Your Guide to Equine Health Care

Practical Tactics for Managing the Easy Keeper

Caring for easy-keeping horses can be challenging. Learn how to manage your easy keeper safely and effectively.
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Equine obesity causes overall welfare and health concerns; therefore, obese horses must be managed properly. | Photo: photos.com

The prevalence of obesity is on the rise in many equine populations. This results in negative health consequences and welfare issues for the horse.

Horses with excess adipose tissue (body fat) are at a higher risk of developing many pathological conditions, including insulin dysregulation, equine metabolic syndrome, and laminitis. Obese horses commonly develop increased blood pressure and arthritis, are less fertile, and recover inefficiently from exercise.

“Making efforts to allow the horse to live their lives in a way that resembles their natural behavior is key; however, equine obesity is a welfare problem that the industry must unite to combat,” says Ahmad Munjizun, PhD, who’s completed research focused on equine obesity working under Shannon Pratt-Phillips, MSc, PhD, at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh.

What Is an Easy Keeper?

The “keeper concept” divides horses into three categories based on how they gain and maintain weight. Research on this concept by Johnson and Biddle (2021) suggested an average keeper easily maintains a body condition score (BCS) of 5, an easy keeper easily maintains a BCS of at least 6, and a hard keeper needs supplemental feed to maintain a BCS of 5. These reference ranges are based on the Henneke 9-point body condition score system.

Managing the Easy Keeper

It can be difficult to successfully manage an easy keeper’s weight. Owners often turn to feed restriction, which is generally associated with removing the horse from the herd environment, as well. These situations, however, create a plethora of welfare concerns and health risks.

“There are lots of different ways that horse owners can reduce digestible energy intake without exposing the horse to fasting periods,” says Wendy Pearson, PhD, associate professor of equine physiology at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada. “Some potential approaches include slow feeders, hay balls, hay-nets, diluting hay with less calorically dense hay or straw, and, of course, exercise.” Exercising 20 minutes per day by longeing at moderate intensity was sufficient to significantly reduce horses’ body mass over a trial period of 10 weeks, she adds.

Implementing a Weight Loss Program for Horses

Exercise

Nutrition is not the only weight-loss tactic. To achieve successful weight loss, ideally, you’ll want to combine diet changes with exercise regime alterations. If a horse is healthy enough to be exercised regularly, this addition to his routine can help significantly; simply adding daily walking has been shown to make a positive difference in weight loss, says Pearson.

Slow feeding has become a popular tactic for managing many horses, not just easy keepers. Researchers have shown slow feeding to be effective at reducing the rate of forage consumption. Because horses have evolved to graze for upward of 18 hours a day, it is important to mimic this in their management, says Pearson. Slow feeding can decrease their consumption rate so you can reduce the overall amount of forage in their diet.

Incorporating Straw

Feeding straw is not commonly discussed for horses but can be a useful tool when managing easy keepers. Straw is a supplemental forage source that generally has much lower digestible energy than hay, says Pearson.

When looking for straw to purchase, the main factors to evaluate are how clean it is (does it have mold?) and whether it contains seed heads. Choose straw with no intact seed heads to avoid adding unnecessary and unwanted sugar. Ideally, always have the straw tested prior to feeding—just like you would with hay.

As with introducing any new feed to the diet, introduce straw slowly, and keep the daily ration of straw at or below 25% of the horse’s total forage consumption because feeding large amounts of rough or indigestible fiber can cause gastrointestinal issues, says Pearson.

Altering the Paddock Arrangement

Modifying the design of horses’ paddocks and pastures to encourage more free movement is another tactic that can increase their daily walking. Spreading various resources (hay feeders, water troughs, etc.) throughout the space can encourage the horse to walk more.

Working with a Nutritionist

A qualified equine nutritionist can help you implement these practical solutions safely. Nutritionists can also help you ensure there are no unnecessary energy-dense feeds in your horse’s ration. Although you should restrict calories when feeding easy keepers, you must still meet their nutritional requirements.

There are many feed options available for this equine demographic on the market, and working with a nutritionist will help you choose the best option for your easy keeper. A nutritionist can test your hay (and straw, if implementing that tactic) and pinpoint precise nutritional needs without adding additional digestible energy.

Implementing the Equine Weight Loss Plan

As with all aspects of managing horses, you must implement weight loss plans slowly. Incorporate practical management tactics over several weeks, especially when making changes to the diet.

It is important to understand that weight loss in horses takes time, says Munjizun. There are no fast solutions; therefore, taking the time to curate a plan with a qualified equine nutritionist and implementing it slowly and safely is the best way to manage your easy keeper. Once your plan is in place, be sure to track progress with regular body condition scoring, he adds.

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Written by:

Madeline Boast completed her master’s in Equine Nutrition at the University of Guelph and started an independent nutrition company known as Balanced Bay. She has worked with a variety of equids—from Miniature Ponies to competing Thoroughbreds. Boast designs customized balanced nutrition plans that prioritize equine well-being, both for optimal performance and solving complex nutritional issues and everything between. 

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