabolic differences,” he says.

How do you know if your pony is insulin-resistant? “Certainly if the pony is an easy keeper and tends to develop a cresty neck and obesity, then that may suggest that they could also be producing a lot of insulin,” says Bailey. “But even some thin ponies can be insulin-resistant as well, so it can be very difficult to tell.”

Insulin checks are an affordable addition to a basic annual wellness exam that should be standard protocol for ponies, says Pratt-Phillips. A baseline insulin blood test at Cornell University, for example, costs $17.

Easy Keeper? Not Exactly

Just because ponies get labeled as easy keepers doesn’t necessarily mean they’re easier to care for. While the challenge with some horses might be keeping the weight on, with ponies it’s keeping the weight off.

For that, you’ll need some body condition score knowledge and a weight tape. Though, says Pratt-Phillips, even a simple tape measure will do. “You can just measure their girth … to see if they’re gaining, losing, or staying the same—depending on what the pony needs,” she says.

A nine-grade body condition chart can help owners evaluate their ponies. Naturally, a pony’s proportions won’t be the same as what you’d see for a horse, so you might need to adjust the chart slightly, says Pratt-Phillips. But it’s a relatively good guide.

Generally speaking, owners need to understand what a healthy pony looks like. This assessment isn’t so straightforward, given owners’ expectations for the “Thelwell” look among their pony charges. In fact, Bailey says, a group of Australian pony owners he and colleagues studied misjudged their animals’ body condition frequently. “They tended to think their ponies’ body condition was good or moderate, but in fact they were obese, because that’s just what people are used to seeing,” he says.  

Pratt-Phillips agrees: “There needs to be a change in the industry standard of what ponies should look like. In the show ring, in the breeding world, they’re being rewarded for having that ‘roly-poly’ look. And that’s encouraging owners to keep their ponies a little overweight.”

Once you recognize what weight and appearance to aim for with your pony, monitor his food intake and feed him to support that goal, says Clair Thunes, PhD, an independent equine nutritionist at Summit Equine Nutrition, in Sacramento, California. Keep in mind that a standard daily ration equals approximately 2% of body weight.

When you consider a pony’s ideal weight, 2% (e.g., 12 pounds for a 600-pound pony) doesn’t look like a lot of food. Many ponies fare better on a smaller percentage, and those on restricted calorie intake might need to eat even less. “People feel bad about giving them so little, but proportionally the rations are right,” Thunes says.  

When encouraging weight loss, however, remember to respect the limits and not rush the process. “It’s important not to starve the pony,” says Bailey. “Don’t go below 1.25%, or he won’t be getting the nutrition he needs, and you’ll probably start seeing some stereotypic behaviors (e.g., weaving, stall walking, etc.).”  

Rapid weight loss can also trigger hyperlipidemia—high fat concentrations in the blood—which can cause liver and kidney damage, Pratt-Phillips says.  

High-Sugar Hay: Not for Ponies

Given ponies’ evolutionary history grazing on sparse, bitter grasses, you might not actually be doing your pony a favor by buying the richest hay.

“You can usually request low-sugar hay for your ponies,” Bailey says. “For ponies you want to aim for hay that’s around 10% in nonstructural carbohydrates (e.g., starches, fructans, simple sugars).” If you’re unsure about the content, you can have your hay analyzed. (Find out where at Foragetesting.org.)  

On the hay analysis sheet you can calculate the water-soluble carbohydrates (WSC) plus starch fractions to get the NSC rate, Thunes says. This will tell you whether your hay is too rich or just right.

If high-sugar hay is the only choice you have, soak it in water for about an hour, Bailey says. Soaking dissolves and removes many of the WSCs, making it more appropriate for pony metabolism.  

Better to Balance Than Concentrate

Most ponies subsist very well without concentrate feeds. However, hay alone might not be sufficient to meet all their nutritional needs. Depending on the hay’s nutritional content, you might need to supplement with a balancer (instead of feed) to provide sufficient vitamins and minerals, Pratt-Phillips says.

It’s particularly tough to provide those nutrients to ponies on a weight-loss diet, says Thunes: “A challenge in feeding ponies is cutting calories without cutting the other things—vitamins and minerals.”  

If the pony—especially a competitive sport pony—is in heavy work, you might need to add calories. If it’s an insulin-resistant pony, Bailey recommends offering feeds that incorporate some oil (such as flax oil) instead of purely starch-based concentrate feeds. “Oil offers calories but won’t affect the insulin levels in the same way,” he says. Other low-sugar alternatives for increasing calories are “super fibers” like beet pulp, adds Thunes.

Love Me, Muzzle Me

For many owners, depriving a pony of the pleasure of free grazing on lush grass by strapping a muzzle over his nose seems like a heartless joke—akin to taping our mouths shut as we swim in a sea of chocolate. But muzzling our ponies is indeed loving them, our sources say. They’re simply not built for that kind of gastronomical luxury.

Worse, ponies “tend to be greedy,” Pratt-Phillips says. “They can eat up to 5% of their body weight in a day.”  

That pony might pout from behind his grazing muzzle at your decision, but know that you’re likely doing right by him. That’s particularly true in spring, when pastures are highest in carbohydrates. “Having a pony develop laminitis is a far greater welfare issue than muzzling him,” says Pratt-Phillips.  

There are alternatives to muzzling, Pratt-Phillips adds. You can turn ponies out onto sparse pastures—if you have them—or in drylots. You might even consider planting pony-safe grasses in your pastures. “There’s interest in developing low-sugar pastures for ponies,” Bailey says. “Unfortunately, recommendations for reseeding would require more research. That’s probably a few years away.”

Muzzle or no muzzle, ponies tend to gorge when they get on pasture, so introduce grazing time gradually, especially in spring, Pratt-Phillips says. Increasing at half-hour increments a day is usually sufficient. This can spare them not only insulin peaks but also gas colic caused by rapid fermentation of rich grasses.  

Take-Home Message

A fat pony is an adorable pony, no doubt. But it’s also a pony at risk for developing serious diseases. Feeding your pony like a pony, rather than a horse, and learning to monitor his weight and nutritional needs can help him enjoy a healthy future. And those interventions could make his risks of developing EMS, laminitis, and obesity “gone with the wind.”  


Written by:

Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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