When the Nutritionist’s Pony Needs a Diet

Planning a weight-reducing diet is easy until faced with the loving eyes of a pony begging for his alfalfa.
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When the Nutritionist
Dr. Thunes' pony started carrying extra body condition despite Arizona’s hot spring and summer weather. | Photo: Courtesy Dr. Clair Thunes
As an equine nutritionist I often find myself counseling owners on how to manage overweight horses. The advice comes quite easily, because weight loss results from consuming fewer calories than are being burned. Therefore, feed fewer calories, work the horse harder, or do both. What I learned recently is this is much harder than you might think.

About six weeks ago, my daughter’s large pony moved out of his stall to live 24/7 in a sparse grass pasture. Now I know that grass being short doesn’t mean there is nothing there. Plus, being a pony, he’s pretty motivated to make the most of even the shortest blades of grass. Because this pasture offers more what I would call “mental health” grazing than nutrition, he has continued to receive his regular morning and evening hay meals.

About a month ago I stood back and thought I could see some extra condition on his body. I ran my hand over him, and he definitely had a layer of fat over his ribs—nothing major, but fat nonetheless. His crest, which I always watch closely, had gained a little softness but not much more than normal. For his conformation type I actually thought he looked good but acknowledged he didn’t need to gain any more weight.

I contemplated whether we needed to make dietary changes, but it was early May in Phoenix, and the weather was about to hit continuous triple digits. Our summers are a little like winters elsewhere in that horses here can lose weight in the summer the way horses lose weight during cold winters. It’s so hot that they might not be inclined to eat a lot of forage, and the weather can be stressful. Because this pony was new to us this past winter, I had no way of knowing how he would handle the heat. With a 10-day forecast predicting every day over 105oF and several days over 110oF, I decided to maintain the status quo, thinking he would lose weight due to the heat. If not, I would reassess.

A few weeks went by and his pasture was flood irrigated, so he moved to a larger pasture that had itself been irrigated and then opened for grazing. Compared to pastures I experienced in England, this pasture still had very little grass. However, it is twice the size of the initial pasture and had more growth on it. Which brings us to last week.

I shared a photo of the pony wearing a new saddle with a close friend, who said, “your pony is rotund.” I argued, “No the saddle is just small.” But the next day at the barn I again stood back and looked at him and had to admit that fat pad at the end of his ribs had not been there a month ago. Sometimes when you see horses every day you don’t notice changes. Clearly the “he will lose weight in the heat plan” had not worked.

I realized it was time to take action. I thought about his diet. He gets about 15 pounds (three flakes of a three-string bale) of Bermuda grass hay and 7 pounds (1 flake of a three-string bale) of alfalfa, a ration balancer, high-omega-3 oil, liquid vitamin E, salt and electrolytes, and an allergy supplement each day. The ration balancer and other supplements needed to stay, because they offer sources of essential nutrients his forage can’t provide. This left me looking at the forage.

I’m a big believer in feeding as much forage as possible, so I hate to reduce forage unless really necessary. However, the pony was now able to graze pasture, albeit short, whenever he wanted. Still, I wasn’t ready to cut an entire 6-7-pound flake of hay out of his diet, because I didn’t feel he needed that significant a calorie reduction—at least not to start with. Reducing by half a flake would have been a good option, but I typically find that people struggle to feed half a flake, especially if the hay isn’t being weighed daily. This left me with one option: Replace the alfalfa with another flake of grass hay. This would result in a slight but hopefully adequate calorie reduction.

Now, let me tell you how much this pony loves that one flake of alfalfa. He will eat it over anything else we’ve offered him. He is almost drooling while he eats it. You can imagine his horror the first night when he received two flakes of grass hay and no alfalfa.

My daughter feeds at the barn on Saturday and Sunday nights, and this weekend was our first time feeding without his alfalfa. After several days of no alfalfa, the pony’s conviction that we had made an error was still strong. He nickered longingly at us as we approached with his hay. We dropped it in his feeder. He put his head in and looked at us in disbelief: “Not you as well!” he seemed to say. He walked around for a while ignoring the perfectly good grass hay. He nickered again. He looked longingly at the horses in the next paddock and what they were eating.

This is when I felt it. That pang. The sense of guilt. The nutritionist and scientist in me was gone. I was standing there as a defenseless owner looking at this cute face and hearing these loving nickers, and I thought, “What harm could it possibly do to give him half a flake of alfalfa?” And then I caught myself having this thought. I reminded myself what can happen if he did in fact become obese, especially as a pony. The risk of equine metabolic syndrome, the low-grade systemic inflammation, and the potential for laminitis and how cruel that condition is. I looked at him, his eyes twinkling at me, and I said, “I’m sorry but I can’t.” And I walked away.

So, I get it, I truly do. I understand how hard it is to do the right thing, but I encourage everyone to routinely step back and look at your horse, run your hand over him, perform a condition score to estimate his weight, and conduct an objective assessment of his condition over time. Ask a knowledgeable horse person (e.g., your trainer, farrier, massage therapist, etc.) for a potentially more objective opinion about your horse’s condition. If his condition isn’t ideal or heading in the wrong direction, whether that’s too fat or too thin, take action sooner rather than later. Our pony is already looking trimmer after only a week sans alfalfa. Don’t fall for the guilt, those eyes, the soft nickers. Be strong and stay true to your convictions and what you know is right. If you are unsure of the right thing to do, talk to your veterinarian or a nutritionist and have them help you make a plan. Finally, if you are feeling bad about the tough love, find someone to talk to who can empathize and help keep you accountable.

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Written by:

Clair Thunes, PhD, is an equine nutritionist who owns Clarity Equine Nutrition, based in Gilbert, Arizona. She works as a consultant with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses and provides services to select companies. As a nutritionist she works with all equids, from WEG competitors to Miniature donkeys and everything in between. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the U.K. Pony Club. Today, she serves as the district commissioner for the Salt River Pony Club.

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